Friday, November 23, 2012

The “Interpretive Choice” in Spielberg’s Lincoln

In the President’s annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862, Abraham Lincoln proposed a 13th amendment to the Constitution that would abolish slavery. Lincoln said, “The proposed emancipation would shorten the war, perpetuate peace, insure this increase in population, and proportionately the wealth of the country.” Though Lincoln’s “personal wish [was] that all men everywhere could be free,” his commitment to emancipation has been questioned by many contemporary scholars. In Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, his commitment is clarified.

Spielberg’s Lincoln is an outstanding exploration into how the 13th Amendment got passed in the House of Representatives. The movie followed the historical script so well that it was almost boring. There were moments when my head nodded, and it was not because I was nodding in agreement. (I went to the 11:00 PM show.) The movie had a documentary quality to it that was complimented by excellent acting. The more familiar one is with the Congressional Globe and Lincoln’s papers, both accessible at Library of Congress websites, the more impressed one is with the historical accuracy of the film. However, if one seeks a certain interpretation of history, the film might be a disappointment.

On Sunday morning, a friend sent me a review of Spielberg’s Lincoln from the New York Times written by Kate Masur a professor of history at Northwestern University. Masur wrote, “It is a well known pastime of historians to quibble with Hollywood over details. Here, however, the issue is not factual accuracy but interpretive choice [emphasis added]. A stronger African- American presence, even at the margins of Mr. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ would have suggested that another dynamic of emancipation was occurring just outside the frame — a world of black political debate, of civic engagement and of monumental effort for the liberation of body and spirit.” Masur’s interpretive choice would have added affirmative action fiction to Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Professor Masur’s recommendation that Frederick Douglass be portrayed in the movie is an interpretive choice that would have made the movie less factual. The focus of the movie was on the passage of the 13th Amendment. Douglass did not have a role in getting the amendment passed in January 1865. His monthly had even ceased publication by then. The professor’s review was essentially an admonishment to Hollywood to do what Glory did and make history fiction in order to get the token Negro in the inner circle of the film’s main character. And, of course, when it comes to contemporary Civil War scholarship at our finest institutions, Frederick Douglass is the affirmative action inner circle Negro. Fortunately, Spielberg did not lend his talents to such fiction.

As it pertains to African Americans, Spielberg’s interpretive choice to include their role as soldiers is noteworthy because Lincoln truly valued their military contributions. With this choice, Spielberg chose to stay on topic and not venture to the margins in order to squeeze a selected African American into the frame. When the Confederate peace commission came through City Point, Virginia, in early 1865, thousands of African American soldiers were positioned in and around that Union stronghold. Therefore, the scene when the Confederate officials came face to face with African descent soldiers resonates with significant historical accuracy. Spielberg’s interpretive choice to note the military contributions of African Americans rather than to find a way to include an African American editor at the margins should be applauded not censured by those who seek to include the role of the enslaved in the “dynamic of emancipation” that was occurring inside the frame.

As for the overall historical accuracy as it relates to African descent soldiers, I have one minor criticism of the movie. Two African American soldiers are speaking to President Lincoln in the second scene. One shares his personal story in a Kansas regiment before being transferred to the East in a Kentucky regiment. The other a corporal from a Massachusetts regiment complains about there not being any African American commissioned officers. Though many popular scholars make that claim, it is simply not accurate. At the moment in history the scene depicts, there were over 100 African American commissioned officers who had served in the Union Army. Indeed, out in Kansas in late 1864, the Independent Battery United States Colored Light Artillery had been mustered into the Union Army commanded by an African American officer, Captain Hezekiah Ford Douglas. All the commissioned officers in the battery were African Americans. African American commissioned officers were also serving in a Massachusetts regiment.

The movie covers a time span from the fall of 1864 to April 1865. Therefore, there was an opportunity to report historically accurate events concerning Lincoln personally commissioning African American officers. Lincoln commissioned Alexander Augusta as a captain in October 1862, and Augusta was a Lieutenant Colonel (Brevet) as a surgeon with the 7th United States Colored Infantry in April 1865. Martin Delany met with Lincoln in the White House a couple of weeks after the President signed the 13th Amendment, and Lincoln commissioned Delany a major that February. The corporal’s fictitious complaint in the second scene was not consistent with the historical fact that Lincoln personally commissioned African American officers.

Because of the movie’s primary focus, I do not find fault in Spielberg’s Lincoln for not mentioning Lt. Colonel Augusta or Major Delany even though they could have been easily put in the frame where soldiers appeared not simply “at the margins” where Masur wanted her editor. Lincoln personally commissioned the highest ranking African American officer in the Civil War, Lt. Colonel Augusta, who treated wounded soldiers on battlefields Lincoln visited near Petersburg. Lincoln personally commissioned the only African descent officer to command his own regiment. Major Delany was the commander of 104th United States Colored Infantry in April 1865.

With that said, I consider my historical criticism extremely minor given the focus of the movie; and I highly recommend the movie to students of the Civil War. After you watch the film, I also recommend you compare the Congressional debates in the movie to the records of the Congressional debates that you can access online at the Library of Congress website “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation.” I also recommend a visit to the Library Congress website hosting the “Abraham Lincoln Papers.” (See below for the links.) Query keywords such as emancipation, 13th Amendment, African, colored soldiers and freedom. Read and enjoy the primary sources that will give you a more expansive interpretive choice and help you understand the intelligent choices of Lincoln and Spielberg. I am certain after reviewing these primary sources you will have a greater appreciation for the historical accuracy of Spielberg’s Lincoln. The film is almost a documentary, and far more historically accurate than 50% of the documentary films I have seen on the Civil War.

As for Masur’s criticism of the film, she admits that it is not historically based. Her criticism is simply a question of interpretive choice, which actually means the historical fiction she prefers for the sake of inclusiveness “even at the margins,” and Douglass is her recommended Negro “at the margins.” Douglass was an advisor to Lincoln many such scholars argue. Yet, to be fair to Masur, she only said he attended the inaugural ball in March 1865. Though many scholars assert that Douglass was the leader of the African American community during the war, he was not. Douglass was the editor of a journal read by more European Americans than African Americans. The young African Americans who fought in the Civil War were more likely to read the journal edited by Robert Hamilton, the Anglo-African, than they were to read the Douglass’ Monthly.

Masur’s interpretive choice would have placed Douglass in the movie because she does not know who else to put in the frame. I would love to know the professor’s opinion on the movie Glory, a grossly historically inaccurate film. My guess is that she probably compliments the director’s interpretive choice because Douglass was included in that film. He attended a fictitious party at the fictitious Shaw mansion in Boston and was engaged in a fictitious inner circle conversation with Robert Gould Shaw about fighting to free the Negroes. Such fiction is justified because it reveals “a world of black political debate, of civic engagement and of monumental effort for the liberation of body and spirit,” suggesting, of course, that we must make up such stories.

Masur’s criticism of Spielberg’s Lincoln demonstrates a propensity common among many contemporary scholars who seek to provide a view of history (an interpretive choice) that is in fact tokenism. Simply stated if they do not know the Negro who really did something related to the subject matter, they put the most famous Negro of the time, their super Negro, in the story simply to have a Negro in the inner circle. Among contemporary scholars, Frederick Douglass is the affirmative action Negro of the Civil War. I wonder if he would be fond of that dubiously esteemed position.

A Century of Lawmaking:

Abraham Lincoln Papers:

Saturday, October 6, 2012

What Were They Watching for on Watch Night?

What Were They Watching for on Watch Night?

With great expectations, African Americans looked to January 1, 1863, as the day of jubilee.  They congregated in churches and around “praying trees” in secret locations across the country on the evening of December 31, 1862, to “watch” for the coming of the Emancipation Proclamation; thus, the tradition of “watch night” was born.  “It is a day for poetry and song, a new song,” wrote Frederick Douglass.  “These cloudless skies, this balmy air, this brilliant sunshine, (making December as pleasant as May), are in harmony with the glorious morning of liberty about to dawn up on us.”  President Lincoln had promised a proclamation emancipating slaves in the states in rebellion 99 days earlier; and on “watch night,” Americans of African descent faithfully “watched” for his proclamation to be issued on the 100th day.  In Boston, Douglass reported that “a line of messengers was established between the telegraph office and the platform at Tremont Temple.”  When what Douglass called the “trump of jubilee” was heard, “joy and gladness exhausted all forms of expression, from shouts of praise to sobs and tears.”
In Washington, Reverend Henry M. Turner, pastor of Israel Bethel AME Church located on Capitol Hill, wrote that it was in the churches of the District of Columbia where “expressions of sentiments” for the Emancipation Proclamation could be heard.   “Watching” for the issuing of the final Emancipation Proclamation was not simply “watching” for emancipation.  African Americans were “watching” for the opportunity to fight for freedom.  The enslaved in the District had already been emancipated, but they prayed for the freedom of all.  Indeed, they were willing to fight for the freedom of all.  “Several colored men in this city,” wrote Reverend Turner, “say they are now ready for the battlefield.  Abraham Lincoln can get anything he wants from the colored people here from a company to a corps.  I would not be surprised to see myself carrying a musket before long.”  Later that year, Turner would recruit hundreds of men and become a chaplain in the Union Army.
It is important that we in the 21st century understand that the Emancipation Proclamation did not simply free the slaves.  It declared free slaves in the states in rebellion.  It was in Lincoln’s words “a fit and necessary war measure” for preserving the Union.  Lincoln wrote in the Proclamation that it “was warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity.”  The military necessity that led to the Emancipation Proclamation meant that the help of African Americans was needed to save the Union.  Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, declared in January 1863 that the “proclamation is also an authentic statement by the Government of the United States of its inability to subjugate the South by force of arms.”  In the 19th century African Americans, the leadership of the Confederacy, and the leadership of the Federal government understood that the Emancipation Proclamation was a military necessity that explicitly called on the help of African Americans.
Unequivocally, Lincoln believed that African descent soldiers were critical to Union success.  The President wrote to General Ulysses S. Grant in August 1863 stating that he believed African descent soldiers were “a resource which if vigourously [sic] applied now, will soon close the contest.”  Grant replied stating that he shared the President’s belief declaring that “by arming the negro, we have added a powerful ally.”  In response to a supporter who opposed emancipation and the use of African descent soldiers, Lincoln wrote, “I know, as fully as one can know the opinions of others that some of the commanders of our armies in the field, who have given us our most important successes, believe the emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion; and that at least one of those important successes could not have been achieved when it was, but for the aid of black soldiers.  Among the commanders holding these views are some who have never had any affinity with what is called abolitionism, or with Republican party politics, but who hold them purely as military opinion.” 
Therefore, when we celebrate and commemorate “watch night” and the 150th anniversary of the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, we should appreciate the importance of African Americans in saving the Union and freeing themselves.  Such an appreciation is to understand the practical significance of the Proclamation as the people who made the history understood it.  We are commemorating the “watching for” the hour that the government’s policy aligned with prayers of liberation and celebrating African descent patriots being armed with the Emancipation Proclamation.  As we gather in churches, synagogues, and mosques in prayer across the country on “watch night;” we should appreciate that with faith and courage on December 31, 1862, Americans of African descent were “watching for” the opportunity to secure “the blessings of  liberty for themselves and their posterity” under the banner of the U. S. Constitution.  With the support of the Federal government, they were deployed as enforcers of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Indeed, January 1, 1863 was a day of Jubilee not because the slaves were set free but because the enslaved were called upon to save the Union and armed accordingly with the legal authority to set themselves free.      

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Juneteenth, A Flag day Celebration

Hari Jones, Curator
African American Civil War Museum 

Juneteenth, a Flag Day Celebration

Juneteenth commemorates the news on June 19, 1865, that slaves in Texas were free. The general order, read on the steps of Ashton Villa at 2328 Broadway in Galveston, came almost three years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862.

Houston Chronicle Friday, June 15, 2012

I like that Juneteenth falls near Flag Day for Juneteenth is truly a patriotic day if it is celebrated for the historically correct reason.  If you are celebrating Juneteenth because you believe that the news of the Emancipation Proclamation did not get to Texas until June 19, 1865, you have been co-opted by the wrong reason.  A close examination of historical events in Texas with particular attention given to the voices of African Americans who lived in Texas during the Civil War is required to get to the historical roots of the celebration.  Such an examination of facts demonstrates that the news of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was certainly in Texas in 1862, that the news of the final Emancipation was certainly in Texas in 1863 and that Juneteenth is worth celebrating for a more uplifting and patriotic reason.

In Texas, one of the earliest Union bombardments was the bombardment of Galveston in September 1861, the first year of the war. (Harper’s Weekly, September 7, 1862, “Bombardment of Galveston”)  At eighty six years old Jacob Branch remembered the bombardment, “One morning Eleck and I git up at crack of dawn to milk.  All at once come a shock what shook the earth.  De big fish jump clean out de bay and turtles and alligators run out deir ponds.  Dey plumb ruint Galveston!  Us runned to de house and all de dishes and things done jump out de shelf.  Dat de first bombardment of Galveston.”  (“Jacob Branch”, Voices From Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives, edited by Norman R. Yetman, page 41) Early in the war, African Americans in Texas like Jacob Branch felt the effects of the War of the Rebellion.

According to the 1860 U. S. Census, Galveston was the largest city in Texas with a population of 7,207 of which 1,200 were enslaved.

Residents of African descent in Galveston were introduced to Union forces in person a year after the first bombardment.   Commander Jonathan M. Wainwright, commanding the Navy gunboat Harriet Lane, took possession of the largest city in Texas and raised the Stars and Stripes over the old U.S. Customs House on October 4, 1862.  Three companies of the 42nd Massachusetts Infantry arrived there on December 25, 1862 (A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion compiled by Frederick Dyer, page 792).
The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation had been issued three months earlier on September 22, 1862. In this proclamation, Abraham Lincoln warned the Rebel states that he would declare free their slaves if they did not cease their rebellion by January 1, 1863.  There was great anticipation of Lincoln’s final Emancipation Proclamation wherever the Union held territory in the Rebel states.  Though the enslaved eagerly waited for the Day of Jubilee, an impending Rebel attack led by Confederate General John McGruder tempered the anticipation of those around Galveston.


In the early morning of January 1, 1863, the day the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Rebel forces under McGruder recaptured Galveston.  Disappointed by the Union’s departure, enslaved freedom seekers in the Houston and Galveston area sought other means of emancipation.  Jacob Branch reported, “After the war starts lots of slaves runned off to join the Yankees.  All dem in dis part heads for the Rio Grande river.  De Mexicans rig up flatboats out in the middle of de river, tied to stakes with rope.  When the cullud [African descent] people gets to de rope de can pull deyself ‘cross de rest of de way on dem boats.  De white folks rode de ‘Merican [American] side dat river all de time, but plenty slaves git through anyway”  (“Jacob Branch”, Yetman page 41).  Accordingly after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and Galveston was recaptured, enslaved persons in Texas emancipated themselves by escaping and joining the Yankees.

 Harriet Lane.           Rebel Gun-boats.               Owasco.           Westfield being blown up.     Mary Boardman.


In early 1863, Union military strategy demanded that efforts be focused on the control of the Mississippi River and therefore the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Three months after the Union captured Vicksburg and seven months after the Rebels had recaptured Galveston, the Union turned its attention back to Texas capturing the Gulf Coast of Texas from Brownsville to Indianola in the fall of 1863.  (Harper’s Weekly, November 28, 1863, “The Texas Expedition”, December 12, 1863, “The Texas Campaign” and January 16, 1864, “Texas”)  Henry Lewis an enslaved person residing near Liberty reported that he heard Union guns near the Sabine Pass.  The 1st Corps d’Afrique (later redesignated the 95th USCT) participated in the Sabine Pass Expedition in September 1863. (Dyer, page 2117)  Five African American regiments joined General Nathaniel Banks on his Texas Expedition in the fall of 1863. (Dyer, pages 2117 -2121)  By late November 1863, the Union Army with African descent soldiers brought the news of the Emancipation Proclamation to Texas long before June19, 1865.  Enslaved persons certainly knew about their declared emancipation before their proclamation was enforced in June.  Lewis reported, “When de War come on I seed soldiers every day.  Dey have de camp in Liberty and I watches dem.  I heard the guns, too, maybe at Sabine Pass, but I didn’t see no actual fightin’.   Dey sent the papers down on March fifth, I done heard, but dey didn’t turn us loose den.  Dis is the last state to turn the slaves free.  When dey didn’t let dem go in March, de Yankee soldiers come in June and make dem let us go.” (“Henry Lewis”, Voices From Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives, edited by Norman R. Yetman, page 206)  The story of the Yankee soldiers of African and European descent “making” slaveholders free their slaves is the story of Juneteenth that is worth celebrating.

On April 3, 1865, the 25th Army Corps comprised of exclusively United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments, captured Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy.   After the capture of the Rebel capital, the Army of Northern Virginia was is full retreat.  In the early morning of April 9, 1865, a brigade of African descent soldiers of the 25th Army Corps led by the 41st USCT skirmished with General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia south and west of a small Virginia town called Appomattox Court House.  After a five-hour skirmish, Lee decided he could no longer continue to prosecute the war.  Later that day he surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia because that is where Union soldiers of African descent stopped his army.  Thirteen USCT regiments witnessed Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865.  The war was over in the minds of most soldiers, but most of the Rebel states did not surrender immediately; therefore, the Emancipation Proclamation still had to be enforced.  By the end of May 1865 all but one had surrendered.  The Confederate government in Texas still refused to submit to Federal authority.  The Rebel governor Pendleton Murrah hoped to make Texas the seat of the new Confederacy, but the Lone Star State had become the priority of Union efforts.
From November 1863 to May 1865, seven United States Colored Troops regiments were among the Union troops on occupation duty along the Gulf Coast of Texas.  The occupation troops in Texas needed reinforcements in order to completely suppress the rebellion there.  On May 22, 1865, the then famed 25th Army Corps received embarkation orders.  Thomas Morris Chester, an African American war correspondent, wrote:  “That the negro corps, under General Weitzel, has received marching orders is well known throughout their camps, and they are beginning to put on the war-paint with the impression that they are going to Texas.  They look forward to the period of embarkation with a great deal of satisfaction.”   (Thomas Morris Chester, Black Correspondent: His Dispatches from the Virginia Front edited by R.J.M. Blackett, page 353)  By June 13, 1865, nine regiments of this famed “Negro Corps” that had captured Richmond were in Texas.
Unable to repulse the Union Army comprised of mostly African descent soldiers, Governor Murrah along with his two top generals, McGruder and Smith, accompanied by 10,000 Rebel troops crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico in the early morning of June 15, 1865. (Cortina: Defending the Mexican Name in Texas by Jerry Thompson, page 150)  Chased out of Texas by Yankees soldiers who were largely of African descent, the Rebel government surrendered the Lone Star State in fact to these sable Yankees.  On the next day June 16, 1865, Texas officially surrendered to Federal authority; and the last state in rebellion was finally brought back into the Union.  The Stars and Stripes was returned to the Texas state house that June.  The Union was preserved that June.  That June a victorious Union Army with African American soldiers as standard bearers liberated the enslaved of Texas who were declared free by the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

Given these facts, Juneteenth is not at its historical roots “when the news of the Emancipation Proclamation got to Texas.”  The news was in Texas in the persons of African descent Yankee soldiers and sailors in 1862 and 1863.  Juneteenth is when such Yankee soldiers and sailors brought Texas back into the Union and freed the enslaved by enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation.  As Henry Lewis reported, “Dis is the last state to turn the slaves free.  When dey didn’t let dem go in March, de Yankee soldiers come in June and make dem let us go.” (“Henry Lewis”, Yetman, page 206)  Throughout Texas the news and most importantly the enforcement of the Proclamation arrived at different times.  Bill Homer of Fort Worth reported, “After surrender, Missy reads de paper and tells we’uns is free, by dat we’uns kin stay till we is adjusted to de change.” (“Bill Homer”, Yetman, page 170)  The change to be adjusted to was brought on by a military victory in which Americans of African descent played an important role. 

If you are celebrating Juneteenth because you believe that June 19, 1865 is the day “when the news of the Emancipation Proclamation got to Texas,” you are celebrating for the wrong reason.  When I celebrate Juneteenth, I am celebrating a military victory over the Texas Rebels that resulted in the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in all the ten states that were in rebellion in 1863 as well as the successful effort to keep the Republic indivisible.  School children in Texas pledge allegiance to the Stars and Stripes because of the military victory that brought Texas back into the Union.  That’s why I like that Juneteenth falls near Flag Day.

According to the Houston Chronicle, there are 41 states that “recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, and Maryland currently has legislation pending that could make it the 42nd state.”  In each of these states the Juneteenth holiday according to legislation was established because the news of the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t get to Texas until June 19,1865.  While advancing and getting this false explanation into legislation across the country, the leader of the national campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday believes that this maybe “the year for Juneteenth to be recognized as a national holiday observance in America, like Flag Day and Patriot Day."  Before the nation takes on the expense of another Federal holiday, we should at least get the history correct.  The Federal legislature should not be as careless and loose with the history as 41 state legislatures have been.  Falsehoods embedded in the law are not worth celebrating, but Flag Day and Juneteenth together are worth celebrating.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

On the Study of African Americans in the Civil War

A student at South Carolina State University asked me to assist him on a presentation he was preparing on the Civil War. I asked him, “In what way can I help?” And he replied, “I just want to know what you think is the most pertinent information my presentation needs to have. I don't want to beat a dead horse by having the basic information we've known since middle school.”

The following was my reply:

Well, you will definitely get a different story from me. The story that has been and is presented in middle schools and in the universities today is based on partial information as it pertains to African Americans. The story as told by left leaning scholars diminishes the role of African Americans by focusing on acts of discrimination while leaving out the accomplishments of African Americans. The story as told by right leaning scholars diminishes the role of African Americans by arguing that the president and his generals didn't trust African Americans to do much because they were not trained well enough having come out of slavery. While the story as told by right and left leaning scholars are different in intent and focus they are identical in result, the truth gets suppressed because the role of African Americans is diminished.

The impact of African American soldiers, sailors, guides, scouts and spies was in fact decisive. Without the help of these Americans, the Union would not have been able to achieve the major victories that led to the ultimate victory when it did. General Grant and President Lincoln make this point clear. In August 1863, Lincoln informed a political supporter who opposed the Emancipation Proclamation that Grant had informed him that Vicksburg, which Lincoln had called "the key to victory," could not have been captured when it was without the military help of persons of African descent. African descent soldiers would go on to capture the Cradle of Secession, Charleston, in February 1865 and the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, in April 1865. African descent soldiers would stop Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court
House on April 9, 1865. And on June 15, 1865, African descent soldiers would chase the governor of Texas and 10,000 Rebel soldiers out of the United States thus bringing Texas back into the Union on June 16, 1865. By focusing on such accomplishments, it is apparent that African descent soldiers freed themselves while saving the Union.

Yet, the story as told is that African Americans were freed by President Lincoln's proclamation on January 1, 1863; and word of his proclamation didn't get to Texas until June 19, 1865. It purports that the "Black" soldiers simply added more bodies to an already superior in numbers Union army, but the president and his generals didn't have confidence in the skill and bravery of African American soldiers; so they didn't give "Blacks" commissions or equal pay and were reluctant to send them into combat. This partial story is not aligned with a true description of African American experiences and contributions during the Civil War. The story as I tell it shares detailed descriptions that are revealing, fascinating and elevating to the human spirit.

When I wrote this reply, I had not completed Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops 1862 – 1867 by William Dobak. If I had, I would have surely recommended it to the young scholar. Dobak’s book is the best book I have ever read on African American soldiers in the Civil War. His book is comprehensive and extremely well written. If one wishes to discuss this topic intelligently, one needs to read Dobak’s book or examine the same primary sources he cites. His observations and conclusions are well supported by accessible sources and facts. “The most enduring accomplishment of the Union’s black soldiers,” wrote Dobak, “was to assert their rights to full citizenship and, by extension, that of their kin.” Dobak has given those who seek to understand the role of African American soldiers in the Civil War a solid foundation for further study and discussions. Therefore, I highly recommend this historical work as the best I have ever read on the subject. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

On January 31, 2012 I was one of four panelists at the Necessary Sacrifices Pre-Performance Seminar hosted by the Ford’s Theater Society. The seminar, held in  Ford’s Theater Center for Education and Leadership, investigated the lives and leadership of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The following is what I shared:
In the autumn of 1847, in the last issue of The Mystery, the mother of The North Star, Martin Delany wrote, “We leave ‘The Mystery’ for a union with the far famed and world renowned Frederick Douglass, as a co-laborer, in the cause of our oppressed brethren, by publication of a large and capacious paper, ‘The North Star’ in Rochester, N.Y., … which cannot fail to be productive and of signal benefit to the slave and our nominally free brethren when the head and heart of Douglass enters into the combination.”

In Frederick Douglass’ autobiography Life and Times there is no mention of this “combination” with Delany.  Douglass claims the sole proprietorship of The North Star referring to it as simply “my paper.”  Yet the paper was clearly their paper with backing from established African American leaders.  Douglass’ failure to mention this “combination” deprives his readers of information critical to understanding African American leaders and their activities before and during the Civil War.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, African American leaders such as Prince Hall, Absalom Jones, George Lawrence, and Lewis Woodson advocated working in league with the Constitution to end slavery and to gain their rights as citizens.  Allan Pinkerton would come to know the secret national organization derived from their advocacy as the “Loyal League,” of which The Mystery and The North Star were organs.  The organization was also known as the Legal League and in the Mississippi Valley as Lincoln’s Legal Loyal League or simply the 4Ls.  
League insiders believed that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were in the words of Absalom Jones “divine instruments of goodness.”  They believed that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document and that in league with that “divine instrument of goodness,” they could end the tyranny of slavery and gain their rights as citizens.  Until the autumn of 1847, as a self-proclaimed disciple of William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass believed that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document.  Yet when Douglass “enters into the combination” with Delany, a League insider, Douglass embraced the belief that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document.  In Life and Times, Douglass discusses this change in position, but he fails to mention those who persuaded or influenced him to change his position.

Douglass and Delany were indeed co-founders and co-editors of The North Star.  A careful examination of Delany’s and Douglass’ articles in their paper reveals clearly that Delany targeted African American readers while Douglass targeted European American readers.  As the Civil War approached, Douglass was the most influential African American voice among European Americans while Delany was the “planner” or rather the operations officer for the Loyal League relinquishing leadership of the secret organization to William Howard Day in 1856.

On January 26, 1863, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts was granted permission by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to raise African descent regiments for Federal service, and Andrew commissioned George Stearns to head the recruiting effort.  That February Stearns employed Douglass as a recruiting agent in New York.  Douglass’ first recruit was his youngest son Charles, but his eldest son Lewis did not enlist at that time.  Douglass’ recruitment speech “Men of Color to Arms” appeared in the Frederick Douglass Monthly in March 1863; however, it is important to note that Douglass’ journal was not the journal of choice for the young men of African descent who joined the Massachusetts regiments.  The Anglo-African edited by Robert Hamilton in New York City was their journal of choice.  And the most prolific recruiter for the 54th Massachusetts in New York was not Frederick Douglass. The most prolific recruiter in New York was George Stevens, a war correspondent for the Anglo-African who had covered both Battles of Bull Run and the Battle of Antietam.  Stevens himself enlisted in the Fifty-fourth, became the first sergeant of company B and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in 1865.

Douglass was more successful as a fund raiser than he was as a recruiter.  The most successful recruiters for the 54th Massachusetts were in Ohio.  Thirty-two percent of the regiment was recruited out of Ohio with an African American businessman O. S. B. Wall and an African American lawyer John Mercer Langston being the top recruiters in that state.  However, the individual who emerges as the most important coordinator of the recruitment of African descent soldiers in 1863 was Martin Delany.  Headquartered in Chicago, Delany was first engaged as a recruiting agent for Massachusetts, and he became the managing agent in the West and Southwest for other northern states.  In association with an African American businessman in Chicago John Jones, they were able “to raise black troops from all parts of the country.”  Delany reported to Secretary Stanton, “We are able sir, to command all the effective black men, as agents, in the United States.”  Emphasis here is that Delany was able “to command” effective agents not simply be an effective agent.  With Delany you got an effective organization while with Douglass you got a notable personality. 

It was the effectiveness of this organization known as Lincoln’s Legal Loyal League (or simply the 4Ls) in the Mississippi Valley that made Stanton’s offer to commission Frederick Douglass as an assistant to General Lorenzo Thomas unnecessary.  Douglass was simply not the best qualified for such an assignment.  The League dispatched many “effective agents” to the Mississippi Valley in 1863 to assist General Thomas in recruiting and to assist General Ulysses S. Grant in military operations.  Soon after Douglass met with President Lincoln on August 8, 1863, the President received a letter from General Grant declaring, “By arming the negro we have added a powerful ally.”

The three issues covered by Douglass in his first meeting with Lincoln were 1) the unequal pay mandated by Congress in section 15 of the Militia Act of 1862, which authorized the enlistment of men of African descent into the army, 2) the commissioning of African descent officers, and 3) the treatment of African descent soldiers when captured.  On June 15, 1864, President Lincoln signed legislation that equalized the pay and granted arrears to African descent soldiers.  As for commissions, it is important to note that over eighty African American officers had been commissioned before August 1863.  Lincoln had ordered the commissioning of Dr. Alexander Augusta as a captain in October 1862.  Over seventy African Americans had been commissioned in the Department of the Gulf upon the recommendation of General Benjamin Butler and approved by the War Department before January 1, 1863. However, General Nathaniel Banks forced most of the officers commissioned by General Butler out of service by the summer of 1863, and it was not until late 1864 that commissions were submitted and approved for combat arms officers in the Eastern Theater.  Chaplains had been commissioned in that theater as early as September 1863.  President Lincoln ordered the commissioning of Martin Delany as a major of infantry in February 1865.  Major Delany became the commander of the 104th US Colored Infantry, and O. S. B. Wall was commissioned a captain and became the regiment’s executive officer.  Lewis Douglass, the original sergeant major of the 54th Massachusetts, like many other senior noncommissioned officers in the 54th was competent enough to be an officer.  Lewis, however, was discharged for medical reasons in May 1864 and was not among the noncommissioned officers from the 54th who did receive commissions.  Finally, on the issue of the treatment of African descent POWs, the Confederates eventually changed their policy and behavior due primarily to the retributions exacted by Generals Grant and Butler.  Also of note is that the unsanctioned actions of Confederate soldiers such as the massacre at Fort Pillow were brought to an end by the retributions exacted by African descent soldiers.  General John Alexander Logan wrote, “The cry with which our Union black soldiers went into battle – ‘Remember Fort Pillow’ – inspired them to great deeds of valor, and struck with fear the hearts of the enemy.  Fort Pillow was avenged on many a bloody field.”

Frederick Douglass was indeed an important American abolitionist and an influential editor before and during the Civil War.  But we must be cautious not to overstate Douglass’ role as an African American leader.  If we truly want to understand the contributions of African Americans in their fight for freedom, we must dig deep into the archives, which include the notable works of Douglass and the works of many others who were far more prolific recruiters and far more effective leaders within America’s African descent communities.