April 16, 2014 – Emancipation Day, Washington DC

DC-Emancipation-Celebration-1866
Celebration of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia by the colored people, in Washington, April 19, 1866 / Harper’s weekly, v. 10, no. 489 (1866 May 12), p. 300 / sketched by F. Dielman.
Source:
Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-33937

Today marks the 152nd anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Washington, DC. Hallelujah, hallelujah!

The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, passed by the 37th Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862, abolished slavery in Washington, D.C. by paying slave owners for freeing their bondsmen. Some 3100 slaves were freed at a cost of just under $1 million in 1862 dollars. The Act represented one of many steps the Union government took toward an active antislavery policy during the war.

Emancipation Day is now an official holiday in Washington, DC. A listing of 2014 Emancipation Day activities by Rachael Cooper in About.com Washington, DC is here. Enjoy.

A Letter to Lincoln from a Colored Soldier: “I… grasp at the Flag… and Declared it shall never fall”


Letter from Hannibal Cox, 14th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry to president Abraham Lincoln
Source: From The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress

This is a letter to Abraham Lincoln from an African American soldier which contains a poem:

From a man of no education. And have been doomed to slavery –
During life, and was born In Powhatan Co. and was raised in –
Richmond Virginia. And I am now a Soldier In U. S. Army. –
And I will Speak these few words In Answer to all whom it –
May Concern. Where Ever it may roam.

I have left my wife And Children but –
Tho. I. have not yet forsaken them. and made one grasp –
at the Flag of the union and Declared it shall never fall–
For we love it like the Sunshine, and the Stars and azure air. –

Ho for the flag of the union. the Stripes and the Stars of light.–
A million arms. Shall guard it. and may god defend the right.–
Ay, brothers let us love it, and let Every heart be true.–
And let Every arm be ready, for we have glorious work to do.–
Ho. for the Flag of the union. the Stripes and the Stars of Light.–
a million arms shall guard it. and may. God defend the right.–

I. Hope we may meet again In the bonds of love to greet
fare well I hope History may tell

Hannibal Cox
Co. B. 14th U. S. Colored Troops
Chattanooga Tenn
march 30th 1864

I. sends this for you to look at
you must not laugh at it

This poignant letter is from Hannibal Cox, a former enslaved person who joined the Union army and was a member of the 14th Infantry regiment, United States Colored Troops. The letter was sent to Abraham Lincoln via Benjamin Woodward, a Surgeon with the Union’s 22nd Illinois Regiment. Woodward wrote to Lincoln:

Permit me respectfully to enclose to You a letter received by me a few days since. The writer was a Slave held in bondage by a man named “Green” in Lincoln Co Tenn. In August last he escaped and came to me at the U S Gen Hospital at Tullahoma Tenn. While there the Soldiers taught him to read and write, for prior to that time he could do neither. Early this spring he enlisted as a Soldier.

This Mr Lincoln is but a sample of the glorious fruits of Your “Proclamation” of Liberty. When at Springfield Ill as You were leaving for Washington you said “Pray for me” a thousand hearts responded, and we now thank God who has so “led You into all truth” and thousands in the army rejoice in Your work and pray for you that you may be sustained till the great work which God has called You to is fully accomplished.

Hannibal Cox had fled bondage, but it was a troubled freedom. Liberation meant that he had to leave his wife and children behind. He swears to Lincoln, and perhaps himself, that he has not forsaken his family. In the meantime, his escape from slavery had given him literacy, a uniform, and a flag; and he was more than ready to fight for that flag.

Cox, as a “man of no education,” may have been uncomfortable with his use of words (and it’s possible that although he wrote the letter, it was transcribed by someone else) but he says firmly about his letter: “you must not laugh at it.” If Lincoln did read the letter, I don’t think he would have laughed. Lincoln might well have found it moving and touching, as no doubt many of us do today.

This is the grave marker for Hannibal Cox in Riverside Cemetery, Troy, Ohio from the website Find a Grave: :


Sources: Lincoln and the U.S. Colored Troops by John David Smith, p1-2; thanks to the member Littlestown at CivilWarTalk.com for information on Hannibal Cox’s gravesite.

Lincoln’s Letter to Conkling: Let’s Make a Deal with the Negro; or, the Emancipation Proclamation as a Grand Bargain

In late August of 1863, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to fellow Illinois Republican James Conkling which contained his thoughts on various subjects, most prominently, the emancipation Proclamation. The letter has drawn much interest from historians. Louis Masur provides comments at the New York Time’s Disunion blog, and Brooks Simpson has comments here and here. At the second link from Simpson, he opines as to the most powerful part of the letter.

To me, the most salient passage of the Conkling letter is this:

But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive–even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.

There are three things that make this text so notable. First, it explicitly acknowledges the agency of African Americans. Negroes will not do something for nothing; Lincoln recognizes that they must be given good reason to act in favor of the Union. And he feels that if they are given good reason, they will act.

Second, Lincoln is under no illusion that African Americans are fighting for the same thing as white northerners. For African Americans, 90% of whom are enslaved southerners, the idea of preserving the Union – the so-called Union Cause – had limited resonance. A Union preserved with slavery intact was not going to garner the support of the black population. Lincoln understood that the price of black support was the promise of freedom; nothing else would do.

And finally, Lincoln characterizes the Proclamation as, essentially, a transaction. The Union is making a deal with African Americans: it promises freedom to the Negro, in exchange for the Negro’s support in destroying the Confederate regime. And Lincoln says emphatically: we will keep this promise.

And of course, all Lincoln could do is promise freedom. He was the president of the United States, not the Confederate States. The Proclamation infuriated Confederate slaveholders, but it had no legal power over them. It could not compel enslavers to free the enslaved; only a military victory by the Union could provide such compulsion.

As we know, both parties to the deal kept up their side of the bargain. Over 200,000 African Americans served in the Union military. And thousands of black civilians acted as spies, scouts, laborers, servants, and otherwise helped the Union military. African Americans were an integral part of the Union war effort that defeated the Confederate States.

And the United States abided by the deal with the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery everywhere in the United States. On a de jure basis at least, the enslaved were forever free.

Sadly, when I talk to people about the Emancipation Proclamation, they have the notion that the Proclamation, in and of itself, ended slavery. It’s as if Lincoln was god-like; he gave the word, the word was made flesh, and freedom rang throughout the land. But as Lincoln himself suggests, it was nowhere near that simple.

President Kennedy Unveils Stamp to Commemorate the Emanicpation Proclamation, 1963

JFK-Unveils-Emancipation-Proclamation-Stamp-Part-1
President John Kennedy unveils the commemorative stamp for the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The picture was taken in the White House in May 1963. The persons in the photo are, L-R, Berl Bernhard, Staff Director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission; Georg Olden, designer of the stamp and Vice President of McCann-Erickson advertising firm; Postmaster General J. Edward Day; and President Kennedy.
Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

JFK-Unveils-Emancipation-Proclamation-Stamp-Part-2
President John Kennedy, right, makes remarks after unveiling the stamp. The photo includes Georg Olden, designer of the stamp, and Postmaster General J. Edward Day.
Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

In the preceding blog post, I displayed images of two stamps commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation: the 1963 stamp that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Proclamation, and the 2013 stamp that commemorates the Proclamation’s 150th anniversary.

The 1963 stamp was unveiled on May 1, 1963, in an Oval Office ceremony held with then president John F. Kennedy. This is the draft press release for the unveiling ceremony, which is from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum:

President Kennedy today unveiled the design of an Emancipation Proclamation commemorative postage stamp that marks the 100th anniversary of President Lincoln’s executive action that brought freedom to three million Negro slaves.

The new stamp will first be issued in Chicago next August 16, opening day of the Century of Negro Progress Exposition in that city.

In a proclamation calling for national observance of the centennial, Mr. Kennedy had earlier noted that “the goal of securing equal rights for all our citizens is still unreached, and the securing of these rights is one of the great unfinished tasks of our democracy.”

Georg Olden, of New York City, designer of the stamp, was present as Mr. Kennedy and Postmaster General J. Edward Day drew aside the drapes to display an illuminated color reproduction of the new stamp. Mr. Olden in the first of his race to design a U. S. postage stamp. (Emphasis added.) He is Vice President of the New York advertising firm McKann-Erickson.

Also participating in the ceremony in the President’s office was Ashby G. Smith, president of the National Alliance of Postal Employees and Berl I. Bernhard, Staff Director, Civil Rights Commission.

The 5-cent Emancipation Proclamation commemorative stamp depicts a severed link in a massive black chain, placed against a blue background. The inscription “United States” in red appears top center of the stamp, flanked by “1863-1963″ in blue. At the bottom, also in blue, is “Emancipation Proclamation.”

The designer of the stamp, graphics designer Georg Olden, was an African American pioneer in white corporate America, as an executive at CBS and at the ad agency McCann-Erickson. Olden, who was born in Birmingham, Alabama, was the grandson of a slave; I wonder what emotions he had at that moment, and if he pondered that he himself was a living symbol of how great a distance people of African descent had traveled since the time of the Civil War?

US Postal Service Stamps Commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation

Emancipation-Proclamation-1963-Stamp
1963 stamp, commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

Emancipation-Proclamation-2013
2013 stamp, commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

These are postage stamps commemorating the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the Emancipation Proclamation.

It’s hard to imagine there was a time when stamps only cost 5¢. And I say that as someone who is over 55 years old.

The blog for the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, Pushing the Envelope, has details of the First-Day Ceremony for the Emancipation Proclamation Commemorative Stamp. It also has some interesting stories and images about Postal Service commemorations of the Emancipation Proclamation, such as this one:

http://postalmuseum.typepad.com/.a/6a01157147ecba970c017ee7726ba2970d-popup

CSA President Jefferson Davis on the Emancipation Proclamation: “millions of the inferior race… are doomed to extermination.”


Former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and family, circa 1885 (20 years after the end of the Civil War).
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-23869; see here for more details

In the lead-up to the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation, there was some concern that it might be interpreted as inciting slaves to engage in bloody insurrection against slaveholders. President Abraham Lincoln sought to address these concerns by placing the following language in the Proclamation, which was issued on January 1, 1863: “And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence.”

Such language did not prevent a predictably outraged reaction from the Confederate States of America. In mid-January 1863, CSA President Jefferson Davis made an infuriated response that was recorded in the Journal Of the Confederate Congress:

The public journals of the North have been received containing a proclamation dated on the first day of the present month signed by the President of the United States in which he orders and declares all slaves within ten States of the Conferderacy to be free, except such as are found in certain districts now occupied in part by the armed forces of the enemy.

We may well leave it to the instincts of that common humanity which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellowmen of all countries to pass judgement on a measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere, are doomed to extermination, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation “to abstain from violence unless in necessary self-defense.”

Our own detestation of those who have attempted the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man is tempered by profound contempt for the impotent rage which it discloses. So far as regards the action of this Government on such criminals as may attempt its execution I confine myself to informing you that I shall unless in your wisdom you deem some other course more expedient deliver to the several State authorities all commissioned officers of the United States that may hereafter be captured by our forces in any of the States embraced in the proclamation that they may be dealt with in accordance with the laws of those States providing for the punishment of criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection. The enlisted soldiers I shall continue to treat as unwilling instruments in the commission of these crimes and shall direct their discharge and return to their homes on the proper and usual parole.

Davis undoubtedly echoed the thoughts of many Confederates when he spoke of “our detestation” to “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.” To him, the Proclamation was clearly an incitement to violence. And Union officers woud pay the price for that: Davis warns that Union men who command blacks will be punished like “criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection.” One penalty for such crimes was execution. Continue reading

African American Soldiers on Guard for the Emanicpation Proclamation

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the (final version) of the Emancipation Proclamation, a copy of the document was on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC, from December 30, 2012, through January 1, 2013.

A group of Civil War re-enactors stood guard over the document for this photograph at the National Archives Facebook page. The re-enactors are from B Company, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, US Colored Troops.

New Year’s Day, 1863: Emancipation Barbecue


“’Emancipation Day in South Carolina’—The Color-Sergeant of the 1st South Carolina (Colored) Volunteers Addressingg the Reiment, After Having Been Presented with the Stars and Stripes at Smith’s Plantation, Port Royal Island, January 1.—From a Sketch by our Special Artist.—See Page 275.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 24, 1863, 276

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Many negroes throughout the country celebrated. In South Carolina, they had a barbecue. This is from an 1863 NY Times article titled INTERESTING FROM PORT ROYAL.: A Jubilee Among the Negroes on the First– The President’s Emancipation Proclamation–How the Soldiers Enjoyed the Dar–Cultivations of the Plantations, &c. The dateline is Port Royal, SC, Jan 2, 1983. This excerpt indicates that the slaves were as cautious and circumspect as they were celebratory:

Yesterday, the first day of the new year, 1863, was an important day to the negroes here, and one of which they will long retain the remembrance as the first dawn of freedom. Upon that day President LINCOLN’S Proclamation of freedom to the negroes went into effect, and in view of this Gen. SAXTON, the Military Governor of South Carolina, issued the following:

A HAPPY NEW-YEAR’S GREETING TO THE COLORED PEOPLE IN THE DEPARTMENT OF THE SOUTH.

In accordance, as I believe, with the will of our Heavenly Father, and by direction of your great and good friend, whose name you are all familiar with, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President of the United States, and Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy, on the 1st day of January, 1863, you will be declared “forever free.”

When, in the course of human events, there comes a day which is destined to be an everlasting beacon-light, marking a joyful era in the progress of a nation and the hopes of a people, it seems to be fitting the occasion that it should not pass unnoticed by those whose hopes it comes to brighten and to bless. Such a day to you is January 1, 1863. I therefore call upon all the colored people in this department to assemble on that day at the headquarters of the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, there to hear the President’s Proclamation read, and to indulge in such other manifestations of joy as may be called forth by the occasion. It is your duty to carry this good news to your brethren who are still in Slavery. Let all your voices, like merry bells, join loud and clear in the grand chorus of liberty — “We are free,” “We are free,” — until listening, you shall hear its echoes coming back from every cabin in the land — “We are free,” “We are free.”

R. SAXTON, Brig.-Gen. and Military Governor.

In obedience to this call, some 3,000 negroes — men, women and children — assembled at Camp Saxton, the camp of the First South Carolina Volunteers, near Beaufort, to celebrate the day with a barbecue.

The negroes were accommodated at rudely constructed tables, upon which were ranged rows of tin-ware, and were served by the officers of the regiment. The contrabands went right in for enjoyment, and their faces were soon glistening with grease and happiness. Some of them were provident, and what meat they could not eat they crammed into their pockets. They all seemed to enjoy themselves hugely, and evidently enjoyed the roast beef more than the oratory. They understood it better.

In comparison with the number of negroes here this assemblage was not large. The fact is, that most of the negroes do not understand the meaning of this jubilee; they do not realize the occasion; the future is all obscure and uncertain and they would wait before giving way to too much joy. Some of them, too, I am inclined to think, looked upon the whole affair with a shade of suspicion, and preferred to stay away.

Display of the Emancipation Proclamation in Dearborn, MI; and an invite to USCT organizations

Note: This is from Yulanda Burgess of the of the “United States Colored Troops Brigade” Yahoo discussion group:

In conjunction with its “Discovering the Civil War Exhibit” which opened on May 21, The Ford Henry (AKA Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum) will have the original Emancipation Proclamation on display from the National Archives for three days only, June 20-22, 2011.

The nationally renown museum is located in Dearborn, Michigan, a suburban of Detroit. The entire exhibit is free only during the display of the original Emancipation Proclamation. Those visiting before or after the June dates will see only a facsimile as part of the overall Civil War exhibit. This original document has very, very limited viewing due to its fragility. The last public display of the Emancipation Proclamation was in Los Angeles at the Getty’s Gallery in November of 2003.

For more information see: http://www.thehenryford.org/events/emancipationProclamation.aspx
and
http://www.thehenryford.org/events/discoveringCivilWar.aspx

NOTE: The Henry Ford is hoping for additional responses to its invitation to US Colored Troops groups/units to participate during the Emancipation Proclamation’s display. Any unit that has received a personal invitation to participate in a vigil and encampment and act as a honor guard is urged to contact the museum as soon as possible.

Hari Jones on Celebrating vs. Commemorating the Civil War

Hat tip to the Interpreting the Civil War blog for this.

Hari Jones is the curator of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, DC. He is a great resource on the subject of the US Colored Troops, and gives powerful lectures on the subject. In the following video, he has some thoughtful comments on the subject of celebrating versus commemorating the Civil War:


 

Frederick Douglass: Fighting Against a “White Man’s War”/Part 3

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


President Lincoln recruiting the Negro: One good turn deserves another, London Punch, 1862.

The caption reads, “Why, I du declare, it’s my dear old friend Sambo. Course you’ll fight for us, Sambo. Lend us a hand, old hoss, du.” This cartoon was published a month before Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. More details on the cartoon are here.

One notable aspect of the cartoon is that the black character is depicted realistically, while the Lincoln figure is caricatured. In American cartoons, it was common to show blacks as having exaggerated and buffoonish facial features, such as huge lips.
****

I congratulate you, upon what may be called the greatest event of our nation’s history (issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation), if not the greatest event of the century…

In the hurry and excitement of the moment, it is difficult to grasp the full and complete significance of President Lincoln’s proclamation. The change in attitude of the Government is vast and startling. For more than sixty years the Federal Government has been little better than a stupendous engine of Slavery and oppression, through which Slavery has ruled us, as with a rod of iron. The boast that Cotton is King was no empty boast. Assuming that our Government and people will sustain the President and the Proclamation, we can scarcely conceive of a more complete revolution in the position of a nation…

I hail it as the doom of Slavery in all the States. I hail it as the end of all that miserable statesmanship, which has for 60 years juggled and deceived the people, by professing to reconcile what is irreconcilable.

We are all liberated by this proclamation. Everybody is liberated. The white man is liberated, the black man is liberated, the brave men now fighting the battles of their country against rebels and traitors are now liberated, and may strike with all their might, even if they do hurt the Rebels, at their most sensitive point. [Applause.] I congratulate you upon this amazing change—the amazing approximation toward the sacred truth of human liberty.
- Frederick Douglass, Speech at The Cooper Institute in New York, February 6, 1863

****

By February 1863, Frederick Douglass was surely feeling joyful and triumphant. On January 1 of 1863, president Abraham Lincoln issued the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation. America’s slaves were declared forever free – with the caveat that the slave-holding Border States (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) and some Unionist or Union controlled areas in the Confederacy (such as Tennessee and Louisiana) were exempted. But that wasn’t a show stopper for Douglass; he believed that the Proclamation marked the beginning of the end of slavery. Time would prove him correct.

But in the short run, there was a war to fight. After the issuance of the Proclamation, the Union’s efforts to recruit black men into the army began in earnest. And it wasn’t a sure thing that black men would enlist.

Many blacks were angry that they were denied enlistment when the war started, being told this was a “white man’s war.” The Emancipation Proclamation, for all the hope it offered, did not free slaves in Union strongholds; this was not the unequivocal call for black freedom that many wanted to see. And blacks were infuriated when they discovered that colored soldiers were paid less than their white counterparts. Wasn’t a black man’s life worth as much as a white man’s, they asked?

But where some had doubts, Douglass had resolve. No black leader was more prominent, insistent, and supportive of black enlistment than Douglass, at least in the several months after the Proclamation. Earlier, he said that unless the Union committed to ending slavery, “they don’t deserve the support of a single sable arm.” Now that the Union made the commitment, Douglass was all in.

While freedom for the slaves was paramount, Douglass saw another purpose in black military service: it would give colored people the opportunity to prove, through manly courage and performance of duty, that their race was worthy of full citizenship. Douglass understood that freedom and equality were not the same thing. If the colored man was to attain his due rights and respect, he must fight to earn it. If whites were fighting for their cause, then blacks could do no less for their own.

In his March 1863 “Men of Color to Arms” speech, Douglass argued

From East to West, from North to South, the sky is written all over, “Now or never.” Liberty won by white men would lose half its luster. “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.” “Better even die free, than to live slaves.” This is the sentiment of every brave colored man amongst us. There are weak and cowardly men in all nations. We have them amongst us. They tell you this is the “white man’s war”; and you will be “no better off after than before the war”; that the getting of you into the army is to “sacrifice you on the first opportunity.” Believe them not; cowards themselves, they do not wish to have their cowardice shamed by your brave example. Leave them to their timidity, or to whatever motive may hold them back.

Douglass’ play of the “coward card” was a harsh critique for those not wanting to enlist, coming as it did in a male dominated era where the willingness to stand-up for one’s self and fight was a necessary proof of manhood; and in a racist era where the black male was stereotyped as docile, submissive, and lacking in fortitude. His rhetorical challenge went to the heart of 19th century conceptions of what it meant to be a man: if you’re not man enough to fight in this war, Douglass argued to his fellows, then you deserve your degraded position in American society.
Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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.
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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.

Continue reading

It’s Too Cold for the Negro… Just Don’t Tell Matthew Henson

This is another tale from the “what were they thinking” annals.

In 1862, when the Civil War was raging in earnest, the Republican Party faced a vexing question that would never go away: what shall we do with the negro? The Lincoln White House had floated a plan to emancipate the slaves as a means of de-stabilizing the Confederacy, but this caused some trepidation in the Union states. There were concerns that the freedmen would flee to the North, overrunning the section with negroes. It was a political issue that had to be addressed in some way.

One way was to promote colonization, a plan to relocate blacks to Africa or the West Indies. Practical considerations aside, people wondered if the negro was willing to leave his American home and take a risk on a place he had never seen. (The international slave trade was {legally} ended in the Unites States in 1808. By 1860, most African slaves were truly American.)

Have no fear, said some Republicans. Echoing an argument made earlier by Democrats, they explained that northerners had nothing to worry about because, after all, coloreds don’t like cold weather. Historian Mark Neely, in his essay Colonization, from the book Lincoln’s Proclamation, explains:

Emphasis on colonization has obscured a real argument used by Republicans to anticipate or meet criticism of the Emancipation Proclamation: they embraced isothermalism. That is, Republicans insisted that because of climate, African Americans were suited only to tropical climes and would never come north. In fact, Republicans argued, the only reason African Americans came north now was to escape slavery. Abolish slavery and no more would leave the South, and those in the North would depart for the South.

Even the radical Republican nominee for governor in New York, Gen James Wadsworth, stated the typical Republican position: “The emancipation, once affected, the Northern States would be forever relieved, as it is right that they should be, from the fears of a great influx of African laborers… This done, and the whole African population will drift to the South, where it will find a congenial climate, and vast tracts of land never cultivated.” Commenting on Wadsworth’s idea, the newspaper in Oneida, New York, observed: “This is truth and common sense… Were the institutions of the South rendered tolerant to the black man, not a person of African blood would remain in our northern climate… The way to clear the North of blacks is to guarantee freedom to them at the South.”

President Lincoln eventually embraced the isothermal argument himself, but he did not lead in devising it. In his annual message to Congress of December 1, 1862, Lincoln began to hop on the political bandwagon of soothing racism invented by other Republicans while still blending it with his old favorite, colonization. “It is dreaded,” he said, “that the freed people will swarm forth, and cover the land. Are they not already in the land? Will liberation make them any more numerous?” He went on to offer an important caveat:

But why should emancipation south, send the free people north? People of any color seldom run, unless there is something to run from. Heretofore colored people, to some extent, have fled north from bondage; and now perhaps from both bondage and destitution. But if gradual emancipation and deportation be adopted. they will have nothing to flee from. Their old masters will give them wages at least until new laborers can be procured; and the freed men, in turn, will gladly give their labor for the wages, till new homes can be found for them, in congenial climes, and with people of their own blood and race…

The embrace of isothermalism constituted the greatest reverse of principle in the history of the Republican Party to date. It had been founded back in the mid-1850s on the premise that only Congressional law could keep slavery out of unsettled territories. The northern Democrats had argued that isothermalism would keep slavery and, with it, African Americans, out of the territories, and there was therefore no need to pass laws obnoxious to proud white southerners; the climate did not suit.

Lincoln himself had once strained to answer that argument. In his Peoria speech of October 16, 1854, Lincoln had laid the ground carefully for the rejection of isothermalism: “It is argued that slavery will not go to Knasas and Nebraska, in any event. This is a palliation-a lullaby… As to climate, a glance at the map shows that there are five slave states – Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri-and also the District of Columbia, all north of the Missouri compromise line… It is not climate, then, that will keep slavery out of these territories.” “It takes the law to keep it out,” he insisted in his famous debates with Douglas in 1858.

I wonder what this man, born August 8, 1866 in Maryland, thought of all that isothermal stuff? He probably heard a lot of jokes about his ability to handle various kinds of weather in his many travels. But in the end, I think he proved he could take the cold as well as the heat.


Matthew Henson, explorer

The picture is from the Library of Congress.

New Year’s Day, 1863: Emancipation Barbecue

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Many negroes throughout the country celebrated. In South Carolina, they had a barbecue. This is from an 1863 NY Times article titled INTERESTING FROM PORT ROYAL.: A Jubilee Among the Negroes on the First– The President’s Emancipation Proclamation–How the Soldiers Enjoyed the Dar–Cultivations of the Plantations, &c. The dateline is Port Royal, SC, Jan 2, 1983. This excerpt indicates that the slaves were as cautious and circumspect as they were celebratory:

Yesterday, the first day of the new year, 1863, was an important day to the negroes here, and one of which they will long retain the remembrance as the first dawn of freedom. Upon that day President LINCOLN’S Proclamation of freedom to the negroes went into effect, and in view of this Gen. SAXTON, the Military Governor of South Carolina, issued the following:

A HAPPY NEW-YEAR’S GREETING TO THE COLORED PEOPLE IN THE DEPARTMENT OF THE SOUTH.

In accordance, as I believe, with the will of our Heavenly Father, and by direction of your great and good friend, whose name you are all familiar with, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President of the United States, and Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy, on the 1st day of January, 1863, you will be declared “forever free.”

When, in the course of human events, there comes a day which is destined to be an everlasting beacon-light, marking a joyful era in the progress of a nation and the hopes of a people, it seems to be fitting the occasion that it should not pass unnoticed by those whose hopes it comes to brighten and to bless. Such a day to you is January 1, 1863. I therefore call upon all the colored people in this department to assemble on that day at the headquarters of the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, there to hear the President’s Proclamation read, and to indulge in such other manifestations of joy as may be called forth by the occasion. It is your duty to carry this good news to your brethren who are still in Slavery. Let all your voices, like merry bells, join loud and clear in the grand chorus of liberty — “We are free,” “We are free,” — until listening, you shall hear its echoes coming back from every cabin in the land — “We are free,” “We are free.”

R. SAXTON, Brig.-Gen. and Military Governor.

In obedience to this call, some 3,000 negroes — men, women and children — assembled at Camp Saxton, the camp of the First South Carolina Volunteers, near Beaufort, to celebrate the day with a barbecue.

The negroes were accommodated at rudely constructed tables, upon which were ranged rows of tin-ware, and were served by the officers of the regiment. The contrabands went right in for enjoyment, and their faces were soon glistening with grease and happiness. Some of them were provident, and what meat they could not eat they crammed into their pockets. They all seemed to enjoy themselves hugely, and evidently enjoyed the roast beef more than the oratory. They understood it better.

In comparison with the number of negroes here this assemblage was not large. The fact is, that most of the negroes do not understand the meaning of this jubilee; they do not realize the occasion; the future is all obscure and uncertain and they would wait before giving way to too much joy. Some of them, too, I am inclined to think, looked upon the whole affair with a shade of suspicion, and preferred to stay away.