African Americans sought to fight as soldiers from the earliest days of the Civil War. Black men realized they had a considerable stake in the conflict that they and others of their race knew was about slavery from the start. Hence, many were eager to join the struggle to destroy slavery by enlisting in the Union army.
Indeed, this martial impulse preceded the war. A recent edition of Disunion in the New York Times has a relevant piece in this regard by Van Gosse. Gosse reminds Times readers about black service in previous conflicts (especially the War of 1812), the existence of private black militia groups in the antebellum North, and the fact that a handful of African Americans–despite federal policy in 1861–had managed to join the Union army. He writes in Disunion:
The role of black men fighting for the United States had been a source of intense controversy since the Revolution. Indeed, to understand the politics behind the 1863 decision to finally enlist them, as well as Lincoln’s refusal even to consider it up to that point, requires an understanding of the long, fraught history of black soldiers in early America.
By the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, free black men had spent 40 years fashioning arguments for why they were citizens, entitled to vote, serve on juries and claim all the rights of native-born Americans. Sometimes they convinced those whites committed to the principle of “a republican birthright,” though much larger numbers drew the line at their “complexion.” But, when all else failed, they invoked their credentials as veterans.
Despite these strong claims, few whites in the North in late 1861 supported the idea of black soldiers. And virtually all of them were abolitionists and/or Republicans in the party’s radical wing. But in Fall 1861, the cause of black enlistment in the Union army gained an important new supporter: Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Secretary of War. Cameron was a seeming improbable convert, by reputation not an idealist but a corrupt schemer and opportunist. Historians have long speculated that Simon Cameron embraced the idea of black soldiers not because he sincerely believed in the concept, but because he cynically sought the political support of the radical Republicans in Congress to stay on as Secretary of War despite his mismanagement of the War Department. Whatever his motivation, Cameron over the course of Fall 1861 pushed for enlisting African Americans as soldiers within Lincoln’s cabinet and in top political circles in Washington, D.C.
Cameron’s promotion of this issue climaxed in late November/early December 1861, when the Secretary of War tried to slip language into his annual message to Congress promoting the recruitment of contraband slaves as Union soldiers. The relevant passage read:
While it is plain that the slave property of the South is justly subjected to all the consequences of this rebellious war, and that the Government would be untrue to its trust in not employing all the rights and powers of war to bring it to a speedy close, the details of the plan for doing so, like all other military measures, must, in a great degree, be left to be determined by particular exigencies. The disposition of other property belonging to the rebels that becomes subject to our arms is governed by the circumstances of the case. The Government has no power to hold slaves, none to restrain a slave of his liberty, or to exact his service. It has a right, however, to use the voluntary service of slaves liberated by war from their rebel masters, like any other property of the rebels, in whatever mode may be most efficient for the defence of the Government, the prosecution of the war, and the suppression of rebellion. It is clearly a right of the Government to arm slaves when it may become necessary as it is to take gunpowder from the enemy. Whether it is expedient to do so is purely a military question. The right is unquestionable by the laws of war. The expediency must be determined by circumstances, keeping in view the great object of overcoming the rebels, re-establishing the laws, and restoring peace to the nation.
It is vain and idle for the Government to carry on this war, or hope to maintain its existence against rebellious force, without employing all the rights and powers of war. As has been said, the right to deprive the rebels of their property in slaves and slave labor is as clear and absolute as the right to take forage from the field, or cotton from the warehouse, or powder and arms from the magazine. To leave the enemy in the possession of such property as forage and cotton and military stores, and the means of constantly reproducing them, would be madness. It is, therefore, equal madness to leave them in peaceful and secure possession of slave property, more valuable and efficient to them for war than forage, cotton, and military stores. Such policy would be national suicide. What to do with that species of property is a question that time and circumstances will solve, and need not be anticipated further than to repeat that they cannot be held by the Government as slaves. It would be useless to keep them as prisoners of war; and self-preservation, the highest duty of a Government, or of individuals, demands that they should be disposed of or employed in the most effective manner that will tend most speedily to suppress the insurrection and restore the authority of the Government. If it shall be found that the men who have been held by the rebels as slaves are capable of bearing arms and performing efficient military service, it is the right, and may become the duty, of this Government to arm and equip them, and employ their services against the rebels, under proper military regulations, discipline, and command.
But in whatever manner they may be used by the Government, it is plain that, once liberated by the rebellious act of their masters, they should never again be restored to bondage. By the master’s treason and rebellion he forfeits all right to the labor and service of his slave; and the slave of the rebellious master, by his service to the Government, becomes justly entitled to freedom and protection.
The disposition to be made of the slaves of rebels, after the close of the war, can be safely left to the wisdom and patriotism of Congress. The representatives of the people will unquestionably secure to the loyal slaveholders every right to which they are entitled under the Constitution of the country.
Cameron was emboldened by the fact President Lincoln had acquiesced earlier that fall to service of contraband slaves in the Union navy. If slaves could serve in the navy why not in the army? Yet the Secretary of War was missing an important distinction. As historian John Niven put it:
The time had not yet come for the enlistment of black soldiers, but it had arrived for utilizing black sailors. The fact that the Navy was smaller and less conspicuous than the Army, that it occupied no territory, and that it was organized on national and not state lines made it an ideal means for the administration to present a radical face to the public. In another way too, the President was saying that the Seward-Weed influence had not gained the upper hand, that there was still a balance between radicals and conservatives in the Cabinet.
For Lincoln, black sailors was a sufficient gesture in late 1861 to placate the radicals, while avoiding the then intolerable political cost associated with black soldiers. So the President refused to approve the Secretary of War’s language for his report to Congress supporting the enlistment of black soldiers. Cameron defiantly retained it even after Lincoln and the cabinet had rejected it, seeking a fait accompli by sending his version of the report off to the printer. Abraham Lincoln responded to this bold move by ordering Cameron’s printed report to be recalled and reprinted with more innocuous language on how the War Department planned to utilize African Americans. Nonetheless, Cameron’s draft made it into the newspapers, revealing in public an embarrassing rift within the Lincoln administration over the sensitive issues of emancipation and black military service. This public rift sealed the Secretary of War’s fate and by mid-January 1862, Simon Cameron had been replaced by his legal adviser, Edwin M. Stanton.
But although Abraham Lincoln could silence a dissenter within his administration, he could not suppress the ideas of emancipation or black service in the army. Given his effort underway by that time to enact gradual compensated emancipation in Delaware (see Civil War Emancipation for November 29), the ever canny Lincoln obviously realized that fact. His annual message to Congress indicated publicly his support in general terms for the plan privately he by then was seeking to enact in Delaware. The relevant section read:
Under and by virtue of the act of Congress entitled ‘ ‘ An act to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes,” approved August 6, 1861, the legal claims of certain persons to the labor and service of certain other persons have become forfeited; and numbers of the latter, thus liberated, are already dependent on the United States, and must be provided for in some way. Besides this, it is not impossible that some of the States will pass similar enactments for their own benefit respectively, and by operation of which, persons of the same class will be thrown upon them for disposal. In such case I recommend that Congress provide for accepting such persons from such States, according to some mode of valuation, in lieu, pro tanto, of direct taxes, or upon some other plan to be agreed on with such States respectively ; that such persons, on such acceptance by the general government, be at once deemed free ; and that, in any event, steps be taken for colonizing both classes, (or the one first mentioned, if the other shall not be brought into existence,) at some place, or places, in a climate congenial to them. It might be well to consider, too, whether the free colored people already in the United States could not, so far as individuals may desire, be included in such colonization.
To carry out the plan of colonization may involve the acquiring of territory, and also the appropriation of money beyond that to be expended in the territorial acquisition. Having practiced the acquisition of territory for nearly sixty years, the question of constitutional power to do so is no longer an open one with us.
So by December 1861, Abraham Lincoln for the first time started moving publicly toward emancipation. But it is also clear at that point, he believed freedom for the slaves should come gradually, with owners compensated at least indirectly and ex-slaves leaving the United States to settle in some yet-to-be-determined location to be acquired for them by the federal government. But he would not be hurried on the issue, as Lincoln demonstrated yet again that he would not tolerate members of his government who defied him publicly to do more, more quickly on emancipation and related issues such as black enlistment in the Union army, whether they be a prominent general, like John C. Frémont, or member of his cabinet, like Simon Cameron.
Sources: 1) http://www.history.umd.edu/Freedmen/cameron.htm; 2) John Niven, Gideon Welles: Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy (Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press, 1973), 395; 3) http://www.archive.org/details/annualmessageofp00unit.