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

Making the Case From the Bottom Up

Douglass wasn’t the only one lobbying for the arming of black men. From the start of the war, African-American men, despite being cast out of the ranks of federal citizenship by the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, organized their own militias. But when they offered their services to the Union, they were rejected based on the 70-year-old federal militia act (1792) limiting military service to the “free able-bodied white male citizen” only. Still they came. In fact, in the second week of March 1861, a month before the shelling on Fort Sumter, slaves in Florida swarmed to defend another vulnerable Union arsenal, Ft. Pickens, but, again, the officer in charge showed them no mercy. “Read the heart-rending account we publish elsewhere of the treatment received by the brave fellows,” Douglass editorialized that May. They “broke away from their chains and went through marvelous suffering to defend Fort Pickens against the rebels,” only to be “instantly seized and put in irons and returned to their guilty masters to be whipped to death!”

That didn’t stop individual black men from joining anyway, Edna Medford said at the Lincoln Forum in November. Some, she said, were light-skinned enough to pass for white soldiers. (That’s how badly they wanted to fight.) Others couldn’t hide as easily, but in the fog of war, their white commanders looked the other way, she added, as a reminder of the frequent gap between the letter of the law and its enforcement.

Discretion was exercised at higher levels of the military as well. In his report to Congress in December 1861, Secretary of War Simon Cameron advocated the use of black troops, though Lincoln, catching the reference, had it struck from the report at the printer’s. In April 1862, Union General David Hunter began drafting former slaves (demeaningly labeled “contraband of war”) in and around the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida into a makeshift regiment that would be reorganized (after Hunter’s departure) as the First South Carolina Volunteers under Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry followed in August 1862, and distinguished itself in battle at Island Mound, Mo., in October 1862, two months before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. Each time, the Lincoln administration withheld initial support, but, over time, it was becoming clear that change, out of military necessity, was coming whether the majority of whites wanted it or not.

While none of Frederick Douglass’ editorials was addressed specifically to the president (as in, “To Mr. Lincoln”), they were all, in a sense, directed toward him and the prevailing, pervasive and paradoxical claims that black troops somehow would either prove too cowardly or too disloyal (and thus turn their guns on whites in a race war hearkening back to the Haitian Revolution). “I am not sure we could do much with the blacks,” Lincoln himself told a group of antislavery ministers just 10 days before issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. “If we were to arm them, I fear that in a few weeks the arms would be in the hands of the rebels.”

To neutralize such claims, Douglass invoked black soldiers’ service in previous wars, as recorded by Boston African-American activist and historian William Cooper Nell, in his treasure trove of a book, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855). (The two men had had a “terrible personal falling out” in the early 1850s as a result of Douglass’ break with the Garrisonians, Blight reminded me by email on Dec. 22. It is therefore “interesting,” as Blight said, that Douglass gave Nell space in his paper. But as Douglass himself noted in his February 1862 issue of Douglass’ Monthly, the Civil War had brought “great changes—everybody has changed—the North has changed—Republicans have changed—and even the Garrisonians, of whom it has been said that repentance is not among their virtues, even they have changed.” (Apparently, he had, too.))

In the August 1862 issue of Douglass’ Monthly (the same month as the second Union defeat at Bull Run), Douglass excerpted passages from the book, including anecdotes of black soldiers at Bunker Hill, soldier slaves from Rhode Island and the presence of one Prince Whipple, a general’s aid, during the Crossing of the Delaware. “Colored men were good enough to fight under Washington,” Douglass argued in a speech in Boston on Feb. 5, 1862. “They are not good enough to fight under McClellan.” (In the introductory essay to my 2009 book Lincoln on Race and Slavery, I suggest that another history book of the day, An Historical Research Respecting the Opinions of the Founders of the Republic on Negroes as Slaves, Citizens, and as Soldiers, by Boston merchant and Nell devotee, George Livermore, influenced Lincoln’s thinking on the matter by highlighting, in detail, the service record of slaves and Free Negroes in the Continental Army during the Revolution.)

Douglass also argued for reciprocity, North and South. As the war unfolded in real time, Douglass repeated the claim he was hearing in the Northern presses that the Confederate army was arming slaves to fight off the Union’s all-white armies. He warned that unless Lincoln gave rebel slaves a better reason to switch sides, they would likely go along, the North would lose and black people would remain in chains. “It is now pretty well established,” Douglass wrote in his Monthly in September 1861, a few weeks after the first Battle of Bull Run, “that there are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels … If a bad cause can do this,” Douglass asked, “why should a good cause be less wisely conducted?” 

There is no evidence, however, that the Confederacy was widely arming slaves at this point, or, indeed, that it ever widely armed them. As Blight reminded me, Douglass may have been writing more as a wartime propagandist than battlefield fact-finder. However, there is evidence that some blacks did fight for the Confederacy. In fact, two rebel slaves appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly on Jan. 10, 1863 (as seen here), and even more importantly, in General Sherman’s meeting with 20 black ministers in Savannah on Jan. 12, 1865, their representative, the Rev. Garrison Frazier, 67, specifically stated that “two black men [had] left with the Rebels because they had taken an active part for the Rebels” in the war.” I find it quite confounding that some historians are reluctant even to entertain the possibility that some black people, no matter how twisted their logic, would decide to ally their best interests with the Confederacy—particularly free Negroes who owned slaves. After all, black people are just as complex as any other human being. To deny this possibility of what today we would call “race betrayal” is, frankly, to deny the very complexity of the African-American people.

One of many things I love about Douglass is that he had a well-stated argument for every insult, and month after month in his editorials and speeches, he poked, prodded and pushed the Lincoln administration to change course. At times, though, Douglass became so exasperated he lashed out at Lincoln personally, as in his September 1862 essay responding to the president’s bizarre meeting with black leaders at the White House urging them to get behind his scheme for colonizing the freedmen to South America. “The President of the United States seems to possess an ever increasing passion for making himself appear silly and ridiculous, if nothing worse,” wrote Douglass. “Illogical and unfair as Mr. Lincoln’s statements are, they are nevertheless quite in keeping with his whole course from the beginning of his administration up to this day, and confirms the painful conviction that though elected as an anti-slavery man by Republican and Abolition voters, Mr. Lincoln is quite a genuine representative of American prejudice and negro hatred and far more concerned for the preservation of slavery, and the favor of the Border Slave States, than for any sentiment of magnanimity or principle of justice and humanity.”