Outmanned and Outgunned: African Americans’ Separate and Unequal Experience with the Right to Bear Arms and Gun Control

African American Union Soldier with Pistol
African American Union Soldier with Pistol, circa Civil War era (1860s). It was very common for Civil War soldiers to take pictures with their firearms, or props of firearms.
Image Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-11298; see more information about the photo here.

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A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
– Second Amendment to the US Constitution

“The great object is, that every man be armed. […] Every one who is able may have a gun.”
– Patrick Henry

“[if negroes were] entitled to the privileges and immunities of [white] citizens, …it would give persons of the Negro race… the right… to keep and bear arms wherever they want… inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the state…”
– Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision

“Remember that the musket – the United States musket with its bayonet of steel – is better than all mere parchment guarantees of liberty. In your hands that musket means liberty; and should your constitutional rights at the close of this war be denied, which in the nature of things, it cannot be, your brethren are safe while you have a Constitution which proclaims your right to keep and bear arms.”
– Frederick Douglass, in an 1863 recruitment speech imploring black to join the Union army during the Civil War

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[This is a re-blog of a post that I published in 2012.]

The current debate about gun control, spurred by incidents such as the Newtown Tragedy of December, 2012, and more recent shootings that can be found via Internet search (such as here), gives me pause me to reflect on the history of firearms access for African Americans. This history does not paint a pretty picture, but it adds a new perspective on our discussion of the right to bear arms.

A review of the history indicates that for over two centuries, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the national, state, and local governments have been engaged in a project to limit African Americans’ access to guns. This project was not conducted in secret; the people involved made it unequivocally clear that they did not want people of African descent to have firearms. Blacks with guns were seen as a threat to the safety, politics, and domination of the white majority, and the law was used to remove that threat. For African Americans, “gun control” has almost always been synonymous with “keep African Americans from getting guns.”

To be clear: I am not taking any position regarding gun access policy. I hope that no one who reads this piece will assume that I am advocating a particular viewpoint concerning gun rights and gun control issues.

What I do want to do, is provide an abridged and slightly selective timeline of African Americans’ experience with bearing arms. There is so much to this story, it’s impossible to contain it all within one blog post – and this post is somewhat lengthy as it is. But for those who are not familiar with the subject, this will be informative and useful.

There is a sadly ironic, perhaps tragic aspect to this history. Guns have become the scourge of the urban landscape. So-called “black on black” crime has become endemic in certain communities, and guns are an unfortunate aspect of this. During the slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, laws left blacks relatively defenseless against a tide of racial terrorism; African Americans were outmanned and outgunned. But now many black communities are awash in guns, and instead of firearms being used for self-defense, they are being used for self-destruction. Sometimes the arc of history bends in the wrong direction.

For more information on this subject, two good “starter” pieces on this topic are here and here. Two useful books on the subject is Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, 1866-1876 by Stephen P. Halbrook, and Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms, by Nicholas Johnson. But there are many other journal articles, books, and other references that are available via Internet search for those who want to really get in depth on this subject.

I will begin at the middle of the 18th century, and go forward to the 21st century.
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1779 During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress – which represents American colonists seeking independence from Britain – offers slave masters in South Carolina and Georgia $1,000 for each slave they provide to the Continental army. However, the legislatures of both states refused the offer. Apparently, the risk of arming slaves, who might want or demand freedom in exchange for their service, is more threatening than the British Army.

1792 Congress passes the Militia Acts, which limit service in militias to free white males. This restriction is prompted in part by fears that, as in the case of the Haitian slave revolt, free blacks will unite with slaves and use their guns and military training to mount an armed insurrection against slaveholders. The measures are interpreted as meaning that blacks cannot join the United States army.

1811 Hundreds of slaves, armed with guns, knives, and axes, become part of the largest slave rebellion on American soil, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The importance of taking arms is noted in the book American Uprising: American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen,

Baptized with the blood of his former master, Charles (the leader of the slave rebellion) and his men broke into the stores in the basement (of his master’s) mansion, taking muskets and militia uniforms, stockpiled in case of domestic insurrection. Many of the slaves had learned to shoot muskets in African civil wars, while others would fight mor effectively with tha cane knives and axes they wielded in the hot Louisiana sun. As his men gathered weapons and shoved ammunition in bags, Charles and several of his fellow slaves cast off the distinctive cheap cotton slave clothes and put on the (master’s) uniforms.

Unfortunately for the slaves, their revolt was beaten back by the superior force of local authorities, and they suffered a horrible punishment after the smoke cleared.

1831 Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. The rebels kill over 50 white people, the highest number of fatalities caused by slave uprisings in the South. The rebellion was put down within a few days, but Turner survived in hiding for over two months.

After the rebellion, legislatures in the slave states passed new laws prohibiting the education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services.

1831 Three states – Florida, Maryland and Virginia – enact laws which ban black ownership of guns.

Continue reading

Flag, Freedom, and Fury: African American Soldier Tells his Wife “the black man is… coming… with all the terrible trappings of war.”

22nd-Infantry-USCT
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. Continue reading

The Demographics and Geography of Free Blacks before the Civil War: North & South, East & West


Map of Free States and Slave States, 1861. During the Antebellum Era, the term “slave states” was synonymous “the South,” and the term “free states” was synonymous “the North.” In the latest (2010) US Census, all the states which had slaves before the war are listed as part of the South except Missouri and New Jersey. New Jersey, which established a plan for gradual emancipation during the war, had 18 elderly slaves when the Civil War began.
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.

In 1860, right before the start of the Civil War, more free African Americans lived in “the South” than in “the North.” Does that mean anything? Does that mean, for example, that life for an un-enslaved African American was better in the South than in the North? Some people look at the raw numbers and make that leap. In this post, I will take a detailed look at population numbers for free blacks before the war, to determine if they, by themselves, show that blacks were better off in any region.

First, it is correct that of the 488,000 or so free blacks in 1860, 262,000 (53.7%) lived in the slave states (the “South”) and 226,000 (46.3%) lived in the free states and the territories (the “North”). I did some additional research and number crunching based mostly (but not only) on the 1860 Census, to see if a more detailed look at the data offers any insights. (I’ve posted the stats at the bottom of this post.) I noted the following:

(1) This is the free black population for various groups of states:

State/Area      % of the Slave Pop    % of the Freeman Pop

Free States            0.0                   46.1
DC-MD-DE               2.3                   23.5
KY-MO                  8.6                    2.9
Upper South           30.6                   19.7
Lower South           58.5                    7.5

TOTAL                100.0%                  99.7%*
=========================================
Union                 10.9                   72.5
Confederacy           89.1                   27.2

Total                100.0%                  99.7%*

* Numbers off due to rounding and small number of freemen in territories.

Lower South = SC, FL, GA, AL, MS, LA, TX
Upper South = VA, AR, NC, TN

(2) While it’s true that the majority of free blacks lived in “the South,” the data is skewed by the large free black population in the Delaware, Maryland, and Washington, DC area. Almost one of four free blacks lived in this geographically small, contiguous area, while just 2.3% of US slaves resided in the area. That area is not representative of the South at all.

I find it much more useful to break-out the free black population by three separate regions, not two, viz.:

Free Black Population in the USA @ 1860, by Region
Northern (free) states: 46.1% of US free blacks
Border (slave) states: 26.4% of US free blacks
Deep South (Confederate/slave) states: 27.2% of US free blacks

The term “Border state” was commonly used to describe Delaware Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri during the Civil War. The District of Columbia, which was created out of small portions of Maryland and Virginia, contained 11,131 free blacks and 3,185 enslaved blacks in 1860. The Virginia portions of the District were reverted back to that state in 1846.

(3) The real divide in the free black population is more about “East vs West” than “North vs South.” The majority of free people of African descent lived in the original 13 states and Washington, DC. Or put in another way, most free blacks lived on the East Coast.

In 1860, 370,000 free blacks — 75% of the nation’s free black population — lived in MA, NH, CN, RI, NJ, NY, PA, DE, MD, DC, VA, NC, SC, and GA.

(4) African Americans living west of the 13 Original States (and especially west and south of Ohio and Indiana)  were relatively scarce, especially in the Old SouthWest. To illustrate this point, consider that:
• OH and IN (two states in the Old Northwest; we now call it the Midwest) combined had 48,101 free blacks in 1860.
• The Old Southwest ~ AL, AR, FL, KY, LA, MO, MS, TN, and TX ~ combined had only 45,077 free blacks. Louisiana had 18,647 free blacks, who were inherited from the Louisiana Purchase. Outside of Louisiana, then, these states were a no-man’s land for free blacks, even as the Deep South states contained the majority of enslaved blacks.

(5) Of the 261,918 free blacks who lived in the slave states, 203,407 free blacks lived in just four states (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina) and the District of Columbia. That is, just under 78% of slave states’ free blacks lived in the Mid-Atlantic states.

(6) Less than 2% of the population in the free states was of African descent. And many African Americans were clustered in places in the northeast and Ohio. Demographically, the free states looked like modern day Idaho or Wyoming, which are also less than 2% African American. I would imagine that millions of whites living in the North went through entire lives and saw a real live African American just once or twice, if ever.

(7) Only 5% of the black population lived in the free states in 1860.

(8) In 1860, NJ had 18 persons listed as slaves, and there were 46 slaves in US territories (Nebraska had 15, Kansas had 2, and Utah had 29).

~ The following factoids refer demographics for the Union and the Confederacy, the two American Civil War antagonists ~ Continue reading

Free Blacks in Baltimore, circa late 1850s, by Thomas Waterman Wood

Thomas_Waterman_Wood_-_Market_Woman_-_Google_Art_Project copy
Detail from “Market Woman” by Thomas Waterman Wood, circa 1858; go here to see a full image of the painting.
From the book Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860, by Christopher Philips: “Wood’s 1858 oil painting ‘Market Woman’ portray(s) a free black street vendor in Baltimore. Many African American women were vendors, or ‘hucksters,’ in the antebellum years.”
Image Source: From Wikimedia Commons via the Google Art Project

Thomas-Waterman-Wood-xx-Moses,-The-Baltimore-News-Vendor Dupe
Detail from “Moses, The Baltimore News Vendor” by Thomas Waterman Wood, circa 1858; go here to see a full image of the painting.
From the Art Project of the Google Cultural Institute/de Young Museum: “This painting depicts the freed slave Moses Small, who was a well-known Baltimore newspaper vendor. Dressed in elegant but worn attire, Moses holds a stack of Baltimore Patriot newspapers in his left arm as he tips his hat to greet the next customer. (For some whites,) Moses may have symbolized the virtues of capitalism, which provided economic opportunities for many Americans. However, the selling of newspapers was one of a limited number of jobs available to free blacks in the pre–Civil War era.
Image Source: Artclon.com

Maryland in the late 1850s was, to use a phrase made popular by Abraham Lincoln, half slave and half free: 51% of the state’s African Americans were enslaved, while 49% were free. This post is about the artist Thomas Waterman Wood whose paintings gave vibrancy and dignity to African Americans in the part of the state that was half-free.

But first, some background: prior to the Civil War, Maryland had a split personality. Free labor and slave labor were prominent in different parts of the state. In the southern part of the state that bordered Virginia, slavery had a large presence. In the northern part of the state that was adjacent to Pennsylvania, it was mostly a free labor society.

In the late 1850s, the Maryland municipalities with the largest enslaved and free black populations, respectively, were Prince George’s County and Baltimore City. Perhaps fittingly, these two places were a mere 25 miles away from each other. Prince George’s County (PG County), which borders Washington, DC (DC was created from land that PG County donated) had the state’s largest enslaved population, with around 12,500 people held in bondage. The county has changed much over the years. Today PG County has one of the highest, if not the highest, per capita incomes of any majority-black county in the United States.

Time has not been as kind to the city of Baltimore. In 1860, it had almost 25,700 free blacks; this was the largest free black population of any city North or South. The city had a number of prominent social and civic institutions for African Americans, and industrial and shipping businesses would enjoy a boom there. But black and white middle-class flight in the second half of the 20th century has taken its toll on the city, whose urban dysfunction was cataloged in the HBO series The Wire. Recently, the city erupted into violence after a black man died while in police custody.

But in an earlier time, Thomas Waterman Wood found beautiful things in black Baltimore. A resident of the city in the late 1850s, the Vermont-born Wood became a prominent 19th century artist, known for his figure and portrait work. Several of his paintings from his stay in Baltimore stand out for their dignified treatment of the African-Americans who lived there. Recollect that, this was a time when African Americans were seen as degraded and even subhuman. Caricatured images of people of African descent were not uncommon in American art. But Wood’s art was not like that at all.

Two of his pictures are displayed above. The first picture, a portrait of a female street vendor, is delightful. The woman in the picture is smartly and vibrantly dressed. She poses for the picture with an air of confidence and a smile. Perhaps she is simply self-assured, or maybe she is flattered to be painted by this white artist. Her posture is straight and comfortable; she seems to feel good in her own skin. Is this picture merely portraiture, or a political statement? Regardless, a viewer with sensitivity to such things might say that for her, freedom is becoming.

The second picture features a newspaper vendor and former slave named Moses Small. His attire is “elegant but worn.” He gracefully doffs his hat for the artist, a gesture he made to his many street customers. The former slave has an air of dignity about him. Perhaps he is not getting rich from his work, but he is is own man, and making an honest living. From his place on the streets of Baltimore, he could no doubt see the changes in the society around him, changes which gave liberties and opportunities, such as they were, to free man and women like himself. In several years, the American Civil War would come, and even more dramatic and substantial change would come to the streets of his hometown, and in America at large. I wonder if Moses Small was there when his city erupted into a riot in 1861, as residents attacked Union soldiers from the North who were on their way south to protect the District of Columbia and fight the Confederates.

Wood produced several other humane, dignified, and non-stereotypical paintings of 19th century African Americans; these are available for viewing with a quick search on Google (or other search engine). Not too many artists were doing such work at the time, and this makes us savor his work all the more.

The North is Too Cold for the Negro… Just Don’t Tell Matthew Henson

Matthew_Henson_1910 copy
Matthew Henson, arctic explorer, circa 1910;
A member of the Emancipation Generation (born just as the Civil War had ended) who was not afraid of the great White North
Photo from Wikipedia Commons, via the Library of Congress, Reproduction number LC-USZC4-7503.

It’s early January 2015 as I write this, and a large portion of the Midwest and Northeast are caught in a major polar air mass from the Arctic. For us, the cold weather is just something we have to deal with, and and we deal with it as best we can. But 150 years ago, cold northern weather was a part of a biological/social/political notion which presumed that northern whites need not fear a mass “stampede” of post-Civil War emancipated blacks to their region because, well, everybody knows that black folks can’t stand cold weather.

Chalk it up to another tale from the “what were they thinking?” annals.

With the Civil War raging in earnest, the Republican Party – Abraham Lincoln’s party – faced a vexing question that wouldn’t go away: what shall we do with the negro? In September 1862, the Lincoln administration announced a plan to emancipate the slaves as a means of de-stabilizing the Confederacy. This caused some fear and trepidation among northern whites. There were concerns that the freedmen would flee to the North, overrunning the section with negroes who would take jobs from whites, lower the wage scale, and otherwise make whites uncomfortable with their presence. 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 or South America. Practical considerations aside, many people wondered if, and doubted that, negroes were willing to leave their homes in the United States 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, almost all slaves of African descent 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 coloreds don’t like the cold. 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 (blacks) 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 (hopped on the isothermalism bandwagon while blending it with a policy that had been his 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 Matthew Henson, born August 8, 1866 in Maryland, just after the Civil War ended, thought of all that isothermalism stuff? As noted in Wikipedia, Henson

was an associate of Arctic explorer Robert Peary on seven voyages over a period of nearly 23 years. They made six voyages and spent a total of 18 years in expeditions. Henson served as a navigator and craftsman, traded with Inuit and learned their language, and was known as Peary’s “first man” for these arduous travels. Continue reading

Black Boys in Blue: A Gallery of Young African Americans in Union Military Dress

African American Soldier Boy
Nathan Jones, Camp Metcalf, Va.
Photo of an African American boy with Union army cap and belt, probably pants as well. Camp Metcalfe was a fort in northern Virginia, not too far from Washington, DC. Nathan Jones was probably an escaped slave (often called “contraband” by Northerners) who lived near the Camp or did servant duties there.
Photo Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, Reproduction Numbers: LC-DIG-ppmsca-11192, LC-DIG-ppmsca-11193

“With the United States cap on your head, the United States eagle on your belt, the United States musket on your shoulder, not all the powers of darkness can prevent you from becoming American citizens. And not for yourselves alone are you marshaled — you are pioneers — on you depends the destiny of four millions of the colored race in this country . . . If you rise and flourish, we shall rise and flourish. If you win freedom and citizenship, we shall share your freedom and citizenship.”

– Frederick Douglass January 29, 1864, Fair Haven, Connecticut; address to the 29th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry regiment (African descent)

During times of war, it is not uncommon to see boys dressed in the garb of soldiers. And if times are hard enough, boys might even take the role of soldier. In the American Civil War, African American boys had varied experiences which would dress them in the raiments of the armed services, or place them close to, or even into, the Union army and navy. (According to the National Archives, more than 10,000 troops under the age of 18 enlisted in the Union Army. About five percent of the Confederate Army troops were under the age of 18.)

This is a gallery of male youngsters in Union military dress. Some might have put on military dress simply to take an interesting photograph. Some might have been escaped slaves who lived near Union army camps, and did odd jobs or such for the soldiers, and were given uniforms to wear. Some might have been enlisted drummer boys. But all of these pictures indicate that many African descent boys were aware of, or even close to, the military conflict that involved their fathers or brothers or friends. How this affected them cannot be told from these pictures alone. But these photos give us pause to consider the effect of war on children and their families.


Taylor, a drummer boy for the 78th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops
This is an iconic picture in various Civil War texts.
The 78th regiment of the USCT was organized in April 1864 and served primarily in Port Hudson, Louisiana, until mustered out in January 1866.
Photo Source: National Archives

In some texts, the boy in the image is named Jackson. And he is sometimes seen in a photo wearing tattered clothing; refer to the images below:


Before and after images of drummer boy “Jackson”
Photo Source: US Studies Online;
see also here, page 7.

What’s going on here? According to Corbis Images, the boy in the “Portrait of ‘Contraband” Jackson,’ (is) supposed to look like many of the runaway slaves that flocked to the banners of the Union Army during the American Civil War. Used in combination with a photograph of Jackson as a drummer in military uniform, this was circulated to encourage enlistments among African Americans.” Indeed, the photographs make a poignant appeal to the conscience of black men: if a young boy was willing to serve, then why shouldn’t you?

Boy on Mount
Gen. Rawlin’s horse taken at Cold Harbor, Va.
This photo of an African American boy on a horse is described in the first edition of the book “Photographic History Of The Civil War, Volume IV, The Cavalry.” The book, published in 1912 and edited by Theo. F. Rodenbough, states:
“It is a proud little darkey boy who is exercising the horse of a general – John Aaron Rawlins, the Federal brigadier-general of volunteers, who was later promoted to the rank of major-general, U.S.A., for gallant and meritorious services during the campaign terminating with the surrender of the army under General Lee. The noble horse himself is looking around with a mildly inquiring air at the strange new instrument which the photographer is leveling at him.”
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, Reproduction Numbers: LC-USZ62-131082


Robert Walker, a young African-American “First Class Boy” dressed in a sailor’s uniform, has “Our Bob” written on the bottom.
From Trans-Mississippi Photo Archive (ozarkscivilwar.org): “First Class Boys” in the U.S. Navy were generally young men under 17 years of age. They were paid $9 per month and performed various sailor duties, including serving as servants to the ship’s officers, standing watches, helping with work parties and serving on damage control parties.
Photo Source: Trans-Mississippi Photo Archive, from Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield (WICR 32071-L)

Sailor Boy African Anerican
Full-length portrait of an African American boy in nautical clothing
Photo Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, Reproduction Numbers:LC-DIG-ppmsca-10904, LC-DIG-ppmsca-10905


Unidentified young African American soldier in Union uniform with forage cap
Photo Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, Reproduction Numbers: LC-DIG-ppmsca-37079,LC-DIG-ppmsca-27079
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The Loyal Colored People of Baltimore Give Lincoln a Bible


Bible given to Abraham Lincoln by freemen of Baltimore, Maryland in September, 1864; the “Lincoln Bible” is in the collection of the Fisk University Library
From the New York Times, September 11, 1864: The book in size is imperial quarto, bound in royal purple velvet. On the upper side of the cover is a solid 18 carat gold plate, nine and a half inches in circumference, bearing a design representing the President in the act of removing the shackles from a slave. On the lower side of the cover is a solid 18 carat gold plate, four inches long and two inches wide, bearing the following inscription:
“To ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President of the United States, from the loyal colored people of Baltimore, as a token of respect and gratitude. Baltimore, 4th July, 1864.”
Accompanying the Bible is a solid black walnut case with a silver plate on the lid, on which is engraved a picture or the Capitol and the words “Holy Bible.”
Photo Source: Historically Black Colleges and Universities Libraries Alliance website

In September 1864, late in the American Civil War, an event occurred that was unthinkable just four years earlier: a group of men of African descent – “colored men” in the parlance of the day – presented Abraham Lincoln, the president of the United States, with the gift of the Bible. After the event, Lincoln shook hands with each of those men. With each shake of the hand, history was being made: prior to the War, US presidents did not meet and receive African Americans, much less shake their hands as equals. But by 1864, the world had changed, and this previously unlikely meeting was the result.

The black men who met Lincoln that day were freemen – free men of color – from Baltimore, MD. The event was reported by the New York Times, the Washington Daily Morning Chronicle, and other newspapers. Per the Times:

Yesterday afternoon a Bible was presented, on behalf of the loyal colored residents of Baltimore, by Revs. A. W. Wayman, S. W. Chase, and W. H. Brown, and Mr. William H. Francis, to President Lincoln. The members of the committee were introduced by Mr. S. Mathews, of Maryland, and individually welcomed by the President. This ceremony having been concluded, Rev. S. W. Chase addressed the President as follows:

“MR. PRESIDENT: The loyal colored people of Baltimore have entrusted us with authority to present this Bible as a testimonial of their appreciation of your humane conduct towards the people of our race. While all others of this nation are offering their tribute of respect to you, we cannot omit suitable manifestation of ours. Since our incorporation into the American family we have been true and loyal, and we are now ready to aid in defending the country, to be armed and trained in military matters, in order to assist in protecting and defending the star-spangled banner.

“Towards you, sir, our hearts will ever be warm with gratitude. We come to present to you this copy of the Holy Scriptures, as a token of respect for your active participation in furtherance of the cause of the emancipation of our race. This great event will be a matter of history. Hereafter, when our children shall ask what mean these tokens, they will be told of your worthy deeds, and will rise up and call you blessed.

“The loyal colored people of this country everywhere will remember you at the Throne of Divine Grace. May the King Eternal, an all-wise. Providence protect and keep you, and when you pass from this world to that of eternity, may you be borne to the bosom of your Saviour and your God.”

Upon receiving the Bible, Lincoln stated:

This occasion would seem fitting for a lengthy response to the address which you have just made. I would make one, if prepared; but I am not. I would promise to respond in writing, had not experience taught me that business will not allow me to do so. I can only now say, as I have often before said, it has always been a sentiment with me that all mankind should be free. So far as able, within my sphere, I have always acted as I believed to be right and just; and I have done all I could for the good of mankind generally. In letters and documents sent from this office I have expressed myself better than I now can. In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man.

All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it. To you I return my most sincere thanks for the very elegant copy of the great Book of God which you present.

The whole event would have been impossible just several years prior. For one, US presidents were not in the habit of meeting black men or women in the White House. Ten of the presidents who preceded Lincoln were slave owners. Nine out of ten African Americans in 1860 were enslaved, and most whites believed that all African Americans, enslaved or free, were their inferiors. People of African descent had no political power; blacks could vote in only five states, and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision declared that negroes were not citizens of the United States. Simply put, African Americans had no business being in the White House, except as servants.

Meanwhile, the onset of the Civil War had forced the United States government to take a stand, one way or the other, about the issue of slavery; slavery was, after all, the reason that secessionists claimed disunion was necessary. Seeking to preserve the Union without resorting to war, Lincoln said in his 1860 inauguration speech that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Lincoln hoped that this would gain the loyalty of slave owners in the Union slave states (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri), and perhaps even cool off secession fever. But many African Americans saw it as an unwillingness to stand-up for the freedom of the enslaved.

And finally, Baltimore had not been a wholly hospitable place for Unionist sentiment. The city, which had gained some infamy for its riotous behavior – hence its nickname “Motown” – earned its reputation with an attack on Union soldiers who had come from the North to go South and fight Confederates. Many of the city’s residents were secessionist sympathizers or anti-war men who did not appreciate northerners coming into their city on their way to fighting against the South. The incident, called the Baltimore riot of 1861 (also called the Pratt Street Riot and the Pratt Street Massacre) left four Union soldiers and a dozen civilians dead. In response, Union military forces entered the city and state to prevent domestic disturbances.


Not so loyal citizens in Baltimore, Maryland, attack Union soldiers during the April 19, 1861 Baltimore riot. The riot, less than two weeks from the attack on Fort Sumter, left over a dozen people dead.
Source: Painting “Massachusetts Militia Passing Through Baltimore (Baltimore Riot of 1861) engraving of F.F. Walker (1861)”, from Wikipedia Commons

One of the military leaders in charge of this seeming occupation of the state was Union general and political appointee Benjamin Butler. Butler threatened “to arrest the state’s legislators if they voted to secede.” But he also told Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks “I have understood within the last hour that some apprehensions were entertained of an insurrection of the negro population of this neighborhood. I am anxious to convince all classes of persons that the forces under my command are not here in any way to interfere with or countenance any interference with the laws of the State. I am therefore ready to co-operate with your excellency in suppressing most promptly and effectively any insurrection against the laws of Maryland.” Ironically, Butler would later become famous for giving asylum to runaway or “contraband” slaves in Virginia and for enlisting black men into the army in Louisiana.

So, the state of war, race relations, and slavery did not portend well for a meeting of colored men and the US president in early 1861. But in that year, Lincoln and many Union men had anticipated the Civil War would last but 6-12 months, with a Union victory the inevitable result. Instead, the war lasted over four years, with deaths on both sides amounting to over 620,000. Faced with the staggering loss of life, and home front morale that rose and fell like the sea tides, the Union established a policy of emancipation and black enlistment. The Union’s black enlistees included the 4th Infantry of the United State Colored Troops, an African descent regiment that was raised in Maryland. One member of that regiment was Christian Fleetwood. He was one of over a dozen black men who was awarded the US Medal of Honor for his bravery during the war.


Medal of Honor awardee Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood, 4th Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops
Fleetwood was born a freeman in Baltimore.
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