Regimental flag of the 22nd Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops, circa 1863-1865. Art by David Bustill Bowser, an African American artist who designed several USCT flags. The motto at the top of the flag is “Sic semper tyrannis,” a Latin phrase meaning “thus always to tyrants,” and sometimes translated as “death to tyrants” or “down with the tyrant.”
Image Source: Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-23096; see here for more information.
Among academic and layman historians, there is sometimes a debate about why the common soldier fought in the Civil War. Menomine Maimi, an African American Union soldier, left no doubt about his motivations in a letter to his wife: “Do you know or think what the end of this war is to decide? It is to decide whether we are to have freedom to all or slavery to all. If the Southern Confederacy succeeds, then you may bid farewell to all liberty thereafter and either be driven to a foreign land or held in slavery here. If our government succeeds, then your race and our race will be free.”
Menomine Maimi, AKA Meunomennie Maimi, was an African American who first enlisted in a white regiment in Connecticut, and then was transferred to the famed 54th Massachusetts. In April 1863, he wrote a poignant letter to his spouse that was published in the Weekly Anglo-African, a black-audience newspaper in New York. He had been sick or injured, perhaps near death; but he was now well, and wanted to assure his wife that he was OK, and still spurred to service. Maimi was, to use a modern term, a man on a mission. Eventually, he left the army with a medical discharge.
Maimi’s letter is in equal parts profoundly patriotic, scathingly anti-slavery, aggressively assertive of his manly responsibilities, and undergirded by his belief in God. Apparently, his wife had urged him to leave the army — perhaps even desert — because he was mistreated by his fellow soldiers, probably because of his race. But his mission would not allow him to abandon his duty.
Maimi told his wife, emphatically, that he was a solider, and was duty bound to be true to his country, his fellow soldiers, and also, his “enslaved brothers.” His service had its rewards: the secessionists/Confederates who “denied that God made the black man a man at all” would now see “the black man… coming… with a rifle, saber, and all the terrible trappings of war.” By his actions, and those of the “black (and)… white sons” of the Union, “the (American) flag which so long has defended their institutions (i.e., slavery)” would become an “emblem of freedom to all, whether black or white.”
And if he suffered and even died while doing his duty, that was a price that he – and his wife – would have to pay.
This is a remarkable piece of writing; delve in. From the Weekly Anglo-American, New York, NY, April 18, 1863:
My Dear Wife
When I wrote you the last letter I was quite sick, And I did not to know as I should ever be able to write to you again; but I am much better now and write to relieve your mind… I shall come home, if permitted to come home, but as soon as my health will admit, will return to duty.
Do you know or think what the end of this war is to decide? It is to decide whether we are to have freedom to all or slavery to all. If the Southern Confederacy succeeds, then you may bid for farewell to all liberty thereafter and either be driven to a foreign land or held in slavery here. If our government succeeds, then your race and our race will be free. The government has torn down the only barrier that existed against us as a people. When slavery passes away, the prejudices that belonged to it must follow. The government calls for the colored man’s help and, if he is not a fool, he will give it.
… The white man thought again how to get his money without his own dear self having to broil beneath a hot sun or see his wife or delicate child stoop to the labor of picking the cotton from the field or gathering rice from its damp bed. The Indian had failed him; the few captives they took died when they came to forced labor upon them, that’s proving the red man unable to do the labor in those climes. His fiend-like eyes fell upon the black man. Thought he, “I have it. We will get some of the states that cannot grow these plants and do not need as many hands to help them as we do, to raise blacks for us, and we will purchase these of them, and they will keep their mouths shut about this liberty that was only meant for us and our children.”
They denied that God made the black man a man at all, and brought their most learned judges and doctors of the gospel and laws to attempt to prove by them that the sons of Africa were not even human. They try to convince the world that the black man sprang from the brute creation; that the kings and princes and noble sons of the sunny land sprang from the loins of monkeys and apes, who made the war with each other and slaves of each other in their mother country and it was but right to buy and steal the children of apes or monkeys and to enslave them.
How do you fancy, wife, the idea of being part ape or monkey? I have often heard our grandmother tell what a noble man your great-grandfather was, how much he knew and was respected by his neighbors and the white man that owned him, and how her own father, who followed the condition of his father, who died a slave, suffered before he bought his freedom; how she and her little sisters and brothers were robbed of her hard-earned a property by one who cared not for the rights of the black child. Tell grandmother that Maimi will strike for her wrongs as well as for those of others.
They shall see these gentle monkeys, that they thought they had so fast in chains and fetters, coming on a long visit to them, with a rifle, saber, and all the terrible trappings of war. Not one at a time cringing like whipped hounds as we were, but by the thousands and if that doesn’t suffice, by millions. Like Pharaoh’s lice, we shall be found in all his palaces, will be his terror and his torment; he shall yet wish he had never heard of us. We will never forsake him, until he repents in sackcloth and ashes his crime of taking from us our manhood and reducing us to the brute creation.
We will accept nothing but, without any mental or other reservation, our rights and liberties. He shall give up his monkeyizing, his demonic, infernal plan of ruining our country and destroying our race. The black man shall yet hold up his head and be a man; not a poor despised brute. But his own good hands must help strike the blows and gain the victory through blood, before the American slavery-taught white man can believe that the poor, oppressed slave and the downtrodden black man is his true friend and brother-man. With all his books and the vast amounts of learning and the light of civilization shining on his path, he is still in the dark. In spite of his suffering at the hands of the slave power, the loss of his sons, who have fallen in the defense of his insulted flag, his loss of treasures and the threatened loss of his country, he is yet blind. He still bows down to these murdering slaveholders and is willing to kiss their feet, if they will but return to the Union as it was and kindly rule over him.
This is what the blind copperheads ask of them, but the slaveholder despises them and their offers, because they do it in the name of Democracy which they hate, as there are yet some few spots of freedom in that, and they hate everything which is free or points toward justice for any but themselves and their institutions. They ask, with arms in their hands, the right to buy and sell, to rob and murder all that are poor enough without respect to color or blood. They are selfish and care for no one but themselves.
They are my enemies, my flag’s enemies, the flag I was born under, have suffered so much under—the enemies to God and our government. It is they who have struck down the flag which so long has defended their institutions before they left our Union. It has by them been cast to the earth and trampled under foot, because it professed to be the flag of liberty and freedom, although it was only liberty for the white man, but it included the poor white man as well as the rich and noble sons of the south, the monkey-raisers and drivers. They tore that flag from its staff and in its place put their rebel rag, and swore by it that freedom should die. But they shall find that it cannot die, that its black sons as well as its loyal white sons are faithful, and will shed the last drop of blood in defense of the starry banner that is to be the emblem of freedom to all, whether black or white.
Now, wife, although I love you and would grant anything in reason to one who has been so kind and so faithful and true to her husband, yet there is something which the true man should hold dear and for which he should be willing to die, besides the wife of his bosom or the children of his loins: first, his God; then his country or his government, when it is a just one; and if he cannot do that he is no man, but a useless piece of machinery.
If I did not know why you spoke those words, I would be very angry indeed. I know that it was your wifely anger at the mean treatment which your dearly beloved husband has suffered at the hands of some of his fellow soldiers that made you speak so quick and without forethought, bidding me desert my flag and leave my country to fall into the hands of its worst enemies. You did not speak such words as those on the day when I stood before you with the uniform of a volunteer, the uniform of free man on. You told me at the door, with a smile on your face, but a tear in your eye, that if I thought it was my duty to go to what was then a white man’s war, to “go and may God bless you!” I was prouder of you that day than that day the minister bid me salute my wife.
You have never doubted my true and faithful love for you; it is still the same, or else I would come running home like a little cur that some large dog had badly frightened, and leave you to become a slave to those wretches who hate us. For if the Southern demons conquer, then you, with your Indian and Negro blood mixed in your veins, must bow down to them and become their slave or perhaps some white man’s mistress, not an honored wife, loved and respected by her husband, but a mere plaything, to be cast aside as soon as he discovers fresh victim to administer to his beastly lusts, bear more monkeys for him to sell to others, to be used in the same way. This he has been doing for years, and the only cure that can or will relieve this disease is the present war, which he in his foolish and wicked plan began.
… I want you to remember here after that you are a soldier’s wife, a warrior’s bride-one who has not a single drop of cowardly blood in his veins, and who will not desert his flag, or country, or his brother in bonds, not even for his dearly beloved wife, the friend of his bosom. Ponder this well; take the right sense of it and be proud that you have such a man for a husband.
…If I return at all, let me come back to your arms as a free man, of a free country and a free flag, and my brothers free, or else let me rest in death on the battlefield, with my face to the slaveholders, a continual reproach and curse unto him, as long as the world shall stand or a slaveholder breathe. This from your soldier-husband,
M. L. Maimi
This text is from the book Witness for Freedom: African American Voices on Race, Slavery, and Emancipation, C. Peter Ripley, Editor.