Wednesday’s Disunion in the New York Times has an obscure but significant story in the history of slave emancipation in the United States. John Lockwood and Charles Lockwood, in piece entitled “State of Seige,” describe the precarious position of Washington, D.C., in the days following Lincoln’s call for volunteers on April 15, 1861. Surrounded by slave states, secessionist Virginia to the South and Maryland to the North (ostensibly loyal, but with a significant secessionist minority), the nation’s capital found itself largely cutoff from the outside world and seemingly facing an imminent Confederate assault as there were few loyal troops in the city to defend it.
Hence, it is not surprising that the District of Columbia’s residents with Unionist sympathies began to try to organize local militia while they awaited troops from the northern states to break through the blockade established along the routes into Washington, D.C. Among the D.C. residents that offered their services to defend the city were free men of color and with good reason. According to the Lockwoods:
If the South took the city, Washington’s free black population faced a truly frightening prospect: re-enslavement. As Frederick Douglass noted, Confederate designs on the seat of the federal government “would place their iron yoke upon the necks of freemen” — who numbered 9,209 in the 1860 city census, or around 15 percent of its population. Unlike the city’s itinerant population of congressmen and government officials — or its slaves, who could be sold across the Potomac at Alexandria’s thriving slave market, though the slave trade was banned within the District of Columbia — Washington’s free African Americans formed a stable community, many of whom had been slaves earlier in their lives.
Paul Jennings, a Pension Office employee and one of the few blacks working for the federal government, was old enough to have witnessed firsthand the power of an invading army in Washington. In 1814 Jennings, then a 15-year-old slave owned by James Madison, had escaped the White House before the British Army set it ablaze, though not before helping rescue the famed Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.
Now, with a desperate shortage of Union defenders in Washington, the free black community rallied several hundred men to protect their homes and hard-won freedom. On April 23, Jacob Dodson, a servant in the Senate who had fought under Gen. John C. Frémont in California during the Mexican War, wrote to Secretary of War Cameron that he knew of “some 300 reliable free citizens of this city who desire to enter the service of the city.” He signed the letter, “Jacob Dodson (Colored).” Cameron’s reply rejected Dodson’s offer, affirming longstanding policy barring blacks from military service. The War Department, Cameron wrote, had “no intention at present to call into the service of the Government any colored soldiers.”
So it is highly significant with the wolf seemingly at the door that federal authorities would turn down the offer of Dodson and his men. Yet as desperate as the situation was in Washington, D.C., the political damage of accepting the service of African Americans in the defense of the capital made the decision an obvious one for the Secretary of War. It would magnify secessionist sentiment in the remaining loyal slave states and quite possibly lead to the departure of Maryland from the Union, a development which would make the federal government’s presence in Washington, D.C. permanently untenable as it would be surrounded on all sides by Confederate territory.
Yet even with Cameron’s prompt rejection, the issue of black men wanting to serve in the Union military would not go away. Like other people in the North, many African Americans could not help but get caught up in the war hysteria after the attack on Fort Sumter. Even as Jacob Dodson was making his offer to Simon Cameron, Frederick Douglas and other black leaders in the North were urging men of color to organize militia units, a call they hardly need to have made as mass meetings took place in mid-April 1861 in major northern cities such as Boston and Cincinnati of black men eager to get involved militarily in the nascent conflict.
These sentiments in Spring 1861 would meet universal opposition from state, local, and federal authorities in the North. Prejudice meant that whites in the free states generally opposed black military service, even in segregated units. Many white Americans did not believe African Americans had enough intelligence and courage to serve as soldiers. Nineteenth-century conceptions of citizenship, which identified military service as the biggest duty of citizenship, also meant that if they were allowed to serve as soldiers that black men would have an ironclad claim to citizenship rights, something most whites opposed. So early efforts of African Americans in April 1861 to offer their military services were rejected and would continue to be for the first year of the war. But just as the war would soon begin to undermine slavery, it would do the same to the opposition in the North to African Americans joining the fight and establishing a firm claim to freedom and citizenship.