The Black Press Reacts to Fort Sumter

With 90 percent of African Americans in bondage in 1861, it is easy to forget free people of color (about evenly split between North and South). In the North, where free African Americans did not live under quite as tight the restrictions of their southern counterparts, a small African-American press even came into existence although the publications tended to have a fleeting existence.

One of these publications was the Weekly Anglo-African published from 1859 to 1862 in New York City. Civil War Emancipation dealt with this newspaper a week ago in regard to its April 13, 1861 edition calling for militant terror against enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. No doubt that issue had been put to type prior the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter of April 12-13. So in between the April 13 and April 20 issues, the world was literally turned upside down and the Weekly Anglo-African had to react to the outbreak of fighting between North and South.

The first reaction of the publication in its April 2o, 1861 issue was simply to be stunned by the news and then quickly recover with an eerily prophetic tone which must have struck some readers at the time as fanciful.

The Weekly Anglo-African reported:

Since our last, events have moved forward with startling rapidity. Fort Sumter has surrendered to Gen. Beauregard of the Confederate States Army. President Lincoln has issued his proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteers, and convening an extra session of Congress to assemble on the fourth day of July ensuing. Martial law has been proclaimed in the District of Columbia, the war feeling rules the North, and every indication is presented of a long and bloody intestine struggle.

This is but another step in the drama of American Progress. We say Progress, for we know that no matter what may be the desires of the men of Expediency, who rule, or seem to, the affairs of the North.–the tendencies are for Liberty.

Good speed the conflict. May the cup be drained to its dregs, for only thus can this nation of sluggards know the disease and its remedy.

The strife will be deadly, but the end is certain. It matters not whether the Government is successful, whether the Union is preserved, the Ideas underlying the struggle will triumph.

Elsewhere in the same issue, the Weekly Anglo-African re-emphasized its faith in the outcome of the nascent conflict, writing:

… God’s time is come, and the batteries of Charleston harbor thunder forth to us his call: “Awake! arise!” The sword of his Divine vengeance is unsheathed, and, whilst it suites [sic]the guilty, points to our way of deliverance. What though it be red with gore and strewed with cor[p]ses: “is there not a cause?”

The hour rapidly approaches in which we may effect the otherthrow of slavery. But we are distracted by diverse opinions and paralyzed by dissensions. Before we act in any direction, these gaps in our ranks must be closed. How can it be done? We answer in esprit de corps founded on race–by the adoption of a common object, and the recognition of all instrumentalities which tend to promote it.

The object we have: the destruction of slavery. Nature’s first law demands it.

When the power of Carthage menaced the supremacy of Rome, the decree went forth–“Carthage must be destroyed.” and Carthage fell. The destruction of Carthage was a political expedient, but destruction of slavery is a necessity, arising out of our humanity. Slavery must be destroyed then, and by our hands. Let it be our dream by night–and our thought by day. Let it be the burden of our speech and inform our every act. Slavery must be destroyed! We are “at daggers drawn” with the monster that for centuries has made merchandise of our bodies and havoc of our souls. Wherever we may confront it, whether crouching in its southern lair, or prowling along these Northern highways in search of prey [illegible passage] the only alternative. We do not assume this position, but interest and reason alike demonstrate that we accept it.

What if it be termed treason, rebellion, insurrection?–we care not: knowing full well that despotism has ever used these strategems to bolster up its tyranny and beat down human rights. What allegiance do we owe to a power that denies our rights? What is left but rebellion, to those whom the government recognize only to oppress? If we have learned anything of freedom from our despoilers, we know that is our sacred duty to rise up against oppression. This then, is the issue, this the point to which our policy must tend–Resistance. Resistance at home, resistance abroad; it matters not whether the blow is struck at home, or a thousand miles away, so long as slavery is smitten and the rights of black men are vindicated, it is enough. It raises us higher in the world’s esteem, and gives us a hold upon its sympathies.

There was a terrible mistake made in 1776, the sad results of which culminated at Moultrie on the 12th inst. The blood of our ancestors was bravely and freely shed in defence of freedom; and we reap of their bravery in disfranchisement, bondage, and contumely.

Freedom again goes forth to battle against despotism, and black men can fight as bravely now as in days of yore; and if called upon will promptly respond. Whatever they may have lost through the perfidy of their countrymen, they retain full faith in the inalienability of human rights, and are willing to venture all for their defence. But henceforth we fight not to further partial interests, or governmental theories, but to establish liberty upon a basis coextensive with the human race.

These were brave words in April 1861, with the cannon arrayed against Fort Sumter still warm. But behind them lay an iron determination little known outside the antebellum black community in the North, a determination more quiet but shared in the slave cabins of the South–a determination to destroy slavery once and for all. And determination that even the most vociferous supporters of slavery would have to confront in the weeks, months, and years to come.


About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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