The Loyal Colored People of Baltimore Give Lincoln a Bible


Bible given to Abraham Lincoln by freemen of Baltimore, Maryland in September, 1864; the “Lincoln Bible” is in the collection of the Fisk University Library
From the New York Times, September 11, 1864: The book in size is imperial quarto, bound in royal purple velvet. On the upper side of the cover is a solid 18 carat gold plate, nine and a half inches in circumference, bearing a design representing the President in the act of removing the shackles from a slave. On the lower side of the cover is a solid 18 carat gold plate, four inches long and two inches wide, bearing the following inscription:
“To ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President of the United States, from the loyal colored people of Baltimore, as a token of respect and gratitude. Baltimore, 4th July, 1864.”
Accompanying the Bible is a solid black walnut case with a silver plate on the lid, on which is engraved a picture or the Capitol and the words “Holy Bible.”
Photo Source: Historically Black Colleges and Universities Libraries Alliance website

In September 1864, late in the American Civil War, an event occurred that was unthinkable just four years earlier: a group of men of African descent – “colored men” in the parlance of the day – presented Abraham Lincoln, the president of the United States, with the gift of the Bible. After the event, Lincoln shook hands with each of those men. With each shake of the hand, history was being made: prior to the War, US presidents did not meet and receive African Americans, much less shake their hands as equals. But by 1864, the world had changed, and this previously unlikely meeting was the result.

The black men who met Lincoln that day were freemen – free men of color – from Baltimore, MD. The event was reported by the New York Times, the Washington Daily Morning Chronicle, and other newspapers. Per the Times:

Yesterday afternoon a Bible was presented, on behalf of the loyal colored residents of Baltimore, by Revs. A. W. Wayman, S. W. Chase, and W. H. Brown, and Mr. William H. Francis, to President Lincoln. The members of the committee were introduced by Mr. S. Mathews, of Maryland, and individually welcomed by the President. This ceremony having been concluded, Rev. S. W. Chase addressed the President as follows:

“MR. PRESIDENT: The loyal colored people of Baltimore have entrusted us with authority to present this Bible as a testimonial of their appreciation of your humane conduct towards the people of our race. While all others of this nation are offering their tribute of respect to you, we cannot omit suitable manifestation of ours. Since our incorporation into the American family we have been true and loyal, and we are now ready to aid in defending the country, to be armed and trained in military matters, in order to assist in protecting and defending the star-spangled banner.

“Towards you, sir, our hearts will ever be warm with gratitude. We come to present to you this copy of the Holy Scriptures, as a token of respect for your active participation in furtherance of the cause of the emancipation of our race. This great event will be a matter of history. Hereafter, when our children shall ask what mean these tokens, they will be told of your worthy deeds, and will rise up and call you blessed.

“The loyal colored people of this country everywhere will remember you at the Throne of Divine Grace. May the King Eternal, an all-wise. Providence protect and keep you, and when you pass from this world to that of eternity, may you be borne to the bosom of your Saviour and your God.”

Upon receiving the Bible, Lincoln stated:

This occasion would seem fitting for a lengthy response to the address which you have just made. I would make one, if prepared; but I am not. I would promise to respond in writing, had not experience taught me that business will not allow me to do so. I can only now say, as I have often before said, it has always been a sentiment with me that all mankind should be free. So far as able, within my sphere, I have always acted as I believed to be right and just; and I have done all I could for the good of mankind generally. In letters and documents sent from this office I have expressed myself better than I now can. In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man.

All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it. To you I return my most sincere thanks for the very elegant copy of the great Book of God which you present.

The whole event would have been impossible just several years prior. For one, US presidents were not in the habit of meeting black men or women in the White House. Ten of the presidents who preceded Lincoln were slave owners. Nine out of ten African Americans in 1860 were enslaved, and most whites believed that all African Americans, enslaved or free, were their inferiors. People of African descent had no political power; blacks could vote in only five states, and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision declared that negroes were not citizens of the United States. Simply put, African Americans had no business being in the White House, except as servants.

Meanwhile, the onset of the Civil War had forced the United States government to take a stand, one way or the other, about the issue of slavery; slavery was, after all, the reason that secessionists claimed disunion was necessary. Seeking to preserve the Union without resorting to war, Lincoln said in his 1860 inauguration speech that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Lincoln hoped that this would gain the loyalty of slave owners in the Union slave states (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri), and perhaps even cool off secession fever. But many African Americans saw it as an unwillingness to stand-up for the freedom of the enslaved.

And finally, Baltimore had not been a wholly hospitable place for Unionist sentiment. The city, which had gained some infamy for its riotous behavior – hence its nickname “Motown” – earned its reputation with an attack on Union soldiers who had come from the North to go South and fight Confederates. Many of the city’s residents were secessionist sympathizers or anti-war men who did not appreciate northerners coming into their city on their way to fighting against the South. The incident, called the Baltimore riot of 1861 (also called the Pratt Street Riot and the Pratt Street Massacre) left four Union soldiers and a dozen civilians dead. In response, Union military forces entered the city and state to prevent domestic disturbances.


Not so loyal citizens in Baltimore, Maryland, attack Union soldiers during the April 19, 1861 Baltimore riot. The riot, less than two weeks from the attack on Fort Sumter, left over a dozen people dead.
Source: Painting “Massachusetts Militia Passing Through Baltimore (Baltimore Riot of 1861) engraving of F.F. Walker (1861)”, from Wikipedia Commons

One of the military leaders in charge of this seeming occupation of the state was Union general and political appointee Benjamin Butler. Butler threatened “to arrest the state’s legislators if they voted to secede.” But he also told Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks “I have understood within the last hour that some apprehensions were entertained of an insurrection of the negro population of this neighborhood. I am anxious to convince all classes of persons that the forces under my command are not here in any way to interfere with or countenance any interference with the laws of the State. I am therefore ready to co-operate with your excellency in suppressing most promptly and effectively any insurrection against the laws of Maryland.” Ironically, Butler would later become famous for giving asylum to runaway or “contraband” slaves in Virginia and for enlisting black men into the army in Louisiana.

So, the state of war, race relations, and slavery did not portend well for a meeting of colored men and the US president in early 1861. But in that year, Lincoln and many Union men had anticipated the Civil War would last but 6-12 months, with a Union victory the inevitable result. Instead, the war lasted over four years, with deaths on both sides amounting to over 620,000. Faced with the staggering loss of life, and home front morale that rose and fell like the sea tides, the Union established a policy of emancipation and black enlistment. The Union’s black enlistees included the 4th Infantry of the United State Colored Troops, an African descent regiment that was raised in Maryland. One member of that regiment was Christian Fleetwood. He was one of over a dozen black men who was awarded the US Medal of Honor for his bravery during the war.


Medal of Honor awardee Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood, 4th Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops Continue reading

An Irish American View of the Colored Soldier


Union enlistment posters for Irish Americans in New York and coloreds in Pennsylvania

Last year, I posted a blog entry about conflicts between African Americans and Irish Americans during the Civil War. It’s an interesting read that can be found here.

This is an excerpt from that blog post:

      During the antebellum and Civil War eras, free negroes and Irish immigrants often had a strained relationship. Both were subject to racial or ethnic bias by the white Protestant majority (anti-immigrant bigots were called “Nativists”), and were considered the “bottom rungs” of American society. (Blacks were on the very bottom.) Given their lowly status, blacks and Irish often competed for low-wage jobs, and the stress of that competition led to outright hostility… or worse.

      Tensions between the two groups were further inflamed by heated and hateful rhetoric from the Copperhead faction of the Democratic Party, to which most Irish Americans were aligned. These Democrats argued that the emancipationist policies of President Lincoln and the Republican Party would cause a “stampede” of freed blacks to the North that would undercut and devalue white labor.

      The Democrats also argued that it was unacceptable for whites to fight and die to free black slaves. That argument was echoed even by the Irish religious leader New York Archbishop John Hughes. As noted by historian James McPherson in his book Battle Cry of Freedom, Hughes stated that “we Catholics, and a vast majority of our brave troops in the field, have not the slightest idea of carrying on a war that costs so much blood and treasure just to gratify a clique of Abolitionists.

An Irish American View of the Colored Soldier


    Union enlistment posters for Irish Americans in New York and coloreds in Pennsylvania

    During the antebellum and Civil War eras, free negroes and Irish immigrants often had a strained relationship. Both were subject to racial or ethnic bias by the white Protestant majority (anti-immigrant bigots were called “Nativists”), and were considered the “bottom rungs” of American society. (Blacks were on the very bottom.) Given their lowly status, blacks and Irish often competed for low-wage jobs, and the stress of that competition led to outright hostility… or worse.

    Tensions between the two groups were further inflamed by heated and hateful rhetoric from the Copperhead faction of the Democratic Party, to which most Irish Americans were aligned. These Democrats argued that the emancipationist policies of President Lincoln and the Republican Party would cause a “stampede” of freed blacks to the North that would undercut and devalue white labor.

    The Democrats also argued that it was unacceptable for whites to fight and die to free black slaves. That argument was echoed even by the Irish religious leader New York Archbishop John Hughes. As noted by historian James McPherson in his book Battle Cry of Freedom, Hughes stated that “we Catholics, and a vast majority of our brave troops in the field, have not the slightest idea of carrying on a war that costs so much blood and treasure just to gratify a clique of Abolitionists.”

    The economic, political and social stresses between blacks and Irish erupted in violence as the War continued. Again from McPherson:

    With this kind of [racist] rhetoric from their leaders, it was little wonder that some white workingmen took their prejudices into the streets. In a half-dozen or more cities, anti-black riots broke out during the summer of 1862. Some of the worst violence occurred in Cincinnati, where the replacement of striking Irish dockworkers by Negroes set off a wave of attacks on black neighborhoods. In Brooklyn a mob of Irish-Americans tried to burn down a tobacco factory where two dozen black women and children were working.

    The nightmare vision of blacks invading the North seemed to be coming true in southern Illinois, where the War Department transported several cars of contrabands to help with the harvest. Despite the desperate need to gather crops, riots forced the government to return most of the blacks to contraband camps south of the Ohio River.

    And then things got worse. In March 1863, new conscription (draft) laws were implemented. More men would be eligible for the draft, but service could be avoided by paying a $300 fee or hiring a substitute. Most Irish men could not afford the fee or a substitute. Meanwhile, African Americans, who were not citizens, were exempt from the draft.

    That set the stage for the New York City Draft Riots of July 1863.

    The draft lottery in New York began on Saturday, July 11, 1863. On Monday, July 13, the Draft Riots began. It was an extended period of mob violence, mostly Irish mobs, against mostly African American victims. The riots lasted five days, and resulted in perhaps 500 deaths, including rioters who were killed, and several thousand injuries; some estimates place the death and injury toll as even higher. Property damage was in a range of $1-5 million, including the destruction of a black orphanage. (The casualty and property damage estimates are from Barry Schecter’s book The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America.)

    Even the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who spoke of friendships with Irish Americans, and lived in Ireland for half a year in the 1840s, came to wonder how “a people who so nobly loved and cherished the thought of liberty at home in Ireland [have] become, willingly, the oppressors of another race here.”
    Continue reading