Frederick Douglass: Fighting Against a “White Man’s War”/Part 1

Frederick Douglass Appealing to President Lincoln by William Edouard Scott *

This mural shows Frederick Douglass asking President Abraham Lincoln to allow black soldiers to serve in the Union army during the Civil War. Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, and Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, are the two men standing in the back. The image surely depicts a fictional event: although Lincoln and Douglass met three times at the White House, those meetings took place after Congress approved the use of blacks as soldiers in the Union armed forces.

We are often asked by persons in the street as well as by letter, what our people will do in the present solemn crisis in the affairs of the country. Our answer is, would to God you would let us do something! We lack nothing but your consent. We are ready and would go, counting ourselves happy in being permitted to serve and suffer for the cause of freedom and free institutions. But you won’t let us go…
– Frederick Douglass, HOW TO END THE WAR, from Douglass’ Monthly, May, 1861

1861 was a time of war, and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass knew that you had to be in it to win it. But the Union government wasn’t letting the negro in. That led Douglass, the most prominent African American of the 19th century, to fight a rhetorical war on two fronts: first, to convince the Union government to allow the negro to fight; and second, to convince blacks that they should fight what some saw as a “white man’s war.” He would do so with the passion and eloquence that made him famous.

At the start of the Civil War, African Americans were, by law, prohibited from serving as soldiers for the United States. The Militia Act of 1792, passed around the time of the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (now called Haiti), specified that enrollment in the military (state militias) was for “free able-bodied white male citizen(s).” (Although some blacks, free and slave, did fight under then Major General Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812, in the Battle of New Orleans. Historian Daniel Walker Howe notes that “Jackson addressed the blacks as ‘brave fellow citizens’ and had promised them pay and respect the equal of whites… (but when) the battle was over, Jackson ignored his promise to secure equal rewards for the black men who stood with him…” But that’s a story for another day.)

Despite the law, all throughout the North – in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, or anywhere with a sizable free black population – negroes volunteered to join the fight against the southern secessionists, but saw their efforts rebuffed. Douglass’ newspaper, Douglass’ Monthly, reported that in New York City, a group of black men was performing drills in anticipation of being called up to serve; the police told them to stop, apparently out of fear that the sight or sound of militant blacks would anger local whites and cause a riot.

But even more than the law, there was another reason why negro enlistment was seen as problematic: it would infuriate the strategically important slave-holding Border States (Delaware, Kentucky Maryland, Missouri). If Maryland had joined the secession, Washington, DC would have been surrounded by Confederate states; meanwhile, the loss of Kentucky to the Confederacy would have exposed the old North West states (such as Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois) to a border with their Confederate enemies. It is no wonder, then, that in his March 1861 inauguration speech, Lincoln declared “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” Arming even free negroes, who might have ties with their enslaved brethren, was understood by the Union government to be an unacceptable and dis-unifying policy.

On the street, though, the negro was told in stark terms why he should not be a direct part of the war effort: this was a “white man’s war,” a term which represented several feelings and beliefs: that blacks were inferior, and not suited to fight (certainly not alongside white men); that blacks were not full citizens, and had no duty or right to serve; and that black service in the armed forces might somehow lead to emancipation and/or racial equality, an undesirable outcome in a region that was very racist. For the racial majority, this was seen as a war by, for, and of white people; there was no place in it for the negro.

No one railed against this more than Douglass. A staunch abolitionist, he insisted that the War of the Rebellion had to be about more than about saving the Union; it had to be a war about the emancipation of slaves as well. And he said that blacks must be a given a role as combatants. “The simple way, then, to put an end to the savage and desolating war now waged by the slaveholders, is to strike down slavery itself, the primal cause of that war,” he stated. “Freedom to the slave should now be proclaimed from the Capitol, and should be seen above the smoke and fire of every battle field, waving from every loyal flag!… The sooner this rebellion is put out of its misery, the better for all concerned… This can be done at once, by “carrying the war into Africa.” Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves.”

Douglass’ coupling of the war effort and emancipation probably seemed too convenient and self-serving to many observers; of course an ardent abolitionist like Douglass would tie the war to slavery. But as historian James Oakes has observed, Douglass’ argument had sound reasoning behind it: slavery, said Douglass, was “the stomach of the rebellion.” Without slaves to grow food and cash crops, assemble clothing,or provide other labor, the Confederacy would be at a severe disadvantage. Emancipation wasn’t just a moral imperative; it was a military necessity. Douglass understood this immediately; many others in the North didn’t get it. Not yet.

So, against any and all objections against emancipation as a focus of the war, Douglass pressed the case to make the Civil War a war for black southerners’ independence throughout 1861 and 1862. Meanwhile, he echoed the voices of black men throughout the North who wanted to fight. “We are ready and would go,” Douglass said. “But you won’t let us go.” And he issued a threat and a warning:

• the threat: “Until the nation shall repent of this weakness and folly, until they shall make the cause of their country the cause of freedom, until they shall strike down slavery, the source and center of this gigantic rebellion, they don’t deserve the support of a single sable arm…”

• the warning: “Repent, Break Every Yoke, let the Oppressed Go Free for Herein alone is deliverance and safety! It is not too late… Any attempt now to separate the freedom of the slave from the victory of the Government over slaveholding rebels and traitors; any attempt to secure peace to the whites while leaving the blacks in chains; any attempt to heal the wounds of the Republic, while the deadly virus of slavery is left to poison the blood, will be labor lost. The American people and the Government at Washington may refuse to recognize it for a time; but the “inexorable logic of events” will force it upon them in the end; that the war now being waged in this land is a war for and against slavery; and that it can never be effectually put down till one or the other of these vital forces is completely destroyed. The irrepressible conflict, long confined to words and votes, is now to be carried by bayonets and bullets, and may God defend the right!”

By mid-1862, the “inexorable logic of events” was showing itself, as Douglass had predicted. Situations and circumstances on and near the battlefield were leading the Union government to re-think its positions on wartime emancipation and black enlistment. But even as new policies were being contemplated, a question arose: would the negro fight?, given the initial negative reaction to black offers to enlistment, and given the details of the eventual emancipation declaration to be issued by the President.

It was a question that would force Douglass into the rhetorical fray again.

* The entry in Wikipedia provides for William Edouard Scott provides this interpretation of the painting above:

Frederick Douglass was a recurring figure in works by Scott, and in 1943 Scott was selected as “the only black artist chosen to create a mural for the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C.” In this mural, Douglass Appealing to President Lincoln, 1943, Scott tells the story of Douglass’ appeal for African American participation in the Union armies in the American Civil War. “Scott, in his manner of depicting the exchange between Lincoln and Douglass, suggests that the fiery orator is here the aggressive speaker. Whereas Douglass, hands extended slightly, shifts his weight forward while speaking to Lincoln, the president appears to avoid looking into Douglass’s eyes and concentrates on listening to his words”. Furthermore, the strewn and scattered papers on the desk and around the trashcan suggest urgency and desperation—and this was certainly the case. “The Civil War was proving much more difficult than the Union leadership had expected” And while Douglass presents a possible solution to the president, it is far from ideal in Lincoln’s eyes. Many whites of this time didn’t believe that African Americans could be effective soldiers.

Regardless, Douglass is undeniably the active part of this depiction, which again portrays African Americans as functioning members of society. This portrayal furthers the message inherent in the subject matter: African Americans could be equally as patriotic, and thus equally effective as soldiers, as any whites. Ironically, though—in the same manner as in Frederick Douglass—Douglass’ “blackness” is slightly downplayed yet again. Douglass’s skin appears barely darker than the shadowed parts of Lincoln’s. Thus, this painting serves as another example of Scott’s small step, though not a leap, in the direction of the New Negro movement.

Happy Birthday (2/14/1818), Fredrick Douglass!

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

4 thoughts on “Frederick Douglass: Fighting Against a “White Man’s War”/Part 1

  1. Thanks for this. In his words, and in that painting, he has the mien of an Old Testament Prophet. A fascinating American.

  2. Pingback: Frederick Douglass & Social Change

  3. Mr. Frederick Douglass has always been one of what I consider the 2nd wave of Founding Father’s. He was awesome and can you imagine a black man during the Civil War in the White Hse discussing issues with the Pres? Truly unimaginable and shows the greatness of both Lincoln and Douglass.

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