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Douglass’ Role in the Civil War

“A war undertaken and brazenly carried for the perpetual enslavement of the colored men, calls logically and loudly for the colored men to help suppress it.”

 

Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln

“Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes,” The mural was painted by William Edouard Scott, at the Recorder of Deeds building in Washington, D.C.Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Growing political tensions over the spread of slavery started a decade before the beginning of the war. As a preamble to the Civil War, between 1854 and 1861, there were a series of violent political confrontations known as Bloody Kansas or Bleeding Kansas as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The conflict arouse primarily on the subject of Kansas being accepted into the Union as a slave-free or slave state. The election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 and the of Republican Party’s determination to stop the spread of slavery, left southerners feeling threatened of what they considered was their Constitutional right to own slaves.

When the Civil War began in 1861 Douglass began advocating for black soldiers to be included in the Union Army. As a natural sequence of events, Douglass believed that free blacks from the north had the responsibility to fight for the Union. One of the reasons for the Civil war was that the South wanted secession from the Union to maintain the highly profitable slavery system; therefore they were fighting for the abolition of slavery in the country. Participating in the war was a way for black freedmen to prove their bravery and to show to be worthy of American citizenship by risking their lives for their country. Likewise, the Union would benefit by having more man power to fight the south.

Douglass advised President Lincoln that black freedmen were willing to fight in the Civil War. However, President Lincoln and other political leaders were unsure as to the consequences of enlisting African American soldiers to fight alongside white soldiers. For two years Douglass wrote endlessly in his publication, Douglass Monthly, in letters to influential friends and communicated his views in public speaking gatherings, about the importance of enlisting African American troops.

Not until the Emancipation Proclamation on January, 1863 were African Ameican men allowed to enlist. As soon as he got orders to start recruiting for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment his sons, Charles and Lewis, were one of the first ones to enroll. His oldest son, Frederick, worked recruiting soldiers. Frederick Douglass traveled thousands of miles attending recruiting conferences and talking about the responsibility of black freedmen in the American Civil War. He had gained notoriety for his efforts to end slavery and for his public speaking skills, he was a well respected, self made man who many young men admired. His recruitment efforts were highly successful as regiments quickly filled up. Among the best known articles he wrote in Douglass Monthly are “Another Word to Colored Men”,  “Why should a Black Man enlist?” and “Men of Color to Arms”.

At the beginning of their enlistment in the Army black soldiers were assigned non-military and low responsibility jobs such as cleaning and manual labor. They received lower pay than white soldiers. They were paid $10 per month with a $3 deduction for the cost of their uniforms while white soldiers got paid $13 per month with no deduction for uniforms. The Union gradually realized of the importance of black soldiers and in June 1864 Congress leveled their salary to that of white soldiers and made it retroactive. As the war continued black troops took on more responsibility and eventually made up 9 to 12 percent of the Union Army. Close to 200,000 black soldiers served in the Civil War and close to 40,000 perished.

The U.S. government policy towards blacks and their citizenship evolved over the civil war years and by the end of the war the U.S government was ready to give them citizenship. Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment on June 1866. It granted citizenship to blacks and guaranteed due process and equal protection under the law to all citizens regardless of race or religion.

The years that followed were the reconstruction years, restoring national unity among the north and the south was the goal of the President Andrew Johnson.

 

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