Men of Color, To Arms!

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:

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

“A Queer Recontre,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, March 7, 1863. Source:

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:

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:

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); 2)

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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1 Response to Men of Color, To Arms!

  1. Great images! No wonder the Rebs were shaking in their boots, imagining impending slave insurrections, when Douglass cites such men as Vesey, Turner, and Brown. I don’t think I’ve seen that last image before – very striking.

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