Historian John Hope Franklin wrote that at the beginning of the Civil War : "When Negroes rushed to offer their services to the Union, they were rejected. In almost every town of any size there were large numbers of Negroes who sought service in the Union army; failing to be enlisted they bided their time and did whatever they could to assist."1
Historian Susan-Mary Grant wrote "that when hostilities commenced between North and South in 1861 blacks throughout the North, and some in the South too, sought to enlist. However, free blacks in the North who sought to respond to Abraham Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers found that their services were not required by a North in which slavery had been abolished but racist assumptions still prevailed. Instead they were told quite firmly that the war was a 'white man's fight' and offered no role for them. The notable northern black leader, Frederick Douglass, himself an escaped slave, summed the matter up succinctly:"2
Colored men were good enough to fight under Washington. They are not good enough to fight under McClellan. They were good enough to fight under Andrew Jackson. They are not good enough to fight under Gen. Halleck. They were good enough to help win American Independence but they are not good enough to help preserve that independence against treason and rebellion. They were good enough to defend New Orleans but not good enough to defend our poor beleaguered Capital.3
The move to reverse that military deficiency came slowly – moving into full gear only in the spring of 1863. Historian Benjamin P. Thomas wrote: "Although Lincoln announced the proposed use of colored troops in the Emancipation Proclamation, he had not come easily to that decision. The act of July 17, 1862 gave him complete discretion in the employment of Negroes for any purpose whatsoever, but he had shrunk from using black men to kill white men. To deprive the South of the services of her slaves was a legitimate and necessary war measure. To use colored men as teamsters and laborers in the Union army would release white men for combat. But to put weapons in the hands of black men, some of whom might become frenzied with the flush of new-found freedom, was a matter of most serious consequence."4
Mr. Lincoln was clearly worried about the reaction among white soldiers – particularly those soldiers from Border States. In the spring of 1862, Mr. Lincoln met with a group of Republican Senators including Iowa's James Harlan. Historian Ida M. Tarbell wrote: "The senators went to Mr. Lincoln to urge upon him the paramount importance of mustering slaves into the Union army. They argued that as the war was really to free the negro, it was only fair that he should take his part in working out his own salvation. Mr. Lincoln listened thoughtfully to every argument, and then replied:
Gentlemen, I have put thousands of muskets into the hands of loyal citizens of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Western North Carolina. They have said they could defend themselves, if they had guns. I have given them the guns. Now, these men do not believe in mustering in the negro. If I do it, these thousands of muskets will be turned against us. We shall lose more than we should gain.5
Tarbell added: "The gentlemen urged other considerations, among them that it was not improbable that Europe, which was anti-slavery in sentiment, but yet sympathized with the notion of a Southern Confederacy, preferring two nations to one in this country, would persuade the South to free her slaves in consideration of recognition. After they had exhausted every argument, Mr. Lincoln answered them.
"Gentlemen, he said, 'I can't do it. I can't see it as you do. You may be right, and I may be wrong; but I'll tell you what I can do; I can resign in favor of Mr. Hamlin. Perhaps Mr. Hamlin could do it."6
According to Tarbell, the Senators were shocked that President Lincoln would consider turning over the reins of government to Vice President Hannibal Hamlin.7 Although Mr. Lincoln was publicly cautious, he was slowly moving to a bolder position which would eventually employ about 180,000 black soldiers. The duality of the President's thinking was demonstrated when he wrote General David Hunter in early April, 1862 about the use of black troops in Hunter's military command. Hunter had long been an advocate for recruitment of such troops and had recruited two regiments in the Sea Islands he controlled off South Carolina. President Lincoln: "I am glad to see the accounts of your colored force at Jacksonville, Florida. I see the enemy are driving at them fiercely, as is to be expected. It is important to the enemy that such a force shall not take shape, and grow, and thrive, in the South; and in precisely the same proportion, it is important to us that it shall. Hence the utmost certain caution and vigilence [sic] is necessary on our part. The enemy will make extra efforts to destroy them; and we should do the same to preserve and increase them."8
Historian John T. Hubbell wrote: "In April and May , the new Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, encouraged (at least implicitly) the arming of blacks in South Carolina. The situation there caused a great stir, because the general in command, David Hunter, proved to be politically inept and hence a political liability. He managed to offend many officers and men in the white regiments as well as two congressmen of a border state, Kentucky. When those congressmen demanded explanations of what was transpiring in South Carolina. Stanton retreated into his bureaucratic defenses but did ask General Hunter for a report, which he forwarded to Congress. Hunter's report was entertaining to some Republicans (referring to 'fugitive rebels'), and to the border state congressmen – insulting."9
Lincoln biographers John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote: "General David Hunter was the pioneer in these experiments. Almost immediately after his arrival at the Department of the South he asked the Secretary of War for 56,000 muskets and 'authority to arm such loyal men as I can find in the country,' and with an eye to the seductive effects of a brilliant uniform, he added a request for '50,000 pairs of scarlet pantaloons,' saying, 'This is all the clothing I shall require for these people.'"10 Nicolay and Hay noted that "General Hunter's experiment, however, was a greater parliamentary than military success. There was still too much prejudice in the army itself, and particularly among army officers, against such an innovation. The blacks did not come forward freely to enlist, and when the general undertook to compel them by drafting, it confirmed in their minds the stories which had been told them that it was a renewed slavery; that they were to be sold to Cuba; that they were to be placed in the front rank of battle for slaughter, and many other direful predictions. Under such conditions, though the regiment was formed, it was beset by desertion, by neglect, by contempt, and also by the fatal difficulty that under existing regulations the paymaster could not recognize it. From all these causes it languished, and was, with the exception of one company, formally disbanded about three months afterwards."11
Historian Edward A. Miller, Jr., wrote: "Possibly because he thought he was not making himself clear, Hunter tried again to get Stanton's attention on the black soldier question. This time he addressed the real issue, pay for the remaining members of the one regiment he had recruited. 'Not satisfied that I shall be furnished with the means of making compensation to these loyal men for their services, and for the reason that their officers hold an anomalous position as men without commissions discharging the duties of commissioned officers. I desire earnestly to have a speedy and favorable decision upon the organization of the regiment.' He said he had stopped active recruiting but was ready to put six regiments in the field in two months. Of course, the single unauthorized regiment was reported as 'organized,...uniformed, and [drawing] its rations. The uniform consists of a dark blue coat, stripes or trimmings of any sort and no bright buttons.' The regiment did not often appear under arms and was generally confined to labor service on the docks at Hilton Head. As before, Stanton declined to answer the request, and Hunter showed his frustration in a 10 August letter to Stanton, 'Failing to receive authority to muster the First South Carolina Volunteers into the service of the United States, I have disbanded them.'"12 Hunter wrote a report for Congress in early June;
"I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of a communication from the Adjutant-General of the Army, dated June 13, 1862, requesting me to furnish you with the information necessary to answer certain Resolutions introduced in the House of Representatives June 9, 1862, on the motion of the Hon. Mr. [Charles A.] Wickliffe, of Kentucky; their substance being to enquire:
General Hunter's sarcastic report was duly transferred by the War Department to the House of Representatives where it was read by the clerk: "Here its effect were magical," wrote historian Joseph T. Wilson. The clerk could scarcely read it with decorum; nor could half his words be heard amidst the universal peals of laughter in which both Democrats and Republicans appeared to vie as to which should be the more noisy. Mr. Wicklife, who only entered during the reading of the latter half of the document, rose to his feet in a frenzy of indignation, complaining that the reply, of which he had only heard some portion, was an insult to the dignity of the House, and should be severely noticed." Congressman Wicklife's colleagues, however, were more amused than outraged.14
Historian John T. Hubbell wrote that "as the curtain fell on Hunter, Stanton on August 25 authorized Brigadier General Rufus Saxton at Beaufort, South Carolina to 'arm, uniform, equip, and receive into the service of the United States such number of volunteers of African descent as you may deem expedient, not exceeding 5,000.' Why the reversal? Why had Stanton authorized Saxton to do what had been denied Hunter? A comment by Lieutenant Charles Francis Adams Jr. may be pertinent. Regarding Hunter, 'Why could not fanatics be silent and let Providence work for awhile?' (And if not providence, at least the President.) In short, had Hunter managed to be more politic with respect to his fellow officers and the Congress, had he been able to restrain his rhetorical flourishes, he may not have run afoul of the critics of his policy, to say nothing of the President. The fact was, blacks were now to be brought into the service, not by a general assembly, but by order of the War Department – and the President."15
The nature of government policy had restrained the potential recruitment of black soldiers. Historian Joseph T. Wilson wrote:
The conduct of the Government in revoking Gen. Fremont's Proclamation, and of McClellan's with the Army of the Potomac, in catching and returning escaped slaves, also had a tendency for some time to keep back even the free negroes of Virginia and Maryland. But this class of people never enlisted to any great numbers either before or after 1863, and there finally came to be a general want of spirit with them, while with the slave class there was a ready enthusiasm to enlist. Senator Wilson, of Massachusetts, was Chairman of the Committee of Military Affairs, and reported from that committee on the 8th of July 1862, a bill authorizing the arming of negroes as a part of the army. The bill finally passed both houses and received the approval of the President on the 17th of July, 1862. The battle for its success is as worthy of record as any fought by the Phalanx. The debate was characterized by eloquence and deep feelings on both sides. Says an account of the proceedings in Henry Wilson's 'Anti-slavery Measures of Congress:Mr. Sherman (Rep.) Of Ohio said, 'The question arises, whether the people of the United States, struggle for national existence, should not employ these blacks for the maintenance of the Government. The policy heretofore pursued by the officers of the United States has been to repel this class of people from our lines, to refuse their services. They would have made the best spies; and yet they have been driven from our lines.' – 'I tell the President,' said Mr. Fessenden (Rep.) Of Maine, 'from my place here as a senator, I tell the generals of our army, they must reverse their practices and their course of proceeding on this subject ** I advise it here from my place, – treat your enemies as enemies, and avail yourselves like men of every power which God has placed in your hands to accomplish your purpose within the rules of civilized warfare.' Mr. Rice, (war Dem.) Of Minnesota, declared that 'not many days can pass before the people of the United States North must decide upon one of two questions: we have either to acknowledge the Southern Confederacy as a free and independent nation, and that speedily; or we have as speedily to resolve to use all the means given us by the Almighty to prosecute this war to a successful termination. The necessity for action has arisen. To hesitate is worse than criminal. Mr. Wilson said, 'The senator from Delaware, as he is accustomed to do, speaks boldly and decidedly against the propostion. He asks if American soldiers will fight if we organize colored men for military purposes. Did not American soldiers fight at Bunker Hill with negroes in the ranks, one of whom shot down Major Pitcairn as he mounted the works? Did not American soldiers fight at Red Bank with a black regiment from your own State, sir? (Mr. Anthony in the chair.) Did they not fight on the battle-field of Rhode Island with that black regiment, one of the best and bravest that ever trod the soil of this continent? Did not American soldiers fight at Fort Griswold with black men? D id they not fight with black men in almost every battle-field of the Revolution? Did not the men of Kentucky and Tennessee, standing on the lines of New Orleans, under the eye of Andrew Jackson, fight with colored battalions whom he had summoned to the field, and whom with he thanked publicly for their gallantry in hurling back a British foe? It is all talk, idle talk, to say that the volunteers who are fighting the battles of this country are governed by any such narrow prejudice or bigotry. These prejudices are the results of the teachings of demagogues and politicians, who have for years undertaken to delude and deceive the American people, and to demean and degrade them.'
President Lincoln did not rush to employ blacks in these capacities. Historian George H. Mayer wrote: "During July, Congress dealt once more with the disturbing slavery issue by passing the Second Confiscation Act, granting freedom to the slaves of all persons resisting the Union where such blacks came under the cognizance of the military arm of the government. It also authorized the President to employ as many negroes as he deemed necessary to suppress the rebellion in any capacity most likely to promote the public welfare. Lincoln considered the law of doubtful constitutionality, and he hesitated to utilize its most drastic provisions, especially with respect to arming blacks for military purposes."17
After the passage of the Second Confiscation Act, according to historian Frederic Bancroft , "on July 21st and 22d , the President laid before his Cabinet different questions concerning a more aggressive war policy. Among other points, all agreed that it would be well to permit the use of negroes as military laborers; but Lincoln was unwilling that they should be enlisted as soldiers, as General [David] Hunter has recommended."18 However, noted Lincoln biographers John Nicolay and John Hay, "In resorting to the policy of general military emancipation, President Lincoln did not mean to rely upon its merely sentimental effect. From the time when the necessities of war forced upon him the adoption of that policy it was coupled with the expectation of making it bring to the help of the Union armies a powerful contingent of negro soldiers. We find from several entries in the dairy of Secretary [of the Treasury Salmon P.] Chase that this course was foreshadowed at the Cabinet meetings following that of July 22, 1862, when he submitted the first draft of his emancipation proclamation. While the time had not yet, in his judgment, arrived for a general arming of the blacks, he nevertheless indicated an intention to organize and use a military force of negroes for a specific object."19
Pressure for the use of black soldiers was indeed growing in the Cabinet. At the August 3 Cabinet meeting Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase proposed that freed slaves be organized into military companies. Secretary Chase wrote in his diary:
The question of arming slaves was then brought up and I advocated it warmly. The President was unwilling to adopt this measure, but proposed to issue a Proclamation, on the basis of the Confiscation Bill, calling upon the States to return to their allegiance – warning the rebels the provisions of the Act would have full force at the expiration of sixty days – adding, on his own part, a declaration of his intention to renew, at the next session of Congress, his recommendation of compensation to States adopting the gradual abolishment of slavery – and proclaiming the emancipation of all slaves within States remaining in insurrection on the first of January, 1863.
About the same time, Kansas Senator James H. Lane led a delegation to the White House to meet Mr. Lincoln. The New York Tribune reported:
A deputation of Western gentlemen waited upon the President this morning....The President received them courteously, but stated to them that he had not prepared to go the length of enlisting negroes as soldiers. He would employ all colored men offered as laborers, but would not promise to make soldiers of them.
Historian Allan Nevins described what was apparently the same meeting: "Reports also spread of a colloquy between Lincoln and a Western delegation, including a couple of Senators, who had called to offer two Negro regiments – which under the new confiscation law he was empowered to accept. The President told them that he was ready to employ Negro teamsters, cook, pioneers, and the like, but not soldiers. A warm discussion followed, which Lincoln was said to have closed with the words: 'Gentlemen, you have my decision. It embodies my best judgment, and if the people are dissatisfied, I will resign and let Mr. Hamlin try it.' Such heat had been generated that one caller exclaimed: 'I hope, in God's name, Mr. President, you will!'"22
Mr. Lincoln was always worried about the impact of his actions on Border States. Historian John T. Hubbell wrote: "During the summer of 1862, Lincoln evinced no inclination to support Hunter, to implement the provisions of the second Confiscation Act liberating the slaves of Rebels, or to employ blacks other than as laborers. He stated his views to the cabinet in late July, and on August 6 he told a delegation of 'Western gentlemen' that he would not arm blacks 'unless some new and more pressing emergency arises.' Such, he said, would turn '50,000 bayonets' in the border against the Union. Steps short of actually arming blacks would be continued – upon this he and his critics did not differ."23 But noted Nicolay and Hay, there were other considerations which weighed on Mr. Lincoln:
The whole history of this first experiment but repeats the constant lesson, that statesmen, generals, and reformers must always and unavoidably reckon with public opinion when they undertake to change either for worse or for better the complex machinery of modern society and government. The failure of Hunter's regiment was only temporary; it furnished the germ of later success. One company, under command of Sergeant C.T. Trowbridge as acting captain, held together in spite of all discouragement and neglect, and when General Saxton received the already mentioned orders of the Secretary of War, dated August 25, 1862, to organize five thousand volunteers of African descent, it became the first company of the First South Carolina Volunteers, a regiment the formation of which was begun on the 7th of November. T. W. Higginson, of Massachusetts, was appointed its colonel, and took command about the 1st of December. Even then recruiting was slow. The regiment numbered five hundred when Colonel Higginson took command, and six weeks or more elapsed before it was completed.24
It took two years of Civil War for the Union government actively to begin actively recruiting black soldiers. President Lincoln opened the door in his final Emancipation Proclamation which stated: "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."25 Historian John Hubbell wrote: "Lincoln acted as he did from necessity. His almost mystical devotion to the Union and his personal compassion for the dispossessed of the world combined into policy. Events moved him in the sense that events determined the time for action. During the Civil War a basic truth emerged: Black people understood the meaning of the war and contributed to the great goal of freedom. Yet blacks were also objects; in order to defeat the white South, the white North needed black men. Lincoln was their emancipator, their savior, when he spoke as the cautious, prudent political leader and when he eloquently spoke of the magnificent contribution that black soldiers made to the Union."26
Once the final Emancipation Proclamation had been issued on January 1, 1863, the barriers to black recruitment began to fall. One impetus was Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. In his biography of his grandfather, Charles Eugene Hamlin wrote:
When the project of arming the colored men was discussed among the friends of the administration, Mr. Hamlin set about quietly to ascertain the sentiments of young and ambitious Union officers of his acquaintance. There were several who were peculiarly close to him, for two were his elder sons, and a third was the son of his friend and neighbor, John Appleton, the distinguished chief justice of Maine. Mr. Hamlin's sons enlisted in 1862. Charles, the elder, went out as a major of the Eighteenth Maine, and Cyrus as captain and aide on the staff of General Fremont. John F. Appleton was one of the college friends and associates of the Hamlin brothers. He was of that type of the American college man and soldier exemplified in Charles Russell Lowell, Robert Gould Shaw, and Theodore Winthrop. While Major Charles Hamlin favored the enlistment of the negroes, he preferred what proved to be a more active service in the field, and remained in the Army of the Potomac as adjutant-general of Hooker's division. Both Captain Hamlin who had served in West Virginia, and Captain Appleton who had been sent farther south, saw enough of the negro to convince them that he had good fighting qualities, and knowing the opinions of the Vice-President they wrote hm freely. Captain Hamlin was by nature ardent and enthusiastic, and when he made up his mind to carry an undertaking through he embraced it with all his energies.
Hamlin biographer H. Draper Hunt, wrote: "The officers were willing to accept a rank in the new organization equivalent to the one each currently held, but Stanton would not hear of it. All were promoted in what became the Ullman Brigade."28 It served under General Daniel Ullman.
Meanwhile , President Lincoln more actively explored the recruitment of black troops. In mid-January 1863, President Lincoln wrote General John A. Dix, who commanded the area adjacent to Fort Monroe in Virginia: "The proclamation has been issued. We were not succeeding – at best were progressing too slowly without it. Now that we have it, and bear all the disadvantages of it (as we do bear some in certain quarters), we must also take some benefit from it, if practicable. I therefore will thank you for your well-considered opinion whether Fort Monroe and Yorktown, one or both, could not, in whole or in part, be garrisoned by colored troops, leaving the white forces now necessary at those places to be employed elsewhere."29 In his reply, Dix doubted if black soldiers could be recruited in the area controlled by his command:
I have just received Your "private and confidential" letter, and hasten to reply to it by the special messenger, who brought it
President Lincoln consulted white leaders in other areas under Union control as well about recruiting black soldiers. President Lincoln explained to Tennessee's Military Governor Andrew Johnson: "I am told you have at least thought of raising a negro military force. In my opinion the country now needs no specific thing so much as some man of your ability, and position, to go to this work. When I speak of your position, I mean that of an eminent citizen of a slave-state, and himself a slave-holder. The colored population is the great available and yet unavailable of, force for restoring the Union. The bare sight of fifty thousand armed and drilled black soldiers upon the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once. And who doubts that we can present that sight if we but take hold in earnest? If you have been thinking of it please do not dismiss the thought."31
According to biographers Nicolay and Hay, "There is no record that Governor Johnson ever made any reply to this proposal of the President. The Governor was already rendering important public service, and he perhaps reasoned justly that the time had not arrived when he could undertake a leadership full of such difficulties, uncertainties, and risks; although later in the same year he took hold of the task in a more restricted and qualified way, and cordially gave his personal and executive assistance in organizing colored regiments."32
At the end of March, President Lincoln wrote General Nathaniel Banks who commanded the military district in New Orleans wrote about the brigade Mr. Lincoln had launched in his January talks with Vice President Hamlin: "Hon. Daniel Ullmann, with a commission of a Brigadier General, and two or three hundred other gentlemen as officers, goes to your department and reports to you, for the purpose of raising a colored brigade. To now avail ourselves of this element of force is very important, if not indispensable. I therefore will thank you to help Gen. Ullman forward with his undertaking, as much, and as rapidly as you can; and also to carry the general object beyond his particular organization, if you find it practicable. The necissity [sic] of this is palpable if, as I understand, you are now unable to effect anything with your present force; and which force is soon to be greatly diminished by the expiration of terms of service, as well as by ordinary causes I shall be very glad if you will take hold of the matter in earnest. You will receive from the Department, a regular order upon this subject-"33
A more systematic effort to recruit black soldiers nationwide was also underway. On May 23, 1863 the War Department issued General Order 143 to establish a Bureau of Colored Troops and set standards for black recruitment. In Louisiana, efforts to organize an effective force of black soldiers continued under General Banks, who was pro-recruitment of black soldiers but opposed to the use of black officers. In August 1863, General Banks wrote President Lincoln:
From a private note to one of the Editors of the 'Era', I learn that some interest was manifested by you concerning the organization of the Negro troops in this Department, and especially with reference to General [Daniel] Ullman's1 Brigade. I have purposely avoided the publication of information respecting the organization of that class of soldiers. General Ullman has now Five Regiments nearly completed numbering about Twenty Three Hundred men or five hundred to each Regiment. I have twenty one Regiments nearly organized, three upon the basis of a thousand men each, and Eighteen of Five Hundred men making in all ten or twelve thousand men. There are also batteries of artillery, and companies of cavalry in process of organization. These embrace all the material for such Regiments that is within my command at the present time. It is necessary to possess ourselves of other portions of country within the control of the enemy to increase this strength.
Northern politicians were anxious to expedite the recruitment of black soldiers – if for no other reasons than to reduce the pressure to use conscription to fill military recruiting targets. Historian Joseph T. Glatthaar wrote: "Unfortunately, some based their approval on harshly prejudicial grounds. One rationale for the use of black troops was that they could perform better than whites in the Southern climate, which may of course have been the cause for freedmen who lived there but not for Northern blacks. Strangely enough, these men unwittingly relied on the same argument that slaveholders used to justify the enslavement of blacks in the United States. Another popular reason for black enlistment, even among their future commanders, was that they could serve as Confederate targets as well as whites could, and that each black casualty spared a white one."35
Meanwhile, impatient with the pace of recruitment, pressure was brought on President Lincoln to expedite the organization of black army units. Lincoln biographers Nicolay and Hay wrote:"We have seen how General [John C.] Frémont had failed in two important military trusts confided to his judgement and care. Notwithstanding these failures the general retained the admiration and confidence of many influential politicians and considerable classes of citizens in the country who believed that his prestige and ability ought to be utilized..."36 In late May 1863, a group of prominent New Yorkers including former Senator Daniel S. Dickinson, New York Evening Post Editor William Cullen Bryant , New York Tribune Editor Horace Greeley and industrialist Peter Cooper petitioned President Lincoln: "We appear as a Committee appointed at a public meeting of citizens held in the City of New York on the third day of May, 1863 to take measures to secure the enlistment of Colored Volunteers. We have been very laborious in the discharge of our duties, taking every opportunity to inform ourselves as to the facts as they exist, not in imagination but in reality. The conclusion to which we have arrived as the result of our most extensive observation and best judgement are set forth in a brief memorial which we now beg to read:"
An extensive observation and inquiry among the colored population of the Free States, has convinced your memorialists of the patriotism and devotion of this portion of our fellow citizens and of their willingness to bear their full share of the burdens, dangers and privations of the war against the rebellion. They are willing to volunteer for the Service upon the requisite assurance that they will be placed under leaders in Sympathy with the movement. Indeed, such is their intense enthusiasm and patriotism, that if the assurance can be given them, that upon their enlistment they will be in active Service under the command of Major General John C. Fremont, your memorialists are confident that a force of at least 10.000 could be placed under enlistment within Sixty days, forming a Grand Army of Liberation, Swelling in numbers as they pass along, thus giving effectiveness to the Proclamation of January, 1863.
The New York City group took their petition to the White House on May 30 to emphasize the seriousness of their request. Apparently, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was present. President Lincoln responded to Senator Sumner a few days later:
In relation to the matter spoken of Saturday morning, and this morning, to wit, the raising of colored troops in the North, with the understanding that they shall be commanded by Gen. Fremont, I have to say:
The New York Herald reported the President's dilemma regarding General Frémont: "In this the President found himself in the position of the English gentleman who had a rake for a son, whom he told to take a wife. When the hopeful replied, 'Well, father, whose wife will I take?' The President took a map, pointing to the colored past representing the sections of the rebel States largely people by colored people. He noted that bordering on Vicksburg in particular, remarking that he hoped for co-operation from the negroes in that section to take Vicksburg and hold it. He had urged upon many generals to take the work of raising an army of colored men; but he could not prevail on them, because they had stars on their shoulders. He further informed the committee that he believed Frémont to be the man to do this work and give it effect, on account of his peculiarities and those of the colored people. He assured them that he would do all in his power to forward the movement. Mr. Chase was present during the interview, but never spoke. Senator Sumner was also present, and stated that he believed the greatest name to be written in these times will be written by the hand of that man who organizes the colored people into an army for their own deliverance and the restoration of the Union."39
About 10 days later, Frémont wrote Sumner: "I have delayed a few days my reply to your kind note, for which I beg you to accept the reason that I was occupied with replying to the ungrounded – shifting – insaisiable [insatiable] and land squatter argument of Gen. [Benjamin] Butler in support of his claim to be the ranking General in the U. S. Armies.
I had deferred it until the time allotted for an answer began to run out – having been busy about the Pacific Railroad. I was pressingly reminded of your note by a visit from the committee which had called upon Mr. Lincoln & to which he had promised this letter to you. I beg you will say to the President that this movement does not, in the remotest way originate with me. On the contrary when the Committee called upon me I declined positively to enter into it, or to consent to having my name mentioned to the President in connection with it. The reasons which I gave to the Committee were simply that I disapproved the project of raising and sending to the field, colored troops in scattered and weak detachments. That it would only result in disaster to the colored troops & would defeat effectually the expectations of the Govt. to mass them in a solid force against the rebellion. No short reaching or partial plans can possibly succeed.
Historian John T. Hubbell argued: "For practical political reasons, Lincoln did not openly lead the movement toward the enlistment of blacks. Prior to 1863, long before he expressed enthusiasm for the idea, he allowed others to take the first steps; he remained silent, overruled them, or caused them to be overruled. He was always sensitive to political considerations and to the perquisites and powers of his office. Timing, the right moment, was critical – and Lincoln always deemed himself a better judge of the moment than those who advised him, formally or informally."41
Lincoln biographers John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote: "To supply the steady, continuous official action necessary to broad success, the Government at length took up the work in its practical details. Early in April, 1863, the Secretary of War dispatched the adjutant-general of the army, General Lorenzo Thomas, to the West to examine and report upon the feasibility of recruiting and using negro soldiers; and his mission from the first was attended with success." They noted that the recruiting by General Thomas, which was primarily done was limited by the Union operations underway in the spring of 1863 to capture the Confederate outpost on the Mississippi River at Vicksburg.42 Historian John T. Hubbell wrote: "Thomas was an effective recruiter, stressing that he spoke with the full authority of the president, the Secretary of War, and the General-in-Chief. Henry W. Halleck (who was notorious for his General Order No. 3 in 1861 had fallen in line with administration policy and now was telling other officers in the Mississippi Valley to do the same. Of particular interest was the reaction of Ulysses S. Grant, who early in the war had no more sympathy for emancipation than did many other regulars. Yet Grant was certainly a man to follow orders Washington. Indeed, he had already made provisions for organizing contrabands' into a work force."43
Black men and women were a vital part of the war effort, both in and out of uniform. By the end of the Civil War, one in 12 soldiers who served in the Union Army was black. About 10,000 blacks soldiers died in battle and three times as many died from illness. Historian Robert B. Edgerton wrote: "Their death rate was proportionately much higher than that of white soldiers in the Union Army, in part because they were so often used as assault troops and in part because their medical care was usually even worse than that given white troops."44
Edgerton wrote: "Many blacks would serve in USCT labor battalions, but before the war ended there would also be 120 black infantry regiments, 12 heavy artillery regiments, 10 companies of light artillery, 7 cavalry regiments, and 5 regiments of engineers. In all, by the war's end, blacks made up 10 percent of the Unions forces."45 Black men and some women served as nurses, scouts and spies. Men were employed as carpenters, cooks, laborers, teamsters, and surgeons – as well as in infantry and artillery companies. Historian Philip Shaw Paludan wrote: "While their service had not destroyed prejudice, it had helped destroy slavery in 39 major battles and 449 engagements, with 21 black Medal of Honor winners. Close to 119,000 former slaves had hammered off their own chains. The fighting by all the blacks had produced claims on white sympathy, linked them with an admirable cause, and laid the groundwork for changing some of the nation's racial ideas."46
Edwin S. Redkey wrote in A Grand Army of Black Men: "Most whites doubted that blacks would make good soldiers. They reasoned that blacks could not be relied on to fight their 'superiors,' the white troops of the Confederacy. This belief was put to rest in the spring and summer of 1863, however, when African-American troops began to prove their skill and courage in battle. Black regiments fought and died bravely on May 27 at Port Hudson, Louisiana, a rebel fortress in the swamps near the Mississippi River. A few days later Confederates tried to overwhelm a Union base where black troops were being trained at Milliken's Bend, Louisiana. In hand-to-hand combat those fresh recruits drove off their attackers and won the praise of generals and the press. In July a black regiment helped rout Confederate troops at Honey Springs in the Indian Territory. The next day, July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry led the bold but futile assault on Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina. Other major battles in which colored troops acquitted themselves well included the first attack on Petersburg, Virginia, on June 15, 1864, and the engagement at Nashville, Tennessee, on December 14-15, 1864."47
Lincoln biographers Nicolay and Hay wrote: "If a single argument were needed to point out President Lincoln's great practical wisdom in the management of this difficult question, that argument is found in the mere summing up of its tangible military results. At the beginning of December, 1863, less than a year after the President first proclaimed the policy, he was able to announce in his annual message that about 50,000 late slaves were then actually bearing arms in the ranks of the Union forces. A report made by the Secretary of War on April 2, 1864, shows that the numbers of negro troops then mustered into the service of the United States as soldiers had increased to 71,976. And we learned further, from the report of the Provost Marshal General that at the close of the war there were in the service of the United States, of colored troops, 120 regiments of infantry, 12 regiments of heavy artillery, 10 companies of light artillery, and 7 regiments of cavalry; making a grand aggregate of 123,156 men. This was the largest number in service at any one time, but it does not represent all of them. The entire number of commissioned and enlisted in this branch of the service during the war, or more properly speaking, during the last two years of the war, was 186,017 men."48
Black recruitment changed the nature of the war for blacks and whites, for both northerners and southerners. James McPherson noted: "Emancipation and the enlistment of slaves as soldiers tremendously increased the stakes in this war, for the South as well as for the North. Southerners vowed to fight 'to the last ditch' before yielding to a Yankee nation that could commit such execrable deeds. Gone was any hope of an armistice or a negotiated peace so long as the Lincoln administration was in power; the alternatives were reduced starkly to Southern independence on the one hand or the unconditional surrender of the South on the other."49
President Lincoln had to deal with a variety of problems with Northern and Border State politicians who objected to the recruitment of black soldiers. In September 1863, former Maryland Congressman John W. Crisfield, who had served with Mr. Lincoln in Congress in the 1840s, wrote to complain about the possible deployment of black soldiers in Maryland:
On my return home last night from an abscence [sic] of several days, I found this community agitated by a rumor that a force of black troops was soon to be sent here. I do not know how this rumor became current, or whether it reposes on any just foundation. I trust it is wholly untrue.
Kentucky Governor Thomas E. Bramlette was more worried about recruitment than deployment. He wrote President Lincoln in mid-October 1863: "Published dispatches from Washington, in this morning's papers announced that in a few days orders will be issued from the War Dept for enlistment of negro soldiers in Ky, and other named States. Believing that I can offer controlling reasons of law and policy against such action in Ky, I respectfully but earnestly request, if such purpose be under consideration that I may be notified thereof and all action suspended as to Ky, until I can be heard. The dire effects of such a movement upon the interests of my people is my only apology for troubling you upon the authority of an irresponsible telegram."51
At the same time, in Maryland, residents were increasingly upset by the use of black soldiers and recruitment of black slaves in the state. Their representatives visited Washington and were told by President Lincoln "that if the recruiting squads did not conduct themselves properly, their places should be supplied by others, but that the orders wunder which the enlistments were being made could not be revoked, since the country needed ablebodied soldiers, and was not squeamish as to their complexion."52 General Robert C. Schenck wrote to President Lincoln to explain his actions:
The delegation from St. Mary's County have grossly misrepresented matters. Col. [William] Birney went, under my orders to look for the site of a camp of instruction for and rendesvous [sic]for colored troops – See his report, this day forwarded to the Adjutant General-
Presidential aide John Hay recorded in his diary in October 1863 that "Schenck is complicating the canvass with an embarrassing element, that of forcible negro enlistments. The President is in favor of the voluntary enlistment of negroes with the consent of their masters & on payment of the price. But Schenck's favorite way (or rather Birney's whom Schenck approves) is to take a squad of soldiers into a neighborhood, & carry off into the army all the ablebodied darkies they can find without asking master or slave to consent. Hence results like the case of White & Sothoron. 'The fact is,' the President observes, 'Schenck is wider across the head in the region of the ears, & loves fight for its own sake, better than I do.'"54
The next day, General Schenck and Piatt came to the White house to report on recruiting black soldiers in Maryland and the murder by John H. Sothoron of a Union recruiter, Lieutenant Eben White. Hay wrote in his diary: "Schenck & Piatt came in. Piatt defends flatly the forcible enlistment of negroes. Says it will be a most popular measure among the people of Maryland, & unpopular only among the slaveholders & rebel sympathizers. He says this man Sothoron is a recruiting agent for the rebels & that he would have been in the jug if they had got him as they expected before the murder.'"55 According to historian Michael Burlingame, "A former member of the Maryland legislature, Sothoron was about to be arrested for recruiting Maryland citizens into the Confederate army. He and his son escaped to Richmond and avoided all prosecution."56 Donn Piatt, an erstwhile Ohio journalist who was an aide to Schenck, described in his memoirs what had transcribed and how he and Schenck had managed to annoy Mr. Lincoln. Piatt wrote of President Lincoln:
I never saw him angry but once, and I had no wish to see a second exhibition of his wrath. We were in command of what was called the Middle Department, with headquarters at Baltimore. General Schenck, with the intense loyalty which distinguished that eminent soldier, shifted the military sympathy from the aristocracy of Maryland to the Union men, and made the eloquent Henry Winter Davis and the well-known jurist Judge Bond our associates and advisers. These gentlemen could not understand why, having such entire command of Maryland, the Government did not make it a free State, and so, taking the property from the disloyal, render them weak and harmless, and bring the border of free States to the capital of the Union. The fortifications about Baltimore, used heretofore to threaten that city, now under the influence of Davis, Bond, Wallace, and others, had their guns turned outward for the protection of the place, and it seemed only necessary to inspire the negroes with faith in us as liberators to perfect the work. The first intimation I received that this policy of freeing Maryland was distasteful to the Administration came from Secretary Stanton. I had told him what we thought, and what we hoped to accomplish. I noticed an amused expression on the face of the War Secretary, and when I ended, he said dryly:
Border State opposition to the use of black soldiers continued in 1864. One troublemaker was Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Richard T. Jacob, whose very vocal opposition to black enlistment led to his military arrest in November 1864 and his expulsion through Union lines. Mr. Lincoln came under considerable pressure to allow the return of Jacob, who had a strong record a Union supporter and Army colonel but who was also a strong opponent of the Emancipation Proclamation. Jacob's opposition was strong enough to prompt Kentucky newspaper editor Albert Hodges to write in May 1864: "The speeches of Col. [Frank] Woolford and Col. Jacob – both claiming to have shed their blood in trying to quell this rebellion – is producing a good deal of division in the ranks of the Union party, and favoring as they do, the nominee of the Chicago Convention. And whilst they lampoon the Secessionists as well as your administration, in their speeches, yet the great body of the secessionists will vote with them in the Contest against you."58 Wolford had been arrested for his incendiary speeches in March 1864 and was offered a parole by President Lincoln in July 1864.
President Lincoln wrote Jacob in mid-January 1865: "You are at liberty to proceed to Kentucky, and to remain at large so far as relates to any cause now past. In what I now do, I decide nothing as to the right or wrong of your arrest, but act in the hope that there now is less liability to misunderstanding among Union men, that now than there was at the time of the arrest."59
Historian Philip Shaw Paludan wrote: "Black soldiers and black laborers helped to persuade Northern whites that blacks generally might be part of the transformed nation. The struggle for equality also had an impact on white self-images. The articulate upper class of the North found in the war revitalized confidence in their own capacities, a new faith in their role in society. Before the conflict there had been deep concern that in the selfish stampede for wealth, society was forgetting the nobler qualities of self-sacrifice, attention to duty. Conservative intellectuals like Charles Eliot Norton, Francis Parkman, and the immensely popular Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., had argued, in Norton's words, that without the leadership of the 'intelligent and prosperous classes,' America was doomed to decay, corrupted by 'lavish abundance.'"60
Black recruitment not only undermined the Confederate war effort. It also undermined racist beliefs in the North. Presidential aide William O. Stoddard wrote in the end March 1863: "A point worth noticing is the marked diminution in the prejudice against our black regiments. Let them win a fight or so, and the most narrow-minded 'Copperhead' will see, as clearly as Colonel [Thomas W.] Higginson himself, the sound common sense of arming and employing them. Already they are attracting attention by their proficiency in drill, and their usefulness as scouts and skirmishers; and though few are yet convinced that they will be found equal to white troops in the shock of a pitched battle, the majority of our military men are ready to admit that, in one way or another, every thousand of enlisted blacks can be made to supply the places of an equal number of white men."61
In May 1863, Stoddard observed in a dispatch to the New York Examiner, for which he wrote anonymously: "It is surprising to see how rapidly men are losing their silly prejudices against the use of black soldiers. I mean in the army. Of course the demagogues of the North are almost as loud as ever, but among the men in the field, the prevailing sentiments is getting to be...'why, let 'em fight – they're as good as rebels, any day.' There is reason to believe, too, that the military feeling is on the increase among the blacks themselves."62 Thirteen months later, Stoddard had concluded: "Herein lies the ability of the United States to carry on this war indefinitely, and should we not succeed in breaking the strength of the rebellion before January next, there is that vitality, that force, in the President's policy of employing the black men, that will at the worst go far to make up all losses, and that must eventually set the seal of success upon his efforts to save the nation. It must be a bitter pill to the proud aristocrats of Virginia and the Carolinas to weight their lives in the fearful balances of war against those of men who were once their property. There will be a great deal of that weighing done before this year is over."63
Historian Joseph T. Glatthaar wrote that emancipation and recruitment had changed the war. The "commanding general, Henry W. Halleck, reiterated the theme in March 1863 to Grant: 'The character of the war has very much changed within the last year. There is now no possible hope of a reconciliation with the rebels. The union party in the South is virtually destroyed. There can be no peace but that which is enforced by the sword. We must conquer the rebels or be conquered by them. The north must either conquer the rebels or be conquered by them. The north must either destroy the slave oligarchy, or become slaves themselves.' The first eighteen months of the war brought substantial numbers into the antislavery camp, primarily for military reasons. Like their president, many of the men who had served extensively in the army now recognized the value of slavery to the Confederate cause and also foresaw the contribution blacks could make to the Union war effort. An Ohioan, avid Democrat and future officer in the USCT explained his support for emancipation by saying, 'My doctrine has been any thing to weaken the enemy.' He then headed a committee for the 70th Ohio Infantry that endorsed the proclamation and called on the government to employ blacks 'in whatever manner they can be made most serviceable to the United States army, whether it be to handle the spade of slavery not as a moral issue, but because it was a valuable auxiliary to the Confederate cause.64
Historian James McPherson wrote: At Port Hudson, Milliken's Bend, and Fort Wagner black soldiers in 1863 proved their willingness and ability to fight. That began a process of converting many skeptics into true believers....Such a change of mind was not confined to officers. After black troops had assaulted and captured a portion of the Confederate line at Petersburg on June 15, 1864, a sergeant in the 20th Indiana expressed surprise at 'how civilly our boys treated them. They used to make fun of, and ill treat every negro, soldier or slave, that we passed.'"65
Lincoln biographers Nicolay and Hay wrote: "The actual tangible military result which he declares was his constitutional and legal warrant for his edict of military emancipation is set forth in the following extracts. Whether we judge it by the narrow technical rules of applied jurisprudence, or by the broader principles of the legal philosophy of Christian nations, it forms equally his complete vindication. In the draft of a letter to Isaac M. Schermerhorn he wrote, September 12, 1864: 'Any different policy in regard to the colored man deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear. We cannot spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen and laborers, This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force, which may be measured and estimated as horse power and steam power are measure and estimated. Keep it, and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it."66
President Lincoln repeatedly emphasized the important contributions of black soldiers to the war effort. He wrote in August 1864: "Drive back to the support of the rebellion the physical force which the colored people now give and promise us, and neither the present nor any coming Administration can save the Union. Take from us and give to the enemy the hundred and thirty, forty, or fifty thousand colored persons now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers and we cannot longer maintain the contest. The party who could elect a President on a War & Slavery Restoration platform, would, of necessity, lose the colored force; and that force being lost, would be as powerless to save the Union as to do any other impossible thing. It is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force, which may be measured, and estimated as horsepower, and steam power, are measured and estimated. And by measurement, it is more than we can lose, and live. Nor can we, by discarding it, get a white force in place of it. There is a witness in every white mans bosom that he would rather go to the war having the negro to help him, than to help the enemy against him. It is not the giving of one class for another. It is simply giving a large force to the enemy, for nothing in return."67
Historian John T. Hubbell wrote: "The enlistment of blacks into the Union Army was part of Lincoln's evolving on slavery and race, a policy charged with political, social, and psychological overtones. The black man as soldier – with rifle and bayonet – was a different figure from the slave. His presence, while a military necessity, was also a potent blow to the idea of the innate inferiority of the African, an idea not peculiar to the South. Those who urged the enlistment of blacks realized it[s] implications. Some political figures saw it as a necessity calculated to outrage the South. Black leaders saw it from a different perspective. Not only would the enlistment of blacks serve a military purpose, but most assuredly it would also enhance the sense of manhood among black men, a sense deliberately blunted by public policy through the nation."68
"We are all for Old Abe," a black soldier in South Carolina, James Ruffin, wrote home in the fall of 1864. "I hope he will be elected. Let the colored men at home do their duty." Concluded Historian James McPherson: "Nearly every Northern Negro who possessed the franchise cast his ballot in November for Abraham Lincoln." In mid-March 1865, President Lincoln addressed the 140th Indiana Regiment in Washington
A few words only. I was born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, reside in Illinois, and now here, it is my duty to care equally for the good people of all the States. I am to-day glad of seeing it in the power of an Indiana regiment to present this captured flag to the good governor of their State. And yet I would not wish to compliment Indiana above other states, remembering that all have done so well. There are but few aspects of this great war on which I have not already expressed my views by speaking or writing. There is one – the recent effort of our erring brethern, sometimes so-called, to employ the slaves in their armies. The great question with them has been; "will the negro fight for them?" They ought to know better than we; and doubtless, do know better than we. I may incidentally remark, however, that having, in my life, heard many arguments, – or strings of words meant to pass for arguments,– intended to show that the negro ought to be a slave, that if he shall now really fight to keep himself a slave, it will be a far better argument why [he] should remain a slave than I have ever before heard. He, perhaps, ought to be a slave, if he desires it ardently enough to fight for it. Or, if one out of four will, for his own freedom, fight to keep the other three in slavery, he ought to be a slave for his selfish meanness. I have always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly those who desire it for others. Whenever [I] hear any one, arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.
Biographers Nicolay and Hay wrote that President Lincoln took many opportunities to remind northerners of the debt they owed to black soldiers: "So also in an interview with John T. Mills he said: 'But no human power can subdue this rebellion without the use of the emancipation policy and every other policy calculated to weaken the moral and physical calculated to weaken the moral and physical forces of the rebellion. Freedom has given us 200,000 men, raised on Southern soil. It will give us more yet. Just so much it has subtracted from the enemy...Let my enemies prove to the country that the destruction of slavery is not necessary to a restoration of the Union; I will abide issue.'"
We might stop here and assume that President Lincoln's argument is complete. But he was by nature so singularly frank and conscientious, and by mental constitution so unavoidably logical, that he could not, if he had desired, do things or even seem to do them by indirection or subterfuge. This, the most weighty of his responsibilities and the most difficult of his trials, he could not permit to rest upon doubt or misconstruction. In addition to what we have already quoted he has left us a naked and final restatement of the main question, with the unequivocal answer of his motive and conviction. It has been shown above how Mr. Chase, in the discussions of the final phraseology of the January proclamation, urged him to omit his former exemptions of certain fractional parts of insurrectionary States. Despite the President's adverse decision, Mr. Chase continued from time to time to urge this measure during the year 1863. To these requests the President finally replied as follows on the 2d of September:70
Knowing your great anxiety that the emancipation proclamation shall now be applied to certain parts of Virginia and Louisiana which were exempted from it last January, I state briefly what appear to me be difficulties in the way of such a step. The original proclamation has not constitutional or legal justification, except as a military measure. The exemptions were made because the military necessity did not apply to the exempted localities. Nor does that necessity apply to them now any more than it did then. If I take the step must I not do so, without the argument of military necessity, and so, without any argument, except the one that I think the measure politically expedient, and morally right? Would I not thus give up all footing upon constitution or law? Would I not thus be in the boundless field of absolutism? Could this pass unnoticed, or unresisted? Could it fail to be perceived that without any further stretch, I might do the same in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri; and even change any law in any state? Would not many of our own friends shrink away appalled? Would it not lose us the elections, and with them, the very cause we seek to advance?71
About the same time, President Lincoln sent a major state paper to a mass Union meeting in Springfield, Illinois, In the so-called "Conkling letter", President Lincoln addressed critics of his war policies:
You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistence to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time then for you to declare you will not fight to free negroes.
Simon Cameron (Mr. Lincoln and Friends)
Simon Cameron (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Salmon P. Chase (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Frederick Douglass (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
John C. Frémont (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Joseph Holt (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
David Hunter (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
William H. Seward (Mr. Lincoln and Friends)
William H. Seward (Mr. Lincoln and New York)
William H. Seward (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Edwin M. Stanton (Mr. Lincoln and Friends)