Please check out Jimmy Price’s fine piece on the founding of the U.S. Colored Troops:
Please check out Jimmy Price’s fine piece on the founding of the U.S. Colored Troops:
Source: Harper’s Weekly – May 9, 1863, http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1863/may/runaway-slaves.htm
An earlier edition of Civil War Emancipation dealt with the phenomenon of slaves that had escaped to federal lines journeying back into rebel held territory to let family and friends know that they would become free once they arrived where Union forces held sway. Such a trip could be dangerous because the Confederate Army did not take kindly to these missionaries of freedom, especially if they were armed, and apparently executed some of them when such unfortunates fell into their hands.
Yet the danger did not stop the trips into Confederate territory. Such was the testimony of Capt. C. B. Wilder, Superintendent of Contrabands at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, on May 9, 1863, before the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission. The testimony transcript records:
Q In your opinion would a change in our policy which would cause them to be treated with fairness, their wages punctually paid and employment furnished them in the army, become known and would it have any effect upon others in slavery?
A Yes–Thousands upon Thousands. I went to Suffolk a short time ago to enquire into the state of things there–for I found I could not get any foot hold to make things work there, through the Commanding General, and I went to the Provost Marshall and all hands–and the colored people actually sent a deputation to me one morning before I was up to know if we put black men in irons and sent them off to Cuba to be sold or set them at work and put balls on their legs and whipped them, just as in slavery; because that was the story up there, and they were frightened and didn’t know what to do. When I got at the feelings of these people I found they were not afraid of the slaveholders. They said there was nobody on the plantations but women and they were not afraid of them One woman came through 200 miles in Men’s clothes. The most valuable information we recieved in regard to the Merrimack and the operations of the rebels came from the colored people and they got no credit for it. I found hundreds who had left their wives and families behind. I asked them “Why did you come away and leave them there?” and I found they had heard these stories, and wanted to come and see how it was. “I am going back again after my wife” some of them have said “When I have earned a little money” What as far as that?” “Yes” and I have had them come to me to borrow money, or to get their pay, if they had earned a months wages, and to get passes. “I am going for my family” they say. “Are you not afraid to risk it?” “No I know the Way” Colored men will help colored men and they will work along the by paths and get through. In that way I have known quite a number who have gone up from time to time in the neighborhood of Richmond and several have brought back their families; some I have never heard from. As I was saying they do not feel afraid now. The white people have nearly all gone, the blood hounds are not there now to hunt them and they are not afraid, before they were afraid to stir. There are hundreds of negroes at Williamsburgh with their families working for nothing. They would not get pay here and they had rather stay where they are. “We are not afraid of being carried back” a great many have told us and “if we are, we can get away again” Now that they are getting their eyes open they are coming in. Fifty came this morning from Yorktown who followed Stoneman’s Cavalry when they returned from their raid. The officers reported to their Quartermaster that they had so many horses and fifty or sixty negroes. “What did you bring them for” “Why they followed us and we could not stop them.” I asked one of the men about it and he said they would leave their work in the field as soon as they found the Soldiers were Union men and follow them sometimes without hat or coat. They would take best horse they could get and every where they rode they would take fresh horses, leave the old ones and follow on and so they came in. I have questioned a great many of them and they do not feel much afraid; and there are a great many courageous fellows who have come from long distances in rebeldom. Some men who came here from North Carolina, knew all about the [Emancipation] Proclammation and they started on the belief in it; but they had heard these stories and they wanted to know how it was. Well, I gave them the evidence and I have no doubt their friends will hear of it. Within the last two or three months the rebel guards have been doubled on the line …
So slaves within at least 200 miles of Fortress Monroe were making their way there to become free, and some returned home to spread the good news. While their journeys were not without risk, the war had caused the slave patrol system in Virginia largely to breakdown, since by that time nearly all the men who would have served in the patrols were gone to serve in the Confederate Army. The Confederates were detailing men to try to stop the exodus, but to judge from the slaves apparent confidence relating their escapes to Capt. Wilder, the effort was not terribly effect.
Indeed, Wilder’s testimony indicates, by Spring 1863, the greatest threat to the freedom of escaped slaves in Virginia came not from the Confederate Army but ironically from corrupt Union soldiers that for a price would cooperate with slaveholders seeking to recover their slaves. The captain complained that troops in the 99th New York Infantry “between Norfolk and Suffolk have caught hundreds of fugitives and got pay for them. . . . The masters will come in to Suffolk in the day time and with the help of some of the 99th carry off their fugitives and by and by smuggle them across the lines and the soldier will get his $20. or $50.” Clearly, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, and a law by then a year old, specifically prohibiting the Union Army personnel from cooperating in the return of slaves to their owners, some northern troops were willing to help planters, in all likelihood rebels, recover their slaves.
Yet the slaves themselves were increasingly confident that even when that happened or they were caught on the way to Union lines, all they need do is wait for another opportunity to flee to Union lines which would come apparently soon enough. So despite crooked Union soldiers ready to help re-enslave escaped slaves, the missionaries of freedom were spreading the word that increasingly slavery in Virginia could not be enforced and that probably sooner rather later, slaves that fled would find freedom in Union-controlled territory.
Late last year, this blog discussed Jefferson Davis’ proclamation in late 1862 denying black Union soldiers the traditional protections of prisoners of war should they ever fall into Confederate hands. Instead, Davis indicated they and their white officers would be treated under relevant state law for inciting “servile insurrection.” That is, they would be treated as if, like John Brown, they were fomenting a slave revolt, and subject to capital punishment, and in the case of African Americans, re-enslavement or worse.
With little fanfare, on May 1, 1863, the Confederate Congress basically ratified President Davis’ proclamation with the Retaliatory Act. The only substantive difference was that under this legislation, the Confederate Army was empowered to punish white officers of black Union soldiers instead of transferring them to state authorities for this purpose, as envisioned in Jefferson Davis’ proclamation. In essence, the law more-or-less empowered army leaders to deal as they wanted with African Americans in federal uniform and their officers.
The legislation in practice gave license to the ad hoc way which the Confederate Army would treat black Union prisoners and their white officers. On some occasions, such as the infamous incident at Fort Pillow in April 1864, African Americans in federal uniform would be massacred. In other cases, they would be taken as forced laborers for the Confederate Army, or diverted by southern soldiers as personal servants or even sent to family plantations. Some were treated more-or-less as other Union POWs, and sent to prisons like Andersonville and elsewhere. About the only thing that apparently never happened to black Union prisoners was that they were paroled or exchanged for Confederate prisoners in Union custody. Indeed, the Union-Confederate prisoner exchange cartel broke down in April 1864 over the Confederate refusal to return black Union prisoners. Although the cartel resumed in January 1865, when the Confederates agreed to return black prisoners, no African Americans seem to have been exchanged before the war ended.
Indeed, the Confederates also refused to release African American servants and laborers attached to the Union Army that fell into their hands, even a handful of free born blacks from the North that fell into their hands.
An earlier edition, Civil War Emancipation explored the case of John A. Emery, a free black man from Salem, Massachusetts, who was enslaved after being captured by Confederate troops during the Peninsula Campaign. He was a servant of an officer in the 16th Massachusetts Infantry and had to be left behind as Union troops evacuated the Peninsula in Virginia in Summer 1862 because he was too sick to be moved. His ultimate fate is unknown.
Two other free-born northern blacks, boys really, captured by Confederate troops in Texas, Charles Amos and his cousin, Charles Revaleon, also were enslaved. The two teenagers had signed on with the 42nd Massachusetts Infantry as officers’ servants and had fallen into rebel hands when Confederate forces had recaptured Galveston in January 1863. They were taken to Houston and sold in the city’s slave market. The commanding officer of the 42nd later wrote:
The chance that I feared and warned poor Charley against has been his fate. He was sold into slavery at Houston, Tex., the second or third day of his captivity. My brother said all that man could to save him without avail, as well as the other officers who liked the boy very much. His cousin shared a like fate. His aunt will remember that I tried to discourage the boy in every way that I could from going with us but without avail. Charley is smart and if he can only keep his tongue within bounds he will make his escape before any length of time elapses.
Our officers are all in close confinement and of course can do nothing for him. Tell his aunt to keep up her courage and hope as we all do for the best. The chances of war we all have to run and the end always follows the beginning. I will keep your address and if I learn anything of the boys I will write you.
One item may give his relations some little comfort in their trouble. Our men that were taken received very good treatment and the disposition seems to be to use Federals well that fall in their hands.
The families of the teenagers, evidently employed by prominent Bostonians, and with deep roots in the city (one of the boy’s grandfathers had served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War) had sought the help of Governor Andrew of Massachusetts, who in turn directed his staff to contact the War Department in Washington, D.C., to see if anything could be done. Major General E. A. Hitchcock, Commissioner for Prisoner of War Exchange for the War Department, reported frankly “it seems impossible to do anything in this case except as a result of success in the war.“
Andrew F. Lang and W. Caleb McDaniel, in their February 2013 piece in Disunion in the New York Times provide important insight into the disposition of Charles Amos, Charles Revaleon, and other free blacks (mostly sailors) captured in the Confederate assault on Galveston on New Years’ Day 1863. They write:
These black sailors and runaways had far more reason than [Alexander] Hobbs [a private in the 42nd Massachusetts, and the main source for Lang and McDaniel's piece] to fear capture in Texas, a state with around 200,000 slaves. Confederates may have treated Hobbs kindly, but their views on slavery were diametrically opposed to his. The Texas Declaration of Causes for Secession asserted that “the servitude of the African race” was the “will of the Almighty Creator,” and white Texans intended that it “should exist in all future time.” Hobbs recorded his opposite view on Jan. 4: “I honestly believe thare will be more slaves found in Heaven than Southerners.”
Hobbs’s “hatred to the institution of slavery” deepened later that month, when he wrote that “six coulered men have been taken away to prison, four of them belonging to the Harriet Lane” and two of them connected to his regiment. All “but one or two were free born,” he reported, but now, he believed, they were all “to be sold.”
A letter preserved in the Texas State Library and Archives confirms the gist of Hobbs’s story. In February 1863, a state agent named Henry Perkins wrote the legislature that he had taken the “negroes” who “were captured … in Galveston” to the penitentiary at Huntsville, where they were “now at work for the state.” By that time, Hobbs was about to be paroled and already traveling to Union lines – illustrating the stark contrast between his captivity and that of the “six coulered men.” While Hobbs rejoiced in the “prospect of speedy deliverance,” these less fortunate men disappeared into the penitentiary, despite Perkins’s admission that all six were “claiming to be free.”
These claims meant little under Texas laws that virtually equated being black with being enslaved. Still, Perkins’s letter acknowledged that the state’s laws governing runaway slaves “never contemplated” dealing with men like these. The law, which stated that captured runaways were to be held for six months after arrest and then taken to the penitentiary, needed to be “so altered as to the meet the exigency of the times. For we know not how soon we may have a Brigade of Negroes of like character.” Indeed, 22 other recently captured “negroes” were “slaves … claiming to be free,” according to Perkins. When should they go to the penitentiary in Huntsville? Perkins wanted the legislature to clarify the matter.
Austin obliged the next month with a new law. It declared that any person of color who entered the state “with any armed force of the enemy” would thereby “have forfeited his freedom, if he be free,” and would labor in the penitentiary until one year after any peace treaty. After that, any prisoner of color who had not been claimed as a runaway would be sold at auction “to the highest bidder.”
Unlike John A. Emery, there was happy end to the case of Amos and Revaleon. In July 1865, military authorities in Massachusetts reported to Hitchcock, “I have the honor to inform you that the two colored boys attached to the Forty-second Massachusetts, and sold in Texas, have returned in safety to Massachusetts.” But it is equally clear the cousins would have remained slaves in Texas had not the Union prevailed in the war. Such was the sobering reality that men born free could be enslaved in the Civil War even as others of their race were claiming their freedom.
Sources: 1) http://www.lwfaam.net/cw/cwwf/ltr_hw.htm; 2) http://ehistory.osu.edu/osu/sources/recordView.cfm?Content=121/0703 3) http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/09/captivity-in-black-and-white/.
Today, I participated in the “Freedom Rising” symposium at Harvard University. It featured a terrific group of scholars and scholarship related to the emancipation of slaves of African descent in the United States and elsewhere, and I was honored to be included among them. More information on the conference can be found <at this link>.
Because it will be of interest to the readers of Civil War Emancipation, below is the text of my presentation. I talked about the national convention of black Civil War veterans that took place in Boston’s Tremont Temple Baptist Church in August 1887, an event full of historical significance related to both emancipation and African-American military service in the Civil War, which naturally was of great interest to the local audience, especially since the symposium’s closing event will take place tomorrow at the same location as the veteran’s gathering in 1887–Tremont Temple.
“Celebration and Agitation: The Black Civil War Veterans Reunion at Boston’s Tremont Temple, August 1887”
Tomorrow, people will gather at Tremont Temple for a dramatic performance exploring the connections between the Haitian Revolution and the end of slavery in the United States. Celebrating the coming of freedom in the American Civil War is quite appropriate as Americans in 2013 commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and the advent of black military service in the Union Army. What most of the audience in Tremont Temple will be unaware of though is that this location hosted another notable celebration of freedom over 125 years ago, when about 300 former black soldiers and sailors, as well as their supporters gathered there in August 1887 for the only known national reunion of black Civil War veterans.
The gathering occurred in Boston because although it drew veterans from outside the Northeast, the core participants were from the black Massachusetts regiments, not only the legendary 54th Massachusetts Infantry, but also its sister regiments, the 55th Massachusetts Infantry and 5th Massachusetts Calvary. The reunion’s timing seems to have been the result of two factors. First, the 1880s saw a significant increase of activity by Civil War veterans in general, as men who had eagerly resumed civilian life in 1865, over time became nostalgic about their military service as its horrors faded, and ex-soldiers and sailors increasingly assumed an honored place in American society. Second, for all Civil War veterans, Union and Confederate, the 1880s saw an escalation in the battle over the Civil War’s meaning and legacy—in other words, a conflict over the Civil War as memory.
For black veterans, to a degree unmatched by their white counterparts, Union and Confederate, the conflict over memory had serious practical consequences both for themselves and their race. The war had resulted not only in the end of slavery, but also led to the establishment of fundamental constitutional rights that on paper made African Americans free and equal citizens of the United States. Yet black veterans in the 1880s could not help but see these rights and the very security of African Americans were under attack, especially in the states of the former Confederacy, where in the wake of Reconstruction, white Southerners sought to reestablish racial supremacy. And, so, while the gathering of black veterans on August 2-3, 1887, at Tremont Temple was a joyous celebration of what they had achieved a quarter of century before, it also was a sobering occasion to rededicate themselves to defending their race’s hard won gains from the Civil War.
The veterans selected as their presiding officer, James Monroe Trotter, one of the few African Americans commissioned as a line officer in a black Civil War regiment, becoming a lieutenant in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry late in his service. Trotter was no doubt chosen because in 1887 he was the Recorder of Deeds in the District of Columbia, making him at the time one of the most prominent political appointees of African descent in the country. (For example, Frederick Douglass had previously held this plumb position.) Trotter gave the opening address to the convention reminding them of the great risk that had set apart their military service. “Your lot, comrades, was not like the white man’s,” he said. “You well understood that your enemies in the South would give you no quarter.”[i]
James Monroe Trotter was followed on the speakers’ podium by Alfred Hartwell and Norwood Hallowell, both high-ranking white officers of black Massachusetts troops during the Civil War. Indeed, it is notable that a number of white officers of the black regiments joined their former soldiers in Boston, demonstrating that their wartime alliance was still alive over two decades later. After their speeches, the former soldiers and their officers assembled on the nearby Boston Common where they paraded to the applause of a sizeable crowd, including the Governor of Massachusetts and the Mayor of Boston. The evening saw more speeches, most notably by William H. Carney, the hero of the Battle of Fort Wagner.
If the first day of the black veterans’ reunion had been a celebration of their military service in the Civil War, on the second day, the former soldiers at a morning business meeting turned to the current problems of their race. By 1887, as previously noted, increasingly African Americans found not only their citizenship rights violated, but also sometimes their lives at risk as white Americans, especially in the South, turned to violence to punish transgressors of white supremacy and more generally to terrorize the black population into submission. As the resolution drawn up by the veterans’ aptly put it:
“The stubborn and colossal fact stands out boldly, wickedly and cruelly that American citizens of African descent, survivors of their brave dead comrades, who placed in peril life and limb for the preservation of the Union, and their kindred to-day in a large portion of this great nation are denied justice in the courts, deprived of the exercise of the elective franchise, the victims of mob violence, an unprotected and outraged people.”[ii]
The black veterans at Tremont Temple demanded the federal government, indebted to them for their Civil War service, use its power to protect their race from violence and guarantee their constitutional rights. The reunion also called upon white Union veterans to turn away from reconciliation with their former Confederate enemies, which was becoming increasingly common and join them in guaranteeing the safety and citizenship rights of African Americans. In addition, they advocated for a memorial in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the service of black Union soldiers and sailors, and demanded that the Grand Army of the Republic, the principal Union veterans’ organization, take action against white Union veterans in Louisiana and Mississippi, who were seeking to force former black soldiers into a separate regional organization or “department,” instead of permitting them to join the existing one.
After the business meeting, the veterans closed out the reunion by traveling by boat to Hingham, Massachusetts. There they decorated the grave of Governor John Andrew, who had championed early the service of African Americans as soldiers during the Civil War. This act highlighted an important attribute of the convention. While a meeting of black Union veterans, as previously noted, the Tremont Temple gathering had a manifestly biracial character, and not merely because many former white officers of black regiments attended. That is, the ex-soldiers and sailors there made a point to honor not just their own service, but also a variety of white heroes, who had supported them and black race before, during, and after the Civil War. For example, in addition to Gov. Andrew, the assembled veterans also pointedly paid tribute to John Brown, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, Gen. Benjamin Butler, and others.
The celebration of white champions of African Americans at Tremont Temple was characteristic of black veterans generally and their Civil War memory. It was common for these men after the war through acts of commemoration to honor all Americans who risked themselves for the black race, regardless of their background. For example, numerous black GAR posts were named for various white Americans in addition to prominent African Americans (as well as a few significant international figures of African descent). No doubt, the veterans hoped with this interracial commemoration they could rekindle white support for their struggles to maintain voting and citizenship rights, and gain protection against racial violence.
Their hopes in this regard were not entirely in vain. The Tremont veterans, as will be recalled, had demanded the Grand Army of the Republic prevent the exclusion of black veterans from its department in Louisiana and Mississippi. While the 1887 reunion cannot take the entire credit, it is worth nothing the GAR ultimately refused to allow white Union veterans there to exclude black veterans, and the national leadership went as far as to purge departmental officers who refused to accept African Americans, paving the way for the participation of African American in the existing GAR department in Louisiana and Mississippi. White Union veterans then, responding to pressure from the 1887 black veterans convention and elsewhere, refused to betray their former black comrades, at least within the Grand Army. Indeed, while the segregation of many local posts would constitute a necessary concession to Jim Crow in the South and elsewhere, some local posts in the North accepted black members, and in some instances African Americans became post officers and a few even rose to become commanders of interracial posts and officers of GAR departments.
Yet the sad fact remained that when it came to status of African mericans more generally, which was at the heart of the concerns of the black veterans at Tremont Temple in August 1887, they largely found indifference from white Union veterans, who while they might be grateful to African Americans for risking their lives for the Union during the Civil War and maintained some semblance of racial inclusion within the GAR, proved unwilling to push for meaningful federal intervention to save citizenship rights and black lives from the terror inflicted on African American in the late nineteenth century.
So while black veterans, at Boston in August 1887, and elsewhere proved unable to preserve all their race’s gains from the Civil War, neither did they let them evaporate without a fight. Indeed, if no sustained black veterans’ movement for civil rights and security emerged from the 1887 reunion it was partly because they already were a dwindling group. By 1890, only about a quarter of the black soldiers and sailors of the Civil War were still alive (compared to about half of both Union and Confederate veterans). Despite their declining numbers, some black veterans would remain players in the civil rights struggle until their generation passed from the scene. For example, John B. Anderson, an ex-USCT soldier from Annapolis, Maryland, would play a notable role in the legal wrangling that ultimately led to U.S. Supreme Court decision of Guinn v. Oklahoma in 1915, declaring the grandfather clause unconstitutional. And as one speaker at the 1887 reunion noted that however endangered were African Americans and their citizenship rights, without question slavery was dead forever in the United States, and in that respect the veterans’ at the Tremont Temple reunion could justifiably rejoice in their role in making it happen. Let us in 2013 rejoice with them. Thank you.
With Lincoln’s finalization of the Emancipation Proclamation, Union forces in effect became an army of liberation. Where federal soldiers went in the Confederate South after New Year’s Day of 1863, freedom for the slaves generally followed. Civil War Emancipation previously has covered a moment when slaves gained their freedom, with images of Virginia slaves crossing the Rappahannock River to reach Union lines. These slaves acted proactively to achieve their liberation, but other slaves either lacked the opportunity or gumption to flee to Union lines. Their moment of freedom came when the Union Army came to them, arriving in force at their plantation.
The great political cartoonist and illustrator of the Civil War era, Thomas Nast, effectively captured such a moment of liberation in the April 4, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly (see below).
Source: Harper’s Weekly, 4 April 1863.
The periodical does not give the place or time the illustration was based on, but intimated, as follows, it was based on a real event.
ON page 220 we publish a picture, by Mr. Thomas Nast, representing the arrival of one of our regiments on a Southern plantation, and their reception by the ladies and negroes of the plantation. The picture explains itself. We append, however, a newspaper extract from an officer’s letter in Dixie:
Heavy planters live all along the road, whose broad acres extend for miles, and whose aristocratic mansions show them to be the nabobs of the soil. Long rows of negro cabins are seen at short distances from the residence, indicating that the “institution” still flourishes here. These negroes, in huge numbers, men, women, and children, come and evince the most comical and unsophisticated manifestations of delight at our appearance. The older ones bow, and grin, and scrape, and throw themselves into all sorts of the most ludicrous attitudes. The younger ones dance and frisk about in high glee. “Gora-mighty bless you, gemmen — may you live allers!” exclaimed a delighted old darkey as we passed yesterday. At the same time he bowed himself almost to the ground. These poor creatures are about all the friends we have in this region. They most willingly give all the information they have.
While the illustration above no doubt emerged from Nast’s imagination as he labored in Harper’s Weekly‘s office, it nonetheless plausibly captures in a dramatic fashion something that must have occurred countless times in the months and years that followed the advent of the Emancipation Proclamation. The slaveholders’ (in this case only women because the men were at war) sullen worry matched by their slaves’ jubilation at finally being free. The Union troops’ curiosity with the slaves and amusement at their enemy’s anguish. In short, the illustration imagined well a moment of saturnalia when in an instant the antebellum world of the plantation South was turned upside down.
My apologies for the lack of posts of late. I have been busy lately with various thing professional and personal, which have tended to pull me away from the labor of love, which is Civil War Emancipation. Last weekend, for example, I made a quick trip east at the invitation of my principal employer, American Public University System, to be the keynote speaker at their colloquium on the use of technology to teach and research the Civil War (something I know a thing or two about). Here is a picture of me in action:
The picture was taken by a local journalist. Here is a <link> to her story, if you’re interested.
Next month, I’ll be a speaker at the Freedom Rising symposium at Harvard University (yes, that Harvard), celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and advent of African-American military service in the Civil War. They will only be giving me ten minutes of fame rather than Andy Warhol’s proverbial fifteen minutes, but it is a singular honor to be sharing the same billing with some of the top historians of the Civil War Era at the most prestigious university in the United States.
I plan to use my ten minutes to discuss the reunion of black Civil War Veterans in Boston in August 1887. That should be of interest to the local crowd, which the conference organizers have indicated repeatedly will be mostly ordinary people instead of a gathering of academics. It is also a terrific way to discuss African-American veterans and Civil War memory. So if you plan to be in the Boston area early next month, please drop by.
By early Spring 1863, the recruitment of black soldiers into the Union Army was finally getting underway in earnest. Although it would not be difficult for most black men of military age at that moment to appreciate the importance of their military service with millions of their race yet in bondage, nonetheless it was important for African-American leaders to encourage them to act on the desire to free the slaves by enlisting.
One important black leader making that call that spring was none other than Frederick Douglass. After briefly toying with the idea of emigration during in the early days of the Lincoln administration, as the President had swung toward emancipation, Douglass became a supporter of the war and black participation in it as soldiers. In early March 1863, he issued a strident speech to this end that was published later the same month in his periodical, Douglass’s Monthly. It read:
When first the rebel cannon shattered the walls of Sumter and drove away its starving garrison, I predicted that the war then and there inaugurated would not be fought out entirely by white men. Every month’s experience during these dreary years has confirmed that opinion. A war undertaken and brazenly carried on for the perpetual enslavement of colored men, calls logically and loudly for colored men to help suppress it. Only a moderate share of sagacity was needed to see that the arm of the slave was the best defense against the arm of the slaveholder. Hence with every reverse to the national arms, with every exulting shout of victory raised by the slaveholding rebels, I have implored the imperiled nation to unchain against her foes, her powerful black hand. Slowly and reluctantly that appeal is beginning to be heeded. Stop not now to complain that it was not heeded sooner. It may or it may not have been best that it should not. This is not the time to discuss that question. Leave it to the future. When the war is over, the country is saved, peace is established, and the black man’s rights are secured, as they will be, history with an impartial hand will dispose of that and sundry other questions. Action! Action! not criticism is the plain duty of this hour. Words are now useful only as they stimulate to blows. The office of speech now is only to point out when, where, and how to strike to the best advantage. There is no time to delay. The tide is at its flood that leads on to fortune. From East to West, from North to South, the sky is written all over, “Now or never.” Liberty won by white men would lose half its luster. “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.” “Better even die free, than to live slaves.” This is the sentiment of every brace colored man amongst us. There are weak and cowardly men in all nations. We have them amongst us. They tell you this is the “white man’s war”; that you will be no “better off after than before the war;” that the getting of you into the army is to “sacrifice you on the first opportunity.” Believe them not; cowards themselves, they do not wish to have their cowardice shamed by your brave example. Leave them to their timidity, or to whatever motive may hold them back. I have not their timidity, or to whatever motive may hold them back. I have not thought lightly of the words I am now addressing you. The counsel I give comes of close observation of the great struggle now in progress, and of the deep conviction that this is your hour and mine. In good earnest then, and after the best deliberation, I now for the first time during this war feel at liberty to call and counsel you to arms. By every consideration which binds you to your enslaved fellow countrymen, and the peace and welfare of your country; by every aspiration which you cherish for the freedom and equality of yourselves and your children; by all the ties of blood and identity which make us one with the brave black men now fighting our battles in Louisiana and in South Carolina, I urge you to fly to arms, and smite with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave.
In March 1863, Frederick Douglass was recruiting specifically for the 54th Massachusetts, the first northern black regiment, in which his sons, Charles and Lewis, would serve. He lightly castigated his adopted state, New York, for not taking the lead in recruiting black soldiers (it eventually would do so), and encouraged northern African Americans to join the 54th promising them they would be treated the same as white soldiers (they wouldn’t be, but that is the story for another time). He finished with the stirring words:
The day dawns; the morning star is bright upon the horizon! The iron gate of our prison stands half open. One gallant rush from the North will fling it wide open, while four millions of our brothers and sisters shall march out into liberty. The chance is now given you to end in a day the bondage of centuries, and to rise in one bound from social degradation to the plane of common equality with all other varieties of men. Remember Denmark Vesey of Charleston; remember Nathaniel Turner of Southampton; remember Shields Green and Copeland, who followed noble John Brown, and fell as glorious martyrs for the cause of the slave. Remember that in a contest with oppression, the Almighty has no attribute which can take sides with oppressors. The case is before you. This is our golden opportunity. Let us accept it, and forever wipe out the dark reproaches unsparingly hurled against us by our enemies. Let us win for ourselves the gratitude of our country, and the best blessings of our posterity through all time.
Besides Douglass’s stirring oration there also existed in the North in March 1863, a noticeable curiosity about black troops. The military service of African Americans was not unprecedented as they had fought in both the Revolutionary War (on both sides) and the War of 1812 (most famously with Andrew Jackson at Battle of New Orleans), but few whites were aware of these facts. So, the northern press eagerly supplied images, both illustrative and imaginative, of the seemingly novel sight of African Americans in Union blue to satisfy the northern public’s interest. Below are four examples from March 1863.
The first two images of black soldiers come from March 7, 1863 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, one of several national publications loaded with illustrated news stories (forerunners of the photographic news magazine), which were popular with Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century. The first is a conventional and somewhat flattering image (of the soldier at attention at least) of the First Louisiana Native Guards, the earliest colored regiment organized for the Union from among free people of color in New Orleans (I discuss the background of a predecessor Confederate unit in my piece in Disunion from February 2012).
“Pickets of the First Louisiana ‘Native Guard’ Guarding the New Orleans and the Great Western Railroad,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, March 7, 1863. Source: http://www.mrlincolnandfreedom.org/photo_credits.asp?photoID=87.
The next image also comes from the same issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a cartoon which sought to capture the shock which many white Southerners, slaveholders especially, must have experienced at seeing for the first time black soldiers in federal uniform. Titled “A Queer Recontre,” it depicted an armed black soldier surprised to encounter his stunned former owner, who had come to the camp in the hopes of recapturing him. The cartoon is captioned: “SLAVE CATCHER (who has strayed into a Federal camp)–‘You arn’t seen a boy o’ mine named Caesar have you? (Aside) Darn’d if it arn’t the black nigger himself.’ COLORED SENTRY–‘Who goes dare–advance and gib the countersign. (Aside) Golly if dat arn’t my old massa.’ (Sensation.)”
“A Queer Recontre,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, March 7, 1863. Source: http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/37697.
The other two images come from the March 14, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, the most prominent of the illustrated periodicals of the Civil War era. The first appeared on the issue’s cover, depicting white officers training black soldiers in the use of their muskets, an image that might have seemed controversial if not the one that followed.
“Teaching the Negro Recruits the use of the Minie Rifle,” Harper’s Weekly, March 14, 1863. Source: http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1863/negro-soldeirs.htm
The last illustration was truly provocative, a double-page illustration of black soldiers engaged in large-scale, hand-to-hand combat, something that still would have considered incendiary in some quarters of the Civil War North, and especially in the South, where whites still liked to equate African Americans in federal uniform with servile insurrection.
“First Black Troops in Combat,” Harper’s Weekly, March 14, 1863. Source: http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1863/march/first-black-troops-combat.htm
Harper’s Weekly explained to its readers that the last illustration depicted the first use black troops in battle the previous October at Island Mound, Missouri, where the First Kansas Colored Infantry (then unrecognized by the federal government) successfully fended off multiple assaults rebel militia and guerrillas. While sensationalizing what was essentially a two-day skirmish, the illustration unintentionally captured the bloody combat that would be coming soon for black Civil War soldiers at Port Hudson (May 1863) and Milliken’s Bend (June 1863) in Louisiana, and at Fort Wagner (July 1863) in South Carolina. These battles all were all costly failed assaults by African-American troops, the typical result of men charging in the Civil War at enemies equipped with rifled musket and cannons firing canister at close range. Yet while the Union Army would waste the lives of black men in these battles (as they would many times as well with white troops), nonetheless they were a morale victory for African Americans as they showed black soldiers were every bit as brave and disciplined as their white counterparts, ready to sacrifice themselves in deadly and futile frontal assaults. Race advancement at a horrific human cost.
Sources: 1) http://www.blackpast.org/?q=1863-frederick-douglass-men-color-arms; 2) http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1863/march/first-colored-troops-combat.htm