Major Martin Delany to the Freedpeople of SC: “(W)e would not have become free, had we not armed ourselves and fought out our independence.”

Major Martin Delaney
US Army Major Martin R. Delany: Delany was a free born “African American abolitionist, journalist, physician, and writer.” (per Wikipedia.com) Among other activities, he was co-publisher of the North Star newspaper along with Frederick Douglass. During the Civil War, “Delany recruited thousands of men for the Union Army. In February 1865, after meeting with President Abraham Lincoln to persuade the administration to create an all-black Corps led by African American officers, Delaney was commissioned a Major” in the US Colored Troops (per Blackpast.org).
Image Source: US Military History Institute, via The Senator John Heinz History Center

Edward M. Stoeber, a lieutenant in the 104th US Colored Troops, US Army, was shocked. He had just attended a “lecture” in St. Helena Island, SC, given by army Major Martin Robinson Delany to a group of fellow African Americans in July 1865, as the American Civil War was coming to an end. Delany’s audience had been enslaved, but were now unbound. Delany – who was commissioned an army major by Abraham Lincoln after appealing for the creation of black regiments led by black officers – gave the freedmen and women advice for how to move forward, advice which drove the white Lieutenant Stoeber to disgust.

Why was Stoeber so upset? For one, Delany told the freedmen that they had had freed themselves by enlisting and fighting in the Union army. Stoeber disagreed, evidently unable or unwilling to acknowledge African American agency, or perhaps, angry that the martyred Abraham Lincoln was not getting enough credit. “This is a falsehood and a misrepresentation. Our President Abraham Lincoln declared the colored race free, before there was even an idea of arming colored men,” said Stoeber in a letter to his superiors. “This (talk from Delaney) is decidedly calculated to create bad feeling against the Government,” he insisted.

Additionally, Stoeber was concerned that in “acquaint(ing) (the freedmen) with the fact that slavery was absolutely abolished,” Delany had thrown “thunders of damnations and maledictions on all the former slaveowners and people of the South, and almost condemned their souls to hell.” Stoeber might not have been aware that jeremiads against slavery and the South were not uncommon for black abolitionists, perhaps even some white ones.

Stoeber was also alarmed that Delany warned the freedmen to beware of white “ministers, schoolteachers, Emissaries, (and others who would come South to help the freedmen) because they never tell you the truth.” Such talk, said Stoeber, “is only to bring distrust against all, and gives them to understand that they shall believe men of their own race. He openly acts and speaks contrary to the policy of the Government, advising them not to work for any man, but for themselves.” Such talk was dangerous, according to Stoeber: “In my opinion of this discourse he was trying to encourage them to break the peace of society and force their way by insurrection to a position he is ambitious they should attain to.”

Delany’s views were informed  by a lifetime of prejudice against himself and other African Americans living in the North; this included his dismissal from Harvard Medical School after just a month of attendance, when white students wrote of their objection to the presence of blacks at the school. He was forever wary of the motivations of whites, even those who seemed well intentioned.

But his views were also informed by facts. Some 200,000 black men had served as soldiers and sailors in the US armed forces. Perhaps 100,000 or more black men and women provided valuable labor to the US military effort. And many black folks acted as spies and scouts. Delany knew that African Americans were invaluable to the Union war effort. And he wanted the freed people to know that.

Delany and Stoeber seemed to have irreconcilable views of the past, present, and future. Major Delany, an activist African American from the North, had his own ideas about the role of African Americans in building the South and winning the Civil War, and in charting their own future as free people. For him, self-pride, self-worth, economic self-sufficiency, and a healthy dose of skepticism concerning the intentions of, and advice from, whites were key for black progress. But as far as Lt. Stoeber was concerned, Delany was a “a thorough hater of the white race (who) excites the colored people unnecessarily” and horrified white onlookers. Stoeber was also concerned that Delany gave incorrect information about the Union government’s land and labor policies, information that he feared would create false expectations and eventually result in anger among the freedpeople.

Delany was not the first to speak to what some might call a “black” (others might say “correct”) understanding of the war, emancipation, and permanent freedom, nor would he be the last. Stoeber’s reaction to his comments underscores that the memory and interpretation of the Civil War, as well as the strategies and policies for African American independence, would be contested, even among those who were on the Union side, and lead to outcomes that no one could predict.

This (partial) text of Delany’s July 1865 speech to former slaves in Beaufort, South Carolina, is based on the recollection of Lt. Stoeber, as written in letter to Brevet Maj. S. M. Taylor, Assistant Adjutant General with the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (AKA the Freedmen’s Bureau). There was some fear among (white) government officials that Delaney might be using inappropriate language or giving improper instruction and advice to the freedmen, hence Stoeber’s presence at the speech.
***********

Partial text of letter from Lt Edward M. Stoeber, dated July 24th, 1865, written to the Freedmen’s Bureau, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida (For the full text, including more of the white reaction to the speech, see the source: Columbia University):

Major:

In obedience to your request, I proceeded to St. Helena Island, yesterday morning for the purpose of listening to the public delivery of a lecture by Major Delany 104th Ne[gro] S.C. Troops. I was accompanied by Lieut. A. Whyte Jr. 128th Ne[gro] S.C. Troops, Com[an]d’g Post. The meeting was held near “Brick Church,” the congregation numbering from 500 to 600.

As introduction Maj. Delany made them acquainted with the fact, that slavery is absolutely abolished, throwing thunders of damnations and maledictions on all the former slaveowners and people of the South, and almost condemned their souls to hell.

He says “It was only a War policy of the Government, to declare the slaves of the South free, knowing that the whole power of the South, laid in the possession of the Slaves. But I want you to understand, that we would not have become free, had we not armed ourselves and fought out our independence” (this he repeated twice). Continue reading