Frederick Douglass: Fighting Against a “White Man’s War”/Part 2

Part 1 of 3 of this Frederick Douglass birthday celebration is here.

“Do you not know, Mr. Langston, that this is a white man’s government; that white men are able to defend and protect it, and that to enlist a negro soldier would be to drive every white man out of the service? When we want you colored men we will notify you.”
Ohio Governor David Tod, in response to freeman John Mercer Langston’s offer to recruit black Ohioans for the Union army

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.
– Frederick Douglass, Douglass’ Monthly, May 1861

…four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war… One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease.

Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
– Abraham Lincoln, Inaugural Speech, March 4, 1865

In his second inaugural speech, which followed several years of bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln was in a somber and reflective mood. We thought this would be a brief war, an “easy triumph,” he admitted. But the reality was much different. Prayers made had not been answered. He seemed to be pondering, What led us to this?

Slavery, he offered, had confounded them. “All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war,” but he wasn’t more specific. And nobody, he said, expected that “the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease.”

But Frederick Dougless always knew it would come to this. Douglass believed, from the start, that the war was caused by the slave states’ desire to protect their peculiar institution. He felt that if slavery could be toppled, the Confederacy would be toppled as well. But practical, political, and even constitutional issues prevented the Union from making the Civil War into a war for black southerner’s independence. Douglass saw that as folly. Sooner or later, he believed, it would all come down to the status of the negro – as a slave in the South; and perhaps also as a soldier in the North. The “inexorable logic of events” would force the issue upon them, he said.

By mid-1862, members of Congress and Lincoln cabinet were indeed feeling the force of events. A number of bloody battles, including conspicuous losses in Virginia, established that the war would not be an easy triumph. Lincoln’s initial call for 75,000 troops was now seen as inadequate. Many, many more soldiers would be needed for what would become the bloodiest war in American history.

Meanwhile, a debate broke out concerning the handling of slaves. Upon the arrival of federal troops into Confederate territory, slaves by the thousands fled their masters to seek freedom behind the Union lines. Should the slaves be returned to their masters, so as not to alienate potential slave-holding Union supporters; or, should this slave property be “confiscated” so it couldn’t be used for the Confederate war effort… or should the Union go even further, and free the slaves? In May 1862, Union general David Hunter declared martial law in in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, freeing slaves there in the process; Lincoln rescinded the order, saying that only he, as commander in chief, could make such a decision. Inexorably, Lincoln was being forced to address the slave issue.

And all the while, men like Douglass continued with the drumbeat that the negro should be given the right to fight. In the September 1861 issue of Douglass’ Monthly, he published one of his most blistering jeremiads on the subject, “Fighting Rebels with Only One Hand”:

What on earth is the matter with the American Government and people? Do they really covet the world’s ridicule as well as their own social and political ruin? What are they thinking about, or don’t they condescend to think at all?… They are sorely pressed on every hand by a vast army of slaveholding rebels, flushed with success, and infuriated by the darkest inspirations of a deadly hate, bound to rule or ruin. Washington, the seat of Government, after ten thousand assurances to the contrary, is now positively in danger of falling before the rebel army… Every resource of the nation, whether of men or money, whether of wisdom or strength, could be well employed to avert the impending ruin.

Yet most evidently the demands of the hour are not comprehended by the Cabinet or the crowd. Our Presidents, Governors, Generals and Secretaries are calling, with almost frantic vehemance, for men.–“Men! men! send us men!” they scream, or the cause of the Union is gone, the life of a great nation is ruthlessly sacrificed, and the hopes of a great nation go out in darkness; and yet these very officers, representing the people and Government, steadily and persistently refuse to receive the very class of men which have a deeper interest in the defeat and humiliation of the rebels, than all others.

Men are wanted in Missouri–wanted in Western Virginia, to hold and defend what has been already gained; they are wanted in Texas, and all along the sea coast, and though the Government has at its command a class in the country deeply interested in suppressing the insurrection, it sternly refuses to summon from among the vast multitude a single man, and degrades and insults the whole class by refusing to allow any of their number to defend with their strong arms and brave hearts the national cause. What a spectacle of blind, unreasoning prejudice and pusillanimity is this!

The national edifice is on fire. Every man who can carry a bucket of water, or remove a brick, is wanted; but those who have the care of the building, having a profound respect for the feeling of the national burglars who set the building on fire, are determined that the flames shall only be extinguished by Indo-Caucasian hands, and to have the building burnt rather than save it by means of any other. Such is the pride, the stupid prejudice and folly that rules the hour.

Why does the Government reject the Negro? Is he not a man? Can he not wield a sword, fire a gun, march and countermarch, and obey orders like any other? Is there the least reason to believe that a regiment of well-drilled Negroes would deport themselves less soldier-like on the battlefield than the raw troops gathered up generally from the towns and cities of the State of New York? We do believe that such soldiers, if allowed to take up arms in defence of the Government, and made to feel that they are hereafter to be recognized as persons having rights, would set the highest example of order and general good behavior to their fellow soldiers, and in every way add to the national power…

If persons so humble as we can be allowed to speak to the President of the United States, we should ask him if this dark and terrible hour of the nation’s extremity is a time for consulting a mere vulgar and unnatural prejudice? We would tell him that this is no time to fight with one hand, when both are needed; that this is no time to fight only with your white hand, and allow your black hand to remain tied.

In the face of the pressure of events, Union policies began to change. One key to this was the new makeup of the Congress. Stripped of representatives from the slave states that joined the Confederacy, Congress was more open to the use of blacks as soldiers and to promoting emancipation. Indeed, some radical members of Lincoln’s Republican Party were demanding these things. And they began to pass laws that reflected new positions on race and slavery.

One major policy shift was Congress’ enactment of the Militia Act of 1862, in July of that year. This gave the president the power to use “persons of African descent” in the Union armed forces. At the same time, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, which helped to lay the legal groundwork for the removal of chattel (slave) property from persons engaged in rebellion. The Act declared that slaves of those committing treason “shall be declared and made free”; and it authorized the president to give a 60-days notice, by “public warning and proclamation,” that any person engaged in rebellion was liable to have “all (their) estate and property” siezed.

This laid the legal groundwork for the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln issued a “preliminary” version of the Proclamation in September 1862; after having given the seceding states 100 days notice, he issued a final version of the Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The final Emancipation Proclamation declared “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…” The Proclamation further stated that freed slaves “of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” Although the Proclamation had a grand purpose, it didn’t free slaves in the Union’s slave-holding Border states, or in some Union-occupied parts of the Confederacy.

But at least, the Union was coming around to Douglass’ view of things. The cause of freedom for black southerners was being embraced, and the black man was now legally able to do battle with the secessionists. But would the negro fight? Douglass’ second rhetorical fight against the “White Man’s War” lay before him.


One thought on “Frederick Douglass: Fighting Against a “White Man’s War”/Part 2

  1. Pingback: Reparations and Redistribution | Past the Future

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