On July 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln informs his chief advisors and cabinet that he will issue a proclamation to free enslaved people, but adds that he will wait until the Union Army has achieved a substantial military victory to make the announcement.

Attempting to stitch together a nation mired in a bloody civil war, Abraham Lincoln made a last-ditch, but carefully calculated, executive decision regarding the institution of slavery in America. At the time of the meeting with his cabinet, things were not looking good for the Union. The Confederate Army had overcome Union troops in significant battles and Britain and France were set to officially recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation.

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The issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation had less to do with ending slavery than saving the crumbling union. In an August 1862 letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln confessed “my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” He hoped a strong statement declaring a national policy of emancipation would stimulate a rush of the South’s enslaved people into the ranks of the Union Army, thus depleting the Confederacy’s labor force, on which it depended to wage war against the North.

As promised, Lincoln waited to unveil the proclamation until he could do so on the heels of a successful Union military advance. On September 22, 1862, after a victory at Antietam, he publicly announced a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all enslaved people free in the rebellious states as of January 1, 1863. Lincoln and his advisors limited the proclamation’s language to slavery in states outside of federal control as of 1862. The proclamation did not, however, address the contentious issue of slavery within the nation’s border states. In his attempt to appease all parties, Lincoln left many loopholes open that civil rights advocates would be forced to tackle in the future.

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