Who Legalized Arming Black Men to Kill Confederates?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: The answer reveals a complex relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass; President Abraham Lincoln
Frederick Douglass; President Abraham Lincoln MPI/Getty Images; Getty Images

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 62: How did black soldiers come to fight in the American Civil War?

New Year’s Day not only marks the turning of the calendar; it is the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was the turning point of the American Civil War. Those who keep Jan. 1, 1863, in their hearts usually reflect on the first part of President Lincoln’s equation for victory: freeing, by executive order, the slaves behind Confederate lines. Caveats mattered then and now: The order left untouched slaves in the border states and other carve-outs in Louisiana and Virginia, 48 counties of which had been “designated” West Virginia. Nevertheless, the Emancipation Proclamation signaled a dramatic transformation of the conflict from “a white man’s war undertaken to preserve the white man’s government,” as my friend Edna Greene Medford of Howard University said at the 2013 Lincoln Forum at Gettysburg on Nov. 17, into “the abolitionist war” for which men like Frederick Douglass had been lobbying since the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861.

To me, however, what is also extraordinarily significant about the Emancipation Proclamation was the second part of the president’s equation, the part that went well beyond emancipation: allowing black men to join the war effort and bear arms in combat against white men. In effect, it legalized black soldiers to kill the white men fighting to return them to slavery. The profundity of this aspect of the proclamation was, perhaps, as deeply disturbing to the Confederacy as was its provision freeing their slaves. 

At last, as commander-in-chief of the nation, Lincoln was wielding the authority Congress had given him in the Second Confiscation Act almost six months before. For Lincoln, this was a dramatic change of heart. In fact, in the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation he had issued as a warning to the Confederacy in September 1862, Lincoln had been silent on the issue of black troops, while expressing his continued support for compensating slaveholders for their losses and shipping freed black people out of the country in a most bizarre colonization scheme.

By contrast, for Frederick Douglass, arming African-American men to achieve the emancipation of African-American slaves had been the goal—and only viable Northern strategy—“[f]rom the very beginning of the conflict,” David Blight writes in the best short essay on the subject: “Douglass and the Meaning of the Black Soldier,” in his 1989 book, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (I can’t wait for him to publish the full biography of Douglass he is currently writing). “As agitator, recruiter, and spokesman,” Blight writes, “Douglass gave the black soldier immense significance.” It was the outcome he prophesied—and lobbied for relentlessly—until Lincoln took action. Then he lobbied him some more.

In this way, perhaps, Douglass knew before Lincoln what the Civil War was going to be about and how it was going to be fought and won. As he argued in Douglass’ Monthly, the newspaper he edited out of Rochester, N.Y., in May 1861:

“A lenient war is a lengthy war, and therefore the worst kind of war. Let us stop it and stop it effectually—stop it before its evils are diffused throughout the Northern States—stop it on the soil upon which it originated, and among the traitors and rebels who originated the war.  This can be done at once, by ‘carrying the war into Africa.’ LET THE SLAVES AND FREE COLORED PEOPLE BE CALLED INTO SERVICE, AND FORMED INTO A LIBERATING ARMY, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves.”

Nine months later, Douglass’ message remained the same: “Whether the Government shall directly abolish slavery or not, the war is essentially an abolition war. When the storm clouds of this rebellion shall be lifted from the land, the slave power, broken and humbled, will be revealed. Slavery will be a conquered power in the land.”