Who Legalized Arming Black Men to Kill Confederates?

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

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.”


Eventually, however, Douglass’ arguments found an audience in that very representative, David Blight explains. As President Obama said about the millionaire’s tax in the last election, “It’s math.” And by the end of 1862, and even more in the winter and spring that followed, the North grew increasingly dispirited by the number of humiliating defeats it suffered at the hands of Confederate Generals Lee, Jackson and the like. And as the prospect of a military draft loomed (and eventually came to pass in March 1863), it was difficult for even hardheaded racists to argue that black men couldn’t die just as well as white men. They could fight, too, the nation—and the president—soon learned.

What the Proclamation Said

Two days from now, we will celebrate the culmination of Douglass’ lobbying efforts in the 151st anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Here’s what Part 2 of the president’s formula actually said:

“I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three … enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

“And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”


In other words, slaves could defend themselves if necessary and, if members of the armed services, shoot and kill white men on the other side. “A few years ago it was the custom, supported by public opinion, North and South, if a black man raised his hand against a white man, even in defence of his family or his life, it was considered a crime worthy of death,” a jubilant Douglass was quoted in the May 22, 1863, edition of the Liberator as telling a crowd gathered at Shiloh Church in New York City a few months later. “Now, the government has given authority to the same black men to shoulder a musket, and go down and kill white rebels.”

Mobilizing Black Men

As the mobilization began, Douglass transitioned from agitator to recruiter, working with Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew and his deputy, Major George Stearns, a white abolitionist who, like Douglass, had been a backer of John Brown’s. Their aim: to fill the ranks of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (of Glory fame). Embracing his role, Douglass, writing in his Monthly in March 1863, broadcast his famous broadside, “Men of Color to Arms!” thundering, “Action! action! not criticism, is the plain duty of this hour … ‘NOW OR NEVER.’ Liberty won by white men would lose half its lustre. Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.”


He also barnstormed across New York determined to fill a company entirely of black men, including his own two sons, Charles and Lewis. As moving as his words were, Douglass was also known to break into song, especially “John Brown’s Body,” according to Blight.

While Douglass and other black recruiters deserve credit for their efforts in the North, the majority of the 179,000 black soldiers who served in the Union Army came from the South. Their presence, Edna Medford explained, was indispensible, but it also made Confederate soldiers fight harder and more cruelly, with the Confederate secretary of war and Congress authorizing their men to treat them as if they and their white officers were waging a slave insurrection no different than Nat Turner or John Brown.


African-American soldiers’ service was all the more remarkable given the discrimination they faced from their own side, including restrictions on the commissioning of black officers and the hardest and most laborious of camp duties. But Douglass would not be deterred. “They may by-and-by pass laws that negroes shall not grow taller than five feet nine inches; but some negroes will grow to six feet,” he wrote in his paper in March 1863. “So too, the negro will in the end rise higher than is now prescribed by this new military law. Time and talent will make their way.” 

A month later, in his paper, Douglass addressed black recruits directly. “The great thing to be done first of all is, to get an eagle on your button and a musket on your shoulder. It is the first step that costs."


Mr. Douglass Goes to Washington

Yet, when it came to the issue of unequal pay, even Douglass had his limits. Especially mortifying to him was the fact that he had received assurances that this would not be a problem. Instead, the War Department, acting on a past technicality, moved to pay its black soldiers 10 dollars a month (minus three for uniforms) while paying white soldiers 13 without the deduction. In response, many who’d already enlisted refused to accept less than their fair share; but until the matter was addressed, their families suffered. At the urging of Major Stearns, Douglass took his grievances to Washington, where on Aug. 10, 1863, he met with Secretary of War Stanton, then Lincoln, an encounter that impressed Douglass greatly (the president had already issued an order threatening to meet the Confederacy’s policy in equal measure). Two days later, Douglass wrote of his visit to Stearns:

“[T]he President instantly upon my ceasing to speak proceeded with an earnestness and fluency of which I had not suspected him, to vindicate his policy respecting the whole slavery question and especially that in reference to employing colored troops … He said he had frequently been charged with tardiness, hesitation and the like, especially in regard to issuing his retaliatory proclamation. But had he sooner issued that proclamation such was the state of public popular prejudice that an outcry would have been raised against the measure. It would be said ‘Ah! We thought it would come to this. White men were to be killed for negroes.’ His general view was that the battles in which negroes had distinguished themselves for bravery and general good conduct was the necessary preparation of the public mind for his proclamation. But the best thing said by the President was … ‘No man can say that having once taken the position I have contradicted it or retreated from it.’ … My whole interview with the President was gratifying and did much to assure me that slavery would not survive the War and that the Country would survive both Slavery and the War.”


That Douglass, a former fugitive slave who had been forced to flee to Canada and England to escape conviction for his affiliation with John Brown, would be in the White House lobbying for black soldiers only added to the amazing transformation of the war—and of Lincoln. “I think Douglass’ lobbying was important,” my colleague, John Stauffer, author of the terrific dual biography, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, emailed me on Dec. 10. The proof, Stauffer said, was revealed in that first White House meeting, during which Lincoln made clear he knew who Douglass was and what he had been saying about him in his speeches.

That being said, it is important not to overstate Douglass' influence on Lincoln, Blight cautioned in an email. Every man who met with Lincoln, including Douglass, "would all wish for such influence," of course, and so would we, Blight wrote. But as far as we know, there is no direct evidence that Douglass altered the president's decisions. Lincoln didn't say that this was the case. Still, given Douglass' prominence as a journalist, and his dominant role as the voice of the black community at that time, the influence can certainly be strongly argued from indirect evidence, as John Stauffer does.


At the same time, proof of Lincoln’s evolution on race can be felt in the letter he wrote (for public consumption) to James Conkling of Springfield, Ill., just 16 days after encountering Douglass at the White House: “Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon, and come to stay; and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time … [T]hen, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they strove to hinder it.”

Despite Douglass’ best hopes, however, it wasn’t until June 1864 that Congress finally corrected the unequal pay issue, making it retroactive to Jan. 1, 1864. According to Blight, that wasn’t the only thing Douglass had left Washington feeling overly optimistic about. He also had received signals from Secretary of War Stanton that he would soon receive a military appointment as assistant adjutant on the staff of Union General Lorenzo Thomas in Mississippi. When none came (at least not the one Douglass had envisioned), he chose to stay home in New York while his sons, Charles and Lewis, fought for the Union, and a third, Frederick, went south as a recruiter in Mississippi.


Having wound up Douglass’ Monthly in August 1863, Douglass spent the last two years of the Civil War raising money for freedmen’s aid societies, working the lecture circuit and penning editorials in other newspapers, Blight reports. In August 1864, he was back at the White House advising Lincoln on his re-election, emancipation and the war’s future. Douglass also attended Lincoln’s second inaugural on March 4, 1865, where, I’ve argued, “Lincoln became the president of black men and women.” 

Though Douglass never gave Lincoln a complete pass for his “unsurpassed … devotion to the white race,” as he put it, he also credited the president for his personal and political growth. That growth included supporting at least limited voting rights for black men who had fought in the war (whom he had called his “black warriors” in an interview a year earlier), and a few more “intelligent Negroes” (I think he meant the Free Negro male population, but he didn’t say), as Lincoln curiously put it in the last speech he ever delivered, April 11, 1865. Lincoln’s change of heart about the right to vote was prompted, in large measure, by what he observed in the bravery and battlefield successes of the same black soldiers whose courage and talent he had once doubted. 


Standing on the White House grounds listening to the president speak was John Wilkes Booth. When Booth heard Lincoln declare that he was for giving “colored … soldiers” and “the very intelligent” the right to vote, Booth turned to a man standing next to him and declared, “That means nigger citizenship. Now by God I’ll put him through! That is the last speech he will ever make.” Three nights later, Booth assassinated Lincoln, making him “as much a martyr to the cause of black citizenship rights as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers or the other champions of the civil rights revolution who were murdered in the 1960s,” historian Michael Burlingame has argued

The ironies abound, and they were not lost on Frederick Douglass. While Douglass biographer David Blight is uncomfortable with this abstraction of Lincoln, he believes the war changed the president in profound ways, so much so, Blight wrote me, that Lincoln and Douglass—two men who had started out from starkly different positions in 1861—were, by war’s end, “essentially speaking from the same script.” (For more, check out the chapter “Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: A Relationship in Language, Politics, and Memory,” in Blight’s 2002 book, Beyond the Battlefield; Race, Memory, and the American Civil War.)


The Legacy of Douglass’ ‘Double Battle’

Evaluating this remarkable chapter in Douglass’ remarkable life (he lived until 1895), Blight credits Douglass as being the progenitor of the future wartime strategies associated with W.E.B. Du Bois during World War I (“Close Ranks”) (pdf) and the “Double V” campaign of World War II. As Douglass himself put it in his column for Douglass’ Monthly in February 1863:

“Colored men going into the army and navy of the United States must expect annoyance. They will be severely criticised and even insulted—but let no man hold back on this account. We shall be fighting a double battle, against slavery at the South and against prejudice and proscription at the North—and the case presents the very best assurances of success. Whoever sees fifty thousand well drilled colored soldiers in the United States, will see slavery abolished and the union of these States secured from rebel violence.”


Enlisting in this “double battle,” African-Americans soldiers performed valiantly in the Civil War. According to Edna Medford’s November 2013 talk, blacks served in 100 different infantry regiments, 449 military engagements and 39 major battles, and received 18 Congressional Medals of Honor (25, if you count those from the Navy). And, according to National Archives teacher-training materials online, “[b]y the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10 percent of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war—30,000 of infection or disease.”

Did the arming of African-American soldiers guarantee the rights of citizenship for which Douglass had hoped? The fact that 2014 will mark only the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gives us our answer. At the same time, though, their service did help put an end to slavery so that a war would never again have to be fought on the same soil over the same issue. 


As the 151st anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation draws near, I say, thank you, Mr. President, but also, thank you to Frederick Douglass and the black soldiers who heeded his call to arms. If their civil war cost 750,000 American lives, one can only imagine what we would have lost in another, inevitable, subsequent war, had the Union been preserved with slavery still legal in half of it.

As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.