An Unusual Friendship -
Lincoln & Frederick Douglass
By William Connery

We are now in the year of remembering the 140th Anniversary of the ending of the Civil War. This includes the final tragic ending, when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Ford,s Theater on April 14, 1865. One of the most important friendships that developed during that conflict was the one between President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Immediately after the Civil War began in April 1861, Douglass began to call for the use of black troops to fight the Confederacy. He argued for the establishment of colored regiments in the Union army. President Lincoln's first concern was preserving the Union, however, so Douglass' call at that time was not heeded.
Lincoln believed the primary directive of the North was to preserve the Union and not to end slavery. He proclaimed: "If I could save the Union, without freeing the slaves, I would do it. If I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the coloured race, I do because I believe it would help to save the Union."
In spite of the seeming pro-slavery policy of the Lincoln administration, Douglass was earnestly working in the President,s support. He was wise enough to understand that if Lincoln in the beginning, had stated his policy to be, not only to save the Union, but also to free the slaves, all would have been lost. In his speeches Douglass always emphasized "the mission of the war was the liberation of the slaves as well as the salvation of the Union. I reproached the North that they fought with one hand, while they might fight more effectively with two; that they fought with the soft white hand, while they kept the black iron hand chained and helpless behind them; that they fought the effect, while they protected the cause; and said that the Union cause would never prosper until the war assumed an anti-slavery attitude and the Negro was enlisted on the side of the Union."
Douglass saw the Civil War as a struggle between freedom and slavery. For him, the sin of slavery could only be ended if Americans were forced to shed their blood. John Brown would be vindicated and blacks could take their place as citizens and equals. It was not until January 1863, following the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation, that Gov. John Andrew of Massachusetts was given permission to raise the 54th Regiment of Colored Troops. Douglass became a recruiter, personally enlisting two companies of men, including two of his own sons, Charles and Lewis.
It was decided not to give the black soldiers the same pay as that allowed to the white troops. Negro soldiers were to receive only seven dollars per month. Regular pay was $13 a month. Douglass was distressed by the restrictions put upon these soldiers, but said, "While I, of course, was deeply pained and saddened by the estimate thus put upon my race, and grieved at the slowness of heart which marked the conduct of the loyal government, I was not discouraged and urged every man who would enlist to get an eagle on his button, a musket on his shoulder, and the star and spangle over his head." Only through black participation in the war, he believed, could abolition and full citizenship for Negroes be established.
In July 1863, Douglass met with Lincoln in the White House to redress the grievances that the black troops were suffering as second-class citizens. It was unheard of for a colored man to go to the White House with a grievance. But he had many influential friends and admirers in Washington, and Senators Sumner, Wilson, and Pomeroy; Secretary of the Treasury Chase, Assistant Secretary of War Dana all guaranteed safe passage into Lincoln,s presence. Senator Pomeroy introduced Douglass to the President and they soon found that they had much in common. The one had traveled a long hard path from the slave cabin of Maryland, and the other a thorny road from the scant and rugged life of Kentucky, to the high position of President. The one was too great to be a slave, and the other too noble to remain, in such a national crisis, a private citizen.
Douglass stated three complaints to the President: that colored troops be paid the same as white troops; that they be fairly treated, especially when captured by the Confederates (some colored troops had been summarily executed or sent into slavery); and that colored troops should receive the same promotions as whites, when their valor in battle demanded it. A few days later, President Lincoln issued an order "that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labour on the public works."
This was the first of Douglass, visits to the White House. At one such meeting, he relates, "while in conversation with him [Lincoln], his secretary twice announced Governor Buckingham of Connecticut, one of the noblest and most patriotic of the loyal governors. Mr. Lincoln said: Tell Governor Buckingham to wait, for I want to have a long talk with my friend, Frederick Douglass., I interposed and begged him to see the governor at once, as I could wait, but no, he persisted that that he wanted to talk with me and that Governor Buckingham could wait. In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular colour." Before the end of the war, many black soldiers were receiving equal pay and promotions. During the last two years of the war about 200,000 African Americans served in Union regiments. When given the chance to fight, blacks proved as brave as anyone. More than 30,000 died fighting for freedom and the Union.
Douglass was in Boston when Richmond fell. He was the honored speaker at many meetings. He had reason to feel not only joy but also gratitude. It was clear that all he had hoped and struggled for was soon to be realized. The close of the war and the overthrow of the institution of slavery was for him a sort of personal victory. But his rejoicing was soon turned to mourning. At the time of the assassination of President Lincoln he was in Rochester, and he spoke at a meeting held to express the sorrow that that event created. A friend related the occasion:
"Rochester court-house never held a larger crowd than was gathered to mourn over the martyred President. The most eloquent men at the Bar and the pulpit, with carefully prepared and earnestly uttered addresses, opened the meeting. All the time the people were not aroused. Douglass, who told me that he would not speak because he was not invited, sat crowded in the rear. At last the feeling could be restrained no more; and his name burst upon the air from every side and filled the house. The dignified gentlemen who directed had to surrender.
Then came the finest appeal in behalf of the father of his people, who had died for them especially, and would be mourned by them as long as one remained in America who had been a slave. I have heard Webster and Clay in their best moments; Channing and Beecher in their highest inspirations. I never heard truer eloquence; I never saw profounder impression. When he finished the meeting was done."
In her grief, and with the assistance of her personal aide, Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln sent mementos to special people. Among the recipients of some of the President's canes were the black abolitionist, Henry Highland Garnet, and a White House servant, William Slade. But to Douglass Mrs. Lincoln sent the President's favorite walking staff, (on display today at Cedar Hill, Douglass' home in Washington, DC). In his remarkable letter of reply, Douglass assured the First Lady that he would forever possess the cane as an "object of sacred interest," not only for himself, but also because of Mr. Lincoln's "humane interest in the welfare of my whole race." In this expression of gratitude, Douglass evoked the enduring symbolic bond between the sixteenth President and many African Americans.
William Connery is a freelance writer living in Alexandria, VA. He has written on other Civil War topics, including Baltimore and Fort McHenry, the USCT at Fort Pocahontas and Montana. He is available for talks and tours at This article is compiled from Mr. Connery,s article on Frederick Douglass in the February 2003 issue of The World & I Magazine and Frederick Douglass by Booker T. Washington (Hodder and Stoughton, 1906).



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