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.
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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

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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.
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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
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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