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.