The Long Road to African American Military Service, Part II
Monday, January 27, 2020

Frank Cirillo, a PhD graduate of the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia, is an editorial assistant on the Black Virginians in Blue project. His research examines the divisions within the abolitionist movement over the Union war effort.

In the two years following the start of the Civil War in 1861, African American activists and their allies engaged in a sustained, strenuous crusade to persuade the White northern public—and, by extension, the Lincoln Administration—to support Black military enlistment. Their untiring efforts, in combination with larger military developments, ultimately shifted the tide of public opinion, helping bring about a national policy of Black military service by 1863.

Following their initial disappointments in the late spring and summer of 1861, as Black would-be volunteers suffered a racist backlash from White northerners, Frederick Douglass and other reformers retreated from advocating immediate enlistment. Facing such entrenched hostility, they moved toward a new strategy: trying to change the Union war aims—to make the war effort fertile ground for both emancipation and Black military service. Reformers would have to engage in a long campaign to win over northern hearts and minds. Only after the United States had proven itself receptive to embracing African American men as citizen-soldiers in a free, slave-less republic, activists now argued, should such men start offering it their military services.

While these abolitionists believed in the moral power of enlistment as a stepping-stone to Black citizenship, they recognized that such arguments would hold little sway with White northerners. Activists therefore sought to convince Whites that allowing what Douglass termed the “iron arm of the black man” into military service, alongside emancipation, was in their own self-interest. Douglass led the charge in this respect, devoting speeches and the pages of his newspaper, Douglass’ Monthly to presenting Black enlistment as a military necessity. In one 1861 article, for example, he asserted that “every consideration of justice, humanity, and sound policy confirms the wisdom of calling upon Black men to take up arms in behalf of their country.” Slavery, he explained, was both the “source of this gigantic rebellion” and its singular strength. Enslaved Black bodies toiled on Rebel plantations, freeing up Confederate males to fight. Moreover, the Confederate government impressed slaves, forcing them to serve as army camp laborers and build fortifications on the front lines. “The slaveholders have not hesitated to employ sable arms at the South,” Douglass averred. In freeing the slaves and sanctioning their enlistment, the Union would thus turn the engine of the Confederate war effort against itself. Until then, the Lincoln Administration did not “deserved the support of a single sable arm, nor will it succeed in crushing the cause of our present troubles,” concluded the abolitionist editor.[1]

The tantalizing opportunity offered by Black enlistment, Douglass and his coadjutors warned, came with a severe downside: should the Union delay initiating such a policy too long, the Confederates might do so instead. The Rebels “often boasted, and not without cause,” noted Douglass, alluding to the coercive power of slavery, “that their [slaves] will fight for them against the North.” Amid prolonged conflict, he suggested provocatively, the Confederacy would eventually turn to desperate measures, arming its slaves to win the war, using them without extending them real freedom or equality. Robert Hamilton, editor of the popular Black abolitionist newspaper The Weekly Anglo-African, took a similar rhetorical tack, to impress upon northerners the urgency of the contest over Black labor power. “The Southern mind is prepared to adopt any measure which will secure their political independence from the North,” he wrote in an editorial early the next year. “Emancipation and arming the slave is the only mode by which they can succeed.” Faced with continuing Union hostility to their presence, enslaved men would then have no choice but to join the Confederate military. The chance for Black military service in the Union cause—and thus, these editors implied for overall victory—thus had a clear expiration date.[2]

In making the case for Black military service through the press and public speeches, African American abolitionists attracted critical support from White allies. Throughout the first months of the war, White abolitionists and Radical Republicans, including Wendell Phillips, Senator Charles Sumner, and Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, joined the call, endorsing Black military service as a matter of both military necessity and moral rectitude. As the war ground on into a second year without an end in sight, the measure also began attracting less radical northerners like the Boston entrepreneur Edward Atkinson—people who, unlike Phillips and Andrew, were not bent on securing justice for African Americans. Rather, they made clear, Black enlistment could win the war while preventing their own White loved-ones from having to sacrifice themselves. Moreover, as historians have shown, such figures elided talk of citizenship from their depiction of Black soldiers, perpetuating stereotypes about racial inequality in their rhetoric. Nevertheless, their arguments helped further shift northern public opinion, paving the way for Black enlistment, if not for the welcoming of African American soldiers as full men and brothers.[3]

As more and more White northerners embraced the idea of Black enlistment as a wartime panacea, and as the Union war effort stagnated, politicians finally began springing into action. Following the Federal defeat at Bull Run in July 1861, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, allowing Union officers to seize as contraband slaves that had fled into their lines from disloyal masters. While the act granted such fugitive slaves neither freedom nor the right of enlistment, it led to their employment as camp laborers—and to their proving their utility to the Union cause. After another defeat, in the Seven Days Battles of June-July 1862, Congress passed a second Confiscation Act freeing such “contraband,” and a Militia Act, which authorized Lincoln to enlist African Americans in military service. Such measures, however, had little practical effect without corresponding action from the president. Moreover, they made no mention of general Black rights, thereby incurring criticism from many Black leaders. Abolitionist Elisha Weaver, for example, reiterated in his newspaper, The Christian Recorder, that African Americans would fight only “if provisions are made satisfactorily” protecting them as equal citizens.[4]

Nevertheless, a handful of Union generals used the legislation to begin recruiting Black troops, jumping out ahead of Lincoln. In South Carolina, White abolitionists Rufus Saxton and Thomas Wentworth Higginson gathered escaped slaves from the Sea Islands into the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment in August, gaining the quiet support of Lincoln. Harriet Tubman, the famed Underground Railroad conductor, would become a cook, nurse, and spy attached to the regiment, which mustered into service in the late fall of 1862. In Kansas, Radical Republican Senator James Lane also recruited African Americans, most of them escaped slaves, into a new regiment, the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Unlike Saxton, however, Lane mustered the regiment into service in defiance of the Lincoln Administration.[5]

While Lincoln moved toward sanctioning Black enlistment, he would not meet Weaver’s full demands. Convinced of the necessities of emancipation and Black military service after the Seven Days, Lincoln waited until a Union victory, at Antietam in September, to issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The final version of the edict, which went into effect in January 1863, freed all slaves in rebel-held areas and called for the enlistment of African Americans into armed military service. Governor Andrew immediately answered the call by starting to organize units featuring Black soldiers and White officers, which would eventually become the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments. In a series of orders in the spring, the federal government then launched the United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments. It also clarified matters of pay, incorporating inequality into its endorsement of Black enlistment by mandating lower salaries for Black enrollees than for White ones.[6]

 For now, however, Black activists put aside their deep qualms over such discrimination. The government, imperfect as it was, had finally recognized their right to serve. At a celebratory meeting in New York in early January, the Black abolitionist minister Henry Highland Garnet recounted the rejections that Black volunteers had faced at the start of the Civil War. Now, however, “the call had come and they must go.” By doing so, Garnet emphasized, Black volunteers would “bequeath to future generations an heirloom” of the greatest significance: the rights of citizenship, forged through the crucible of battle. Building to a crescendo, Garnet roared, “We must fight! Fight! Fight!” Garnet, Douglass, Hamilton, and other leaders thus set about ensuring that Black men would do so—the subject of the next post in this series.[7]

Image: Henry Highland Garnet (courtesy Wikicommons).


[1] Frederick Douglass, quoted in Corinne T. Field, The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: UNC Press), 129 and “How to End the War,” Douglass’ Monthly, May 1861. For more on Douglass, see David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018). For the gendered implications of black military service, see Field, The Struggle for Equal Adulthood.

[2] “How to End the War,” Douglass’ Monthly, May 1861 and “What of the Night?”, Weekly Anglo-African, January 25, 1862. For black abolitionists and their warnings about Confederate emancipation, see Glenn Brasher, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2012). For more on Hamilton, see Debra Jackson, “A Black Journalist in Civil War Virginia: Robert Hamilton and the ‘Anglo-African,’” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 116, no. 1 (2008): 42-72.

[3] For more on these white allies, see James Brewer Stewart, Wendell Phillips: Liberty’s Hero (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1986); James M. McPherson, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014, orig. 1964); and L. Diane Barnes, “Make Mine an Abolition War: George Luther Stearns, Frederick Douglass, and the Black Soldier,” in Paul Finkelman and Donald R. Kennon, editors, Congress and the People’s Contest: The Conduct of the Civil War (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2018), pp. 185-204; and Richard S. Newman, “The Grammar of Emancipation: Putting Final Freedom in Context,” in David W. Blight and Jim Downs, editors, Beyond Freedom: Disrupting the History of Emancipation (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017), pp. 11-25.

[4] “Arming of the Colored People,” Christian Recorder, July 19, 1862. See Barnes, “Make Mine an Abolition War” and Brian M. Taylor, “To Make the Union What It Ought to Be”: African Americans, Civil War Military Service and Citizenship (Doctoral Dissertation, 2015).

[5] For more, see Elizabeth R. Varon, Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War (New York: Oxford, 2019).

[6] See Barnes, “Make Mine an Abolition War”; Taylor, To Make the Union; and Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010).

[7] “The Great Emancipation Demonstration,” Weekly Anglo-African, January 10, 1863.