Have We A War Policy?

With the American Civil War underway in late April 1861, like other people, African Americans had to decide what stance they would take toward the conflict. In its edition of April 27, 1861, the Weekly Anglo-African explored the options open to the free people of color that lived in the North.

One certain thing was in the early days of the Civil War that black Northerners were far from united about what stance they should take. Some parts of the community, clearly caught up in the war hysteria that gripped the North in the wake of the attack on Fort Sumter, wanted to join whites in organizing military companies and offering them for service in the conflict. Other northern blacks, completely disillusioned with American society still planned to emigrate to Africa or some other place presumably free of the racism endemic across the United States. The Weekly Anglo-African tried to steer a middle course that would neither be subservient to the Lincoln administration nor write off the nation as hopelessly racist. The paper editorialized:

The free colored Americans cannot be indifferent to the progress of this struggle. Were it simply a question of internal strife, their past history proves too well their patriotic devotion, for doubt to be cast upon their willingness to defend the country which has only curses for them in return. But they have a deep and more momentus interest in the inception and the outgrowth of the war now looming over the land. The dominant class may strive, as a major portion do, to prove that it is this or that which lies at the basis of the difficulty; but we know, these liars and drivellers know and history will indeliably prove, that it is slavery alone which has cast a thunder cloud of civil war over the land.

Not alone are free colored Americans involved in the contest, but their action in the Free States will be representative. They speak for the voiceless. They stand for the dumb and bound Black Samson. While themselves, outcast and rejected in the majority of cases, and in the few exceptions only winning a decent foothold by the veriest sufferance, yet are they the representatives of four millions of their race, bound down in the most despotic bondage. Out of this strife will come freedom, though the methods are not clearly apparent. Therefore must colored Americans feel the profoundest anxiety as to both the details and results. It is not to be wondered at that already many of them are enthusiastically advocating the duty of the people to prepare for the support of the Government and its war measures. The evidence of this enthusiasm will be found in other portions of our paper, and is seen on all hands.

 Yet before we take such measures, it will be well to choose our ground, survey the whole position, and see where we can best aid the slave–for this is the primary duty of every colored man, at least. A war of the sections has eventuated, brought about by the arrogance and treason of slave power. It is not to be supposed that the millions “bowed and bound” in slavery are impassive observors of this internecine strife. Though they may have but confused notions of the state of affairs, they have a clear and decided idea of what they want–Liberty. It is only by the obtainance of this for the Southern slaves that Northern free colored people can secure any recognition. Then the question of their war policy is simply confined to this one point–how can we use our strength to best help the slave? The duty in this matter is so apparent as not to need argument. It is, therefore, on the question of this policy alone, that discussion comes.

The method yet proposed is to raise volunteer companies, and offer them to the General Government. A word or two upon this point is sufficient. No Governor would allow colored troops to muster into service, and if he did, the General Government would reject such aid. It is the evident intention of the Republicans and the North generally, to make this a white man’s war. It cannot be done, because, though a dark-hued man may not be recognized by the powers that be, yet the fact that remains, and will always assert itself, that it is for and against slavery and that alone. But in view of the evident determination to disregard colored men as personalities, it is wise for them to put themselves in a position to have fresh contumely poured upon them? Therefore, our opinion is against the movements indicated in this city, Boston, and elsewhere, to organize volunteer companies, to be offered to the Government.

But we have a very positive duty, from which a palpable policy would naturally follow. Our duty, we again repeat, is to aid in making the slave free. Our policy will be dictated by our object. It certainly is not to fight for the Government. Let us, however, organize for military purposes, drill efficiently, procure arms, and hold ourselves as Minute Men, to respond when the slave calls. This time will come speedily enough. The expected results of the present state of affairs may be retarded by compromise or temporizing, and then those who feel a desire to aid the bond, must strike such a blow as will render peace impossible, until justice is done. Don’t let us throw away our strength, waste ourselves in show hold public meetings, and make speeches for Buncombe. No one wants to spread himself out thin for the purpose of showing his devotion to a Government which rejects him. Let us concentrate–we are none too strong. We need all our energy, our time, our money, our courage, to determine that this golden moment shall not pass by without a manly effort to reap a ripe harvest. We must organize, but let it be for work, and let the preliminaries be quietly conducted and efficiently carried forward. For such a work we believe means can be obtained.

This we say, for the benefit of the large majority who desire to aid effectually their brethren in bonds. For those who do not or cannot take up arms, there is work to do. For the large population who are looking to emigration as a means of amelioration, no better opportunity will present itself, to very actively and in the work of hastening the jubilee of freedom.

The Cotton States will certainly be closely blockaded–Cotton will be King no longer. Yet the mills of England will need a supply. Her immense capital will be freely used to create a supply. Inviting fields of labor are at our very doors–Hayti, the West Indies, Central America, all ask labor at our hands. Those who will not or cannot give back bullets to the South, can from Hayti overwhelm her with cotton bales.

This is briefly our war policy. Let the Government take care of itself, and give our labors for the slave, and the slave alone.

It is not clear entirely what was military stance advocated by the Weekly Anglo-African. Certainly, it called for forming black military companies, but not offer them to the federal government for service. However, what did it mean to hold these units back until to “respond when the slave calls”? Was the paper expecting the war to produce a massive slave revolt in the South? Or was the Anglo-African instead desiring the northern black community not to join the struggle until such time that the Lincoln Administration embraced emancipation as a war goal?

The newspaper’s proposal for waging economic warfare on the Confederacy was intelligent except for the fact that northern free blacks did not possess the capital to begin plantations abroad to compete with the Cotton South, nor were white Northerners or foreign interests likely to provide it. So in mulling over “Have We A War Policy?” what the Weekly Anglo-African did implicitly was to reveal how powerless free people of color were in the North to make a difference toward their goals early in the Civil War. It also made the mistake of seriously underestimating the slaves’ ability to strike a blow for themselves against slavery accepting the notion that the “bound Black Samson” really was helpless. Within a month’s time, by voting with their feet, the slaves would show they indeed could make a significant difference in the Civil War, initially more so than the free black Northerners, who in the case of the Weekly Anglo-African presumed to speak for them.

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 donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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