Why Frederick Douglass Wanted Black Men to Fight in the Civil War

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During the Civil War, Frederick Douglass used his stature as the most prominent African American social reformer, orator, writer and abolitionist to recruit men of his race to volunteer for the Union army. In his “Men of Color to Arms! Now or Never!” broadside, Douglass called on formerly enslaved men to “rise up in the dignity of our manhood, and show by our own right arms that we are worthy to be freemen.”

Douglass, who had risen to international fame after the 1845 publication of his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, saw the Civil War as the “golden moment” for African American men to join all races of men to “assert their claim to freedom and manly character.” By defending their country, Douglass believed, his brethren could “claim America as his country—and have that claim respected.” As uniformed soldiers, Black men could shed the image of the powerless enslaved person and assert the rights of male citizenship that came with patriotic service.

Douglass Stood Up to His Oppressor; It Became a Turning Point

Douglass’ recruitment strategy was an outgrowth of his own experiences as a formerly enslaved person who had endured daily assaults on his manhood. In his autobiographies, he is preoccupied with this theme, writing about his youth of “hardship, whipping and nakedness.”

When he was a 16-year-old toiling on a Maryland tobacco field, Douglass wrote, a particularly vicious overseer named Edward Covey had “succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul and spirit.” But as Covey was attempting to abuse him yet again, Douglass recounted, he snapped, engaging in a knock-down, drag-out fight that lasted nearly two hours—and resulted in Covey never laying a finger on him again. That act of resistance, and the victory achieved, “revived within me a sense of my manhood and inspired me with a determination to be free.” It took four years before Douglas would legally be free, but beating Covey had made him, in essence, a free man. “My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed,“ Douglass wrote, “however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” For Douglass, the Civil War provided men of his race an opportunity to arouse that same kind of inner pride and fight—and in doing so, to defend and save their souls.

READ MORE: Frederick Douglass’s Emotional Meeting with His Former Slave Master

Not Just a ‘White Man’s War’

From the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Douglass pleaded to Abraham Lincoln and others to give Black men a chance to fight. “Is he not a man?” Douglass wrote in his newspaper Douglass’ Monthly. “Can he not wield a sword, fire a gun, march and countermarch, and obey others like any other?” Yet for most white men on the Union side, this was not a matter for men of color. It was a white man’s war.

It would mostly be a white man’s war until Lincoln on January 1, 1863 signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all enslaved people in the states that had seceded from the Union. The proclamation included a provision calling for the recruitment of African American men into the Union armed forces. Empowered now to recruit with government authority, Douglass traveled more than 2,000 miles from Boston to Chicago, extolling the virtues of service to the Union cause to Black men. He would end many of his recruiting speeches by leading the audience in “John Brown’s Body,” a popular song of the Union Army.

READ MORE: Why Frederick Douglass Matters

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Poster recruiting black men to fight in the Union Army in the American Civil War, USA, circa 1863. The poster, which leads with the declaration ‘Men of Color To Arms! To Arms!’ is signed by many, including Frederick Douglass, a staunch believer in the equality of all people and a major figure in the abolitionist movement.

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment

In early 1863, Douglass was paid $10 per week by the Massachusetts Legislature to recruit African American men for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first Black military unit raised by the North during the Civil War. He would use his self-published newspaper, Douglass’ Monthly, as a powerful communication tool—both to recruit Black men and to convince white people who doubted Black men’s ability and aptitude to fight. Douglass mass-produced his Men of Color broadside and had it displayed widely across northern cities. According to David Blight, author of the biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, Douglass, who often addressed his audiences as “Brothers and Fathers,” had come to view the war as a “special affair of black fraternity and manhood.”

READ MORE: How Frederick Douglass Escaped Slavery

But even as African Americans showed skepticism of the treatment they would receive within the Union Army, many were persuaded by Douglass’ appeals to their manliness and the rights of manhood. Douglass’s own sons, Lewis and Charles, became two of the first to volunteer for the 54th, which ultimately comprised more than 1,000 men from 15 Northern states. On May 28, 1863, the regiment marched through the Boston streets before they set sail for Beaufort, South Carolina. Douglass was there to send off his sons and many of the men that he had recruited into the regiment. “No one who witnessed this event would ever forget what they saw that day,” wrote Blight: “a thousand smartly stepping black men with Enfield rifles, leaning forward gracefully, moving as one body toward history, heroism, and death to prove to their slaveholding country that they were indeed truly men.”

For Douglass and his recruits, wearing the uniforms carried great symbolism and pride. “An eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and his bullets in his pockets,” Douglass said, “there is no power on earth…which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.” While he may not have agreed with the crude, debasing language, Douglass would have agreed with the white Union officer who described the metamorphosis of Black man-turned-soldier: “Yesterday a filthy, repulsive ‘n****r’, today a neatly attired man, yesterday a slave, today a freeman, yesterday a civilian, today a soldier. He is nothing of what he ever before was, he never was aught of what he now is.”

READ MORE: What Abraham Lincoln Thought About Slavery

The Legacy of Douglass’s Enlistment Strategy

54th Massachusetts infantry regiment

A mural of the 54th Massachusetts regiment, under the leadership of Colonel Shaw in the attack on Fort Wagner, Morris Island, South Carolina, 1863, located at the Recorder of Deeds building, Washington, D.C. 

On July 16, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts suffered massive casualties during its assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, but the regiment’s bravery and professionalism were instrumental in proving that African American men were more than capable as soldiers. Their example led to the formation of other Black units: While enlistment of black men had been slow until Douglass made his impassioned appeal for their military service, ultimately some 180,000, African American soldiers served in the Civil War—nearly 10 percent of the total number of men who fought.

Thomas Long, a formerly enslaved Civil War veteran, expressed perhaps one of Douglass’s most cherished outcomes from the war: “If we hadn’t become sojers, all might have gone back as it was before,” he said. “But now tings can neber go back, because have showed our energy and our courage and our natural manhood.”

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