- 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
- 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."
- SUPPORTING LINCOLN
- 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
- VISITING LINCOLN
- 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.
- THE DEATH OF LINCOLN
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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).