Frederick Douglass: Fighting Against a “White Man’s War”/Part 3


Part 2 of 3 of this Frederick Douglass birthday celebration is here.


President Lincoln recruiting the Negro: One good turn deserves another, London Punch, 1862.

The caption reads, “Why, I du declare, it’s my dear old friend Sambo. Course you’ll fight for us, Sambo. Lend us a hand, old hoss, du.” This cartoon was published a month before Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. More details on the cartoon are here.

One notable aspect of the cartoon is that the black character is depicted realistically, while the Lincoln figure is caricatured. In American cartoons, it was common to show blacks as having exaggerated and buffoonish facial features, such as huge lips.
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I congratulate you, upon what may be called the greatest event of our nation’s history (issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation), if not the greatest event of the century…

In the hurry and excitement of the moment, it is difficult to grasp the full and complete significance of President Lincoln’s proclamation. The change in attitude of the Government is vast and startling. For more than sixty years the Federal Government has been little better than a stupendous engine of Slavery and oppression, through which Slavery has ruled us, as with a rod of iron. The boast that Cotton is King was no empty boast. Assuming that our Government and people will sustain the President and the Proclamation, we can scarcely conceive of a more complete revolution in the position of a nation…

I hail it as the doom of Slavery in all the States. I hail it as the end of all that miserable statesmanship, which has for 60 years juggled and deceived the people, by professing to reconcile what is irreconcilable.

We are all liberated by this proclamation. Everybody is liberated. The white man is liberated, the black man is liberated, the brave men now fighting the battles of their country against rebels and traitors are now liberated, and may strike with all their might, even if they do hurt the Rebels, at their most sensitive point. [Applause.] I congratulate you upon this amazing change—the amazing approximation toward the sacred truth of human liberty.
– Frederick Douglass, Speech at The Cooper Institute in New York, February 6, 1863

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By February 1863, Frederick Douglass was surely feeling joyful and triumphant. On January 1 of 1863, president Abraham Lincoln issued the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation. America’s slaves were declared forever free – with the caveat that the slave-holding Border States (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) and some Unionist or Union controlled areas in the Confederacy (such as Tennessee and Louisiana) were exempted. But that wasn’t a show stopper for Douglass; he believed that the Proclamation marked the beginning of the end of slavery. Time would prove him correct.

But in the short run, there was a war to fight. After the issuance of the Proclamation, the Union’s efforts to recruit black men into the army began in earnest. And it wasn’t a sure thing that black men would enlist.

Many blacks were angry that they were denied enlistment when the war started, being told this was a “white man’s war.” The Emancipation Proclamation, for all the hope it offered, did not free slaves in Union strongholds; this was not the unequivocal call for black freedom that many wanted to see. And blacks were infuriated when they discovered that colored soldiers were paid less than their white counterparts. Wasn’t a black man’s life worth as much as a white man’s, they asked?

But where some had doubts, Douglass had resolve. No black leader was more prominent, insistent, and supportive of black enlistment than Douglass, at least in the several months after the Proclamation. Earlier, he said that unless the Union committed to ending slavery, “they don’t deserve the support of a single sable arm.” Now that the Union made the commitment, Douglass was all in.

While freedom for the slaves was paramount, Douglass saw another purpose in black military service: it would give colored people the opportunity to prove, through manly courage and performance of duty, that their race was worthy of full citizenship. Douglass understood that freedom and equality were not the same thing. If the colored man was to attain his due rights and respect, he must fight to earn it. If whites were fighting for their cause, then blacks could do no less for their own.

In his March 1863 “Men of Color to Arms” speech, Douglass argued

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 brave 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”; and 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.

Douglass’ play of the “coward card” was a harsh critique for those not wanting to enlist, coming as it did in a male dominated era where the willingness to stand-up for one’s self and fight was a necessary proof of manhood; and in a racist era where the black male was stereotyped as docile, submissive, and lacking in fortitude. His rhetorical challenge went to the heart of 19th century conceptions of what it meant to be a man: if you’re not man enough to fight in this war, Douglass argued to his fellows, then you deserve your degraded position in American society.


Union recruiting poster, 1863

Douglass’ “Men of Color to Arms” editorial was used to make several recruiting posters (see the above and this one), with sign-offs by many of the most prominent black leaders of the day. Douglass went on to speak throughout the Union in favor of black enlistment; both Douglass and his son Frederick Douglass Jr became army recruiters. (Douglass’ sons Lewis and Charles joined the 54th Massachusetts US Colored Troops regiment, which was made famous in the movie Glory.)

While his “Men of Color” speech deservedly draws a fair share of attention, Douglass’ “Should the Negro Enlist in the Union Army?” speech, given right after the Fourth of July in 1863, strikes me as the essential commentary from Douglass, or any African American of the era, concerning the war. For anyone who wants to understand how free black northerners felt about the war, there is no better place to start. In his speech, Douglass covers all the issues of relevance to the negro: the threat to black freedom posed by the “diabolical” Confederacy; the inequality of pay and promotion opportunities in the Union army; the need for blacks to earn their rights through duty and sacrifice to their country; and the need for the black male to prove his manhood by engaging the enemy on the battlefield. (One item of interest to me is his mention of the “ennobling influence” of possessing arms; Douglass was a proponent of gun ownership for blacks.)

Notably, none of his talking points would get more than a moment of notice in a speech by a white man to a white audience. Douglass’ talk shows that the stakes for blacks were much different than those for whites; he was making the case for a black man’s war. And as his speech shows, he did that with the force and eloquence for which he is so well known.

There are obviously two views to be taken of enlistments (for colored men)—a broad view and a narrow view. The narrow view of the subject is that which respects the matter of dollars and cents. There are among us those who say they are in favor of taking a hand in this tremendous war, but they add they wish to do so on terms of equality with white men. They say if they enter the service, endure all the hardships, perils and suffering—if they make bare their breasts, and with strong arms and courageous hearts confront rebel cannons, and wring victory from the jaws of death they should have the same pay, the same rations, the same bounty and the same favorable conditions in every way afforded to other men.

I shall not oppose this view. There is something deep down in the soul of every man which assents to the justice of the claim made, and honors the manhood and self-respect which insists upon it (applause). I say at once, in peace and in war, I am content with nothing for the black man short of equal and exact justice. The only question I have, and the point at which I differ from those who refuse to enlist, is whether the colored man is more likely to attain justice and equality while refusing to assist in putting down this tremendous rebellion than he would be if he should promptly, generously and earnestly give his hand and heart to the salvation of the country in this its day of calamity and peril. Nothing could be more plain, nothing more certain than that the speediest and best possible way open to us to manhood, equal rights and elevation, is that we enter this service. For my own part I hold that if the Government of the United States offered nothing more as an inducement to colored men to enlist, than bare subsistence and arms, considering the moral effect of compliance ourselves, it would be the wisest and best thing for us to enlist (applause). There is something ennobling in the possession of arms, and we of all other people in the world stand in need of their ennobling influence.

The case presented in the present war, and the light in which every colored man is bound to view it, may be stated thus. There are two governments struggling now for possession of and endeavoring to bear rule over the United States—one has its capitol in Richmond, and is represented by Mr. Jefferson Davis, and the other has its capitol at Washington and is represented by “Honest Old Abe” (cheers and continuous applause). These two governments are today face to face, confronting each other with vast armies and grappling each other upon many a bloody field, north and south, on the banks of the Mississippi, and under the shadows of the Alleghenies. Now the question for every colored man is, or ought to be, what attitude is assumed by these respective governments and armies towards the rights and liberties of the colored race in this country; which is for us and which is against us! (Cries of That’s the question).

Now, I think there can be no doubt as to what is the attitude of the Richmond or Confederate Government. Wherever else there has been concealment, here all is frank, open, and diabolically straightforward. Jefferson Davis and his government make no secret as to the cause of this war, and they do not conceal the purpose of this war. That purpose is nothing more nor less than to make the slavery of the African race universal and perpetual on this continent. It is not only evident from the history and logic of events, but the declared purpose of the atrocious war now being waged against the country. Some, indeed, have denied that slavery has anything to do with the war, but the very same men who do this, affirm it in the same breath in which they deny it; for they tell you that the Abolitionists are the cause of the war. Now, if the Abolitionists are the cause of the war, they are the cause of it only because they sought the abolition of slavery. View it in any way you please, therefore, the rebels are fighting for the existence of slavery; they are fighting for the privilege, the horrid privilege of sundering the dearest ties of human nature; of trafficking in slaves and the souls of men; for the ghastly privilege of scourging women and selling innocent children (cries of That’s true).

I say this is not the concealed object of the war, but the openly professed and shamelessly proclaimed object of the war. Vice-President Stephens has stated, with the utmost clearness and precision, the difference between the fundamental ideas of the Confederate Government and those of the Federal Government. One is based on the idea that colored men are an inferior race who may be enslaved and plundered forever and to the hearts content of any men of different complexion, while the Federal government recognizes the natural and fundamental equality of all men (applause). I say again we all know that this Jefferson Davis government holds out to us nothing but fetters, chains, auction blocks, bludgeons, branding irons and eternal slavery and degradation. If it triumphs in this contest, woe, woe, ten thousand woes, to the black man! Such of us who are free, in all the likelihoods of the case, would be given over to the most excruciating tortures, while the last hope of the long crushed bondman would be extinguished forever (Sensation).

Now what is the attitude of the Washington Government toward the colored race? What reason do we have to desire its triumph in the present contest? Mind, I do not ask what was its attitude towards us before this bloody rebellion broke out. I do not ask what was the disposition when it was controlled by the very men who are now fighting to destroy it, when they could no longer control it. I do not even ask what it was two years ago when McClellan shamelessly gave out that in a war between loyal slaves and disloyal masters, he would take the side of the masters against the slaves; when he openly proclaimed his purpose to put down slave insurrections with an iron hand; when glorious Ben Butler (Cheers and applause), now stunned into a conversion to anti-slavery principles (which I have every reason to believe sincere), proffered his services to the Governor of Maryland to suppress a slave insurrection, while treason ran riot in that State, and the warm, red blood of Massachusetts soldiers still stained the pavements of Baltimore.

I do not ask what was the attitude of this Government when many of the officers and men who had undertaken to defend it, openly threatened to throw down their arms and leave the service, if men of color should step forward to defend it, and be invested with the dignity of soldiers. Moreover, I do not ask what was the position of this government when our loyal camps were made slave-hunting grounds, and United States officers performed the disgusting duty of slave dogs to hunt down slaves for rebel masters. These were all dark and terrible days for the Republic. I do not ask you about the dead past. I bring you to the living present. Events more mighty than men, eternal Providence, all-wise and all-controlling, have placed us in new relations to the government and the government to us, what that government is to us today, and what it till be tomorrow, is made evident by a very few facts. Look at them, colored men. Slavery in the district of Columbia is abolished forever; slavery in all the territories of the United States is abolished forever; the foreign slave trade, with its ten thousand revolting abominations, is rendered impossible; slavery in ten States of the Union is abolished forever; slavery in the five remaining States is as certain to follow the same fate as the night is to follow the day. The independence of Haiti is recognized; her Minister sits beside our Prime Minister, Mr. Seward, and dines at his table in Washington, while colored men are excluded from the cars in Philadelphia; showing that a black man’s complexion in Washington, in the presence of the Federal Government, is less offensive than in the city of brotherly love. Citizenship is no longer denied us under this government.

Under the interpretation of our rights by Attorney General Bates, we are American citizens. We can import goods, own and sail ships, and travel in foreign countries with American passports in our pockets; and now, so far from there being any opposition, so far from excluding us from the army as soldiers, the President at Washington, the Cabinet and the Congress, the General commanding and the whole army of the nation unite in giving us one thunderous welcome to share with them in the honor and glory of suppressing treason and upholding the Star Spangled banner. The revolution is tremendous, and it becomes us as wise men to recognize the change and to shape our action accordingly (Cheers and cries of We will)…

Never since the world began was a better chance offered to a long enslaved and oppressed people. The opportunity is given us to be men. With one courageous resolution we may blot out the hand-writing of ages against us. Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U. S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States (Laughter and applause). I say again, this is our chance, and woe betide us if we fail to embrace it. The immortal bard hath told us:

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. We must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

Do not flatter yourselves, my friends, that you are more important to the government than the government is to you. You stand but as the plank to the ship. This rebellion can be put down without your help. Slavery can be abolished by white men, but liberty so won by the black man, while it may leave him an object of pity, can never make him an object of respect.

Depend upon it. This is no time for hesitation. Do you say you want the same pay that white men get? I believe that the justice and magnanimity of your country will speedily grant it. But will you be overnice about this manner? Do you get as good wages as white men get by being out of the service? Don’t you work for less every day than white men get? You know you do. Do I hear you say you want black officers? Very well, and I have not the slightest doubt that in the progress of this war we shall see black officers, black colonels and black generals even. But is it not ridiculous in us in all at once refusing to be commanded by white men in times of war, when we are everywhere commanded by white men in times of peace? Do I hear you say still that you are a son, and want your mother provided for in your absence?—a husband, and want your wife cared for?—a brother, and want your sister secured against want? I honor you for your solicitude. Your mothers, your wives, and your sisters all got to be cared for and an association of gentlemen, composed of responsible white and colored men, is now being organized in this city for this very purpose.

Do I hear you say you offered your services to Pennsylvania and you were refused? I know it, but what of that? The State is not more than the nation. The greater includes the lesser. Because the State refuses, you should all the more readily turn to the United States (applause). When the children fall out, they should refer their quarrel to the parent. “You came unto your own and your own received you not.” But the broad gates of the United States stand open night and day. Citizenship in the United States will, in the end, secure your citizenship in the State.

Young men of Philadelphia, you are without excuse. The hour has arrived, and your place is in the Union army. Remember that the musket—the United States musket with its bayonet of steel—is better than all mere parchment guarantees of liberty. In your hands that musket means liberty; and should your constitutional rights at the close of this war be denied, which in the nature of things, it cannot be, your brethren are safe while you have a Constitution which proclaims your right to keep and bear arms (Immense cheering).

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3 thoughts on “Frederick Douglass: Fighting Against a “White Man’s War”/Part 3

  1. Without Douglass, the South almost surely wins the war. It’s that simple. Douglass played the crucial role into pushing LIncoln to issue the EP, and to enlist black soldiers and sailors. It’s hard to imagine two more important things. The EP not only kept England and France out of the war, it also upset the fabric of Southern society — massive numbers of slaves were moved further South, out of fear of the EP — and soon, virtually everyone, white and black, knew that slavery in the South was now illegal. Add the fact that now blacks were armed and in the Army, nothing would ever be the same.

    But your article says that Douglass said blacks deserved to be slaves, if they didn’t enlist. Nonsense, utter nonsense. IF you are going to write “educational” pieces. get your facts straight. Douglass was anti slavery, regardless of who would fight and who would not. He tried to shame the fearful into enlisting, but never even implied that slavery was justified.

    Your lunatic comments in the article say that Douglass

    • Taxsanity,

      Thanks for your comments. I have a few responses:

      • RE: “Without Douglass, the South almost surely wins the war. It’s that simple. Douglass played the crucial role into pushing LIncoln to issue the EP”

      I wouldn’t go that far. Lincoln issued the EP due to military necessity; due to the need for a formal, definitive administration response to the flood of runaway slaves (contraband) flowing into Union lines; and because many in the Republican Party were pushing for an emancipation strategy.

      I have no doubt that Lincoln was aware of Douglass’ criticisms, but I don’t think they were crucial or essential in Lincoln’s decision to issue the EP. Lincoln would have issued the EP regardless of Douglass’ comments.

      RE: “But your article says that Douglass said blacks deserved to be slaves, if they didn’t enlist. Nonsense, utter nonsense. IF you are going to write “educational” pieces. get your facts straight. Douglass was anti slavery, regardless of who would fight and who would not. He tried to shame the fearful into enlisting, but never even implied that slavery was justified.”

      Actually, you and I are on the same page. Note that, I never said that “Douglass says blacks deserved to be slaves.” In Part 1 of my three parts on this subject, I noted Douglass’ hatred of slavery, and his condemnation of the Union for failing to attack the institution.

      In part 3, I accurately state the fact that Douglass made comments regarding the need for blacks to “earn” their rights and respect; in fact, his comments to that effect are in the post. As I say in the post, Douglass understood that freedom and equality were not the same thing. If the negro was to attain his due rights and respect, he must fight to earn it. Douglass’ point was, we are in a war for freedom, which we deserve unconditionally. But we want more than freedom, we want to be acknowledged as full citizens. One of the things that citizens do is fight for their country. One of the things that men do to get respect is fight for what’s right.

      You are correct to say he was shaming his fellows; that was my point of saying that was playing the “coward card.”

      Having said all of that: if your reading of my post led to the misinterpretation of my comments, then I’ll re-think some portions of what I wrote.

  2. Pingback: Orthodox Bishops Gives Invocation at Democratic Convention - Page 6 - Christian Forums

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