President Lincoln: “I will keep my faith… with the black warriors”


Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH
Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH
A black soldier takes an oath of allegiance to the United States; Abraham Lincoln offers him freedom and a gun.

Image © Dave Wiegers Photography, see here. Wiegers has done a number of photos of monuments to Abraham Lincoln. 

President Abraham Lincoln freely and openly admitted that his ultimate goal for the Civil War was to preserve the Union, and not to free the slaves. But he determined that to win the war against the Confederates, emancipation had to be used to gain the support of African Americans, specifically, African American slaves living in the South. And so, based on legislation that was passed by Congress, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

This policy was not popular with everyone in the Union. Lincoln was a member of the Republican Party. Members of the opposition Democratic Party questioned and criticized the use of black men as soldiers. Some suggested that the emancipation policy be scrapped and the slaves returned to their masters; this offer of a “carrot” was intended to convince white southerners to end their rebellion.

But Lincoln was having none of it. In August of 1864, which was a presidential election year, he met at the White House with Alexander W. Randall, a former governor of Wisconsin, and Joseph T. Mills, a Wisconsin judge. Lincoln talked politics and emancipation policy. He derided the Democratic Party for its opposition to emancipation. Per Lincoln, the Democratic Party program could only “result in the dismemberment of the Union.” He referred to the notion of re-enslaving the freedmen to gain white supporters in the South as “conciliation.” This would be disaster, Lincoln said. “Abandon all the posts now possessed by black men, surrender all these advantages to the enemy, & we would be compelled to abandon the war in 3 weeks,” he claimed.

Clearly, Lincoln was keeping aware of the actions of the colored soldiers. He cited the actions of black men at the battles of Port Hudson and Olustee as examples of their service and sacrifice. He pledged that he would not return these “black warriors” to slavery to “conciliate the South.” “I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will,” he said. Lincoln was not about to throw black soldiers under the bus. He would keep his promise that African Americans would be “forever free” no matter what the conditions of war or peace.

But Lincoln did not merely feel his emancipation policy was righteous; he believed it was right strategically.  History would prove, he believed, that the Union could not be restored without it. And in this belief, he was unshaken.

This text is excerpted from the diary of Joseph T. Mills, as noted in Volume 7 of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln:

My own experience has proven to me, that there is no program intended by the Democratic Party but that will result in the dismemberment of the Union. But Genl McClellan[1] is in favor of crushing out the rebellion, & he will probably be the Chicago (Democratic Party convention) candidate (for president in 1864). The slightest acquaintance with arithmetic will prove to any man that the rebel armies cannot be destroyed with Democratic (Party) strategy. It would sacrifice all the white men of the north to do it. There are now between 1 & 200 thousand black men now in the service of the Union. These men will be disbanded, returned to slavery & we will have to fight two nations instead of one.

I have tried it. You cannot conciliate the South, when the mastery & control of millions of blacks makes them sure of ultimate success. You cannot conciliate the South, when you place yourself in such a position, that they see they can achieve their independence. The war Democrat (Democrats who favored war to preserve the Union) depends upon conciliation. He must confine himself to that policy entirely. If he fights at all in such a war as this he must economise life & use all the means which God & nature puts in his power.

Abandon all the posts now possessed by black men surrender all these advantages to the enemy, & we would be compelled to abandon the war in 3 weeks. We have to hold territory. Where are the war democrats to do it. The field was open to them to have enlisted & put down this rebellion by force of arms, by concilliation, long before the present policy was inaugurated.

There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South. I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will.

My enemies say I am now carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition. It is & will be carried on so long as I am President for the sole purpose of restoring the Union. But no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done. Freedom has given us the control of 200 000 able bodied men, born & raised on southern soil. It will give us more yet. Just so much it has sub[t]racted from the strength of our enemies, & instead of alienating the south from us, there are evidences of a fraternal feeling growing up between our own & rebel soldiers.

My enemies condemn my emancipation policy. Let them prove by the history of this war, that we can restore the Union without it.

[1] George B. McClellan had been a high ranking general in the Union army. He was relieved from command by Lincoln for lacking the aggressiveness needed to successfully engage Confederate forces led by Robert E. Lee. In 1864, McClellan was nominated to be the Democratic candidate for president. He lost the election to Lincoln in November of that year.

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