President Lincoln: “I will keep my faith… with the black warriors”

Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH
Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH
A black soldier takes an oath of allegiance to the United States; Abraham Lincoln offers him freedom and a gun.

Image © Dave Wiegers Photography, see here. Wiegers has done a number of photos of monuments to Abraham Lincoln. 

President Abraham Lincoln freely and openly admitted that his ultimate goal for the Civil War was to preserve the Union, and not to free the slaves. But he determined that to win the war against the Confederates, emancipation had to be used to gain the support of African Americans, specifically, African American slaves living in the South. And so, based on legislation that was passed by Congress, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

This policy was not popular with everyone in the Union. Lincoln was a member of the Republican Party. Members of the opposition Democratic Party questioned and criticized the use of black men as soldiers. Some suggested that the emancipation policy be scrapped and the slaves returned to their masters; this offer of a “carrot” was intended to convince white southerners to end their rebellion.

But Lincoln was having none of it. In August of 1864, which was a presidential election year, he met at the White House with Alexander W. Randall, a former governor of Wisconsin, and Joseph T. Mills, a Wisconsin judge. Lincoln talked politics and emancipation policy. He derided the Democratic Party for its opposition to emancipation. Per Lincoln, the Democratic Party program could only “result in the dismemberment of the Union.” He referred to the notion of re-enslaving the freedmen to gain white supporters in the South as “conciliation.” This would be disaster, Lincoln said. “Abandon all the posts now possessed by black men, surrender all these advantages to the enemy, & we would be compelled to abandon the war in 3 weeks,” he claimed.

Clearly, Lincoln was keeping aware of the actions of the colored soldiers. He cited the actions of black men at the battles of Port Hudson and Olustee as examples of their service and sacrifice. He pledged that he would not return these “black warriors” to slavery to “conciliate the South.” “I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will,” he said. Lincoln was not about to throw black soldiers under the bus. He would keep his promise that African Americans would be “forever free” no matter what the conditions of war or peace.

But Lincoln did not merely feel his emancipation policy was righteous; he believed it was right strategically.  History would prove, he believed, that the Union could not be restored without it. And in this belief, he was unshaken.

This text is excerpted from the diary of Joseph T. Mills, as noted in Volume 7 of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln:

My own experience has proven to me, that there is no program intended by the Democratic Party but that will result in the dismemberment of the Union. But Genl McClellan[1] is in favor of crushing out the rebellion, & he will probably be the Chicago (Democratic Party convention) candidate (for president in 1864). The slightest acquaintance with arithmetic will prove to any man that the rebel armies cannot be destroyed with Democratic (Party) strategy. It would sacrifice all the white men of the north to do it. There are now between 1 & 200 thousand black men now in the service of the Union. These men will be disbanded, returned to slavery & we will have to fight two nations instead of one.

I have tried it. You cannot conciliate the South, when the mastery & control of millions of blacks makes them sure of ultimate success. You cannot conciliate the South, when you place yourself in such a position, that they see they can achieve their independence. The war Democrat (Democrats who favored war to preserve the Union) depends upon conciliation. He must confine himself to that policy entirely. If he fights at all in such a war as this he must economise life & use all the means which God & nature puts in his power.

Abandon all the posts now possessed by black men surrender all these advantages to the enemy, & we would be compelled to abandon the war in 3 weeks. We have to hold territory. Where are the war democrats to do it. The field was open to them to have enlisted & put down this rebellion by force of arms, by concilliation, long before the present policy was inaugurated.

There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South. I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will.

My enemies say I am now carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition. It is & will be carried on so long as I am President for the sole purpose of restoring the Union. But no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done. Freedom has given us the control of 200 000 able bodied men, born & raised on southern soil. It will give us more yet. Just so much it has sub[t]racted from the strength of our enemies, & instead of alienating the south from us, there are evidences of a fraternal feeling growing up between our own & rebel soldiers.

My enemies condemn my emancipation policy. Let them prove by the history of this war, that we can restore the Union without it.

[1] George B. McClellan had been a high ranking general in the Union army. He was relieved from command by Lincoln for lacking the aggressiveness needed to successfully engage Confederate forces led by Robert E. Lee. In 1864, McClellan was nominated to be the Democratic candidate for president. He lost the election to Lincoln in November of that year.

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