By Edward Achorn
It is one of the supreme ironies of American history that our nation and our freedoms were saved by men who had been enslaved.
I think this story is not as widely told as it should be. Perhaps it does not fit today’s ideological narrative that black Americans are eternal victims of white privilege, and that blacks and whites must remain enemies.
But the heroism of the 180,000 black Americans who served for the United States during the Civil War ought to be recognized, remembered, and honored. They filled the Union ranks, fought, and died, and ultimately made it impossible for the Confederacy to fight on.
They saved the United States and, in doing so, radically transformed race relations in America.
Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was not just about freeing the slaves in areas where the Confederacy held sway. It was the first step toward arming these former slaves and turning them against the Southerners who were defying the United States.
Did racism stop them? No.
They chose to fight to defeat the Confederacy and slavery at a time of nonstop propaganda perniciously reinforcing the widespread idea that Africans were a subspecies of human being. Many practicing Christians and Democrats in the South genuinely believed that African Americans could not fend for themselves in a society created for highly competitive, free whites. They thought the institution of slavery could be benevolent because it provided welfare — shelter, food, and health care — in return for work. They feared that many black males would be unable to compete in the voracious world of free market capitalism and would inevitably resort to crime and violence.
As I note in my new book, Every Drop of Blood, black Americans disagreed. Working with Republican President Abraham Lincoln, they freed themselves from bondage and finally destroyed that institution, which was anything but benevolent.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave, was a leading advocate for arming black Americans, both ex-slaves and men born free.
“There is no time for delay,” he wrote in March 1863. “The iron gate of our prison stands half-open. One gallant rush from the North will fling it wide open, while four millions of our brothers and sisters shall march out into Liberty!”
Douglass was appalled when Lincoln approved a plan to pay black soldiers less than white soldiers, a blatant injustice. He was so upset that he went to visit Lincoln, a man he had excoriated in print, at the White House.
He found that “the stairway was crowded with applicants . . . and as I was the only dark spot among them, I expected to have to wait at least half a day.” But within two minutes, he was ushered into Lincoln’s office, finding the president seated “in a low armchair with his feet extended on the floor, surrounded by a large number of documents and several busy secretaries.”
Lincoln put Douglass at ease. “I know who you are, Mr. Douglass; Mr. Seward has told me all about you. Sit down. I am glad to see you.” Douglass was astonished: “In his company, I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or my unpopular color.”
On the question of equal pay, Lincoln argued, with typical pragmatism, that black men “had larger motives for being soldiers than white men” and “ought to be willing to enter the service upon any condition.” He knew that African Americans’ service in saving the Union would make a powerful case for the final destruction of slavery and the recognition of their rights.
While the inequality of pay was a “necessary concession to smooth the way,” Lincoln promised that it would be corrected. “We had to make some concessions to prejudice,” he said. “I assure you, Mr. Douglass, that in the end they shall have the same pay as white soldiers.”
Douglass kept on urging blacks to fight, despite their extraordinary disadvantages. In addition to lower pay, they had few to no opportunities to advance in the ranks. Even worse: If they surrendered in battle, the Confederates could be expected to kill them or send them back into slavery. Their white officers would be shot dead, too.
“Shall colored men enlist notwithstanding this unjust and ungenerous barrier raised against them? We answer yes. Go into the army and go with a will and a determination to blot out this and all other means of discrimination against us,” Douglass implored. “Once in the United States uniform and the colored man has a springing board under him by which he can jump to loftier heights.”
He was right. Black men in uniform, fighting to save their country, made it all but impossible to deny African Americans full citizenship rights. While prejudice persisted, civil rights progressed, in constitutional amendments and laws that eventually had to be enforced, despite Jim Crow laws in the South. African Americans would have no doubt fared better had the shrewd and pragmatic Lincoln not been assassinated.
Douglass’s own son Lewis fought as a sergeant in the famous 54th Massachusetts black regiment, joining in the almost suicidal assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina, in July 1863 — a battle in which the regiment sustained 50 percent casualties. Black Lives Matter rioters last month defaced the Boston monument to the memory of their courage.
I may have more than a historian’s interest in this topic. My great great grandfather, Joseph Mead, served first as a corporal in Company A of the 38th Regiment of the Massachusetts Infantry in that war, and then as First Lieutenant in Company C of the 89th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry. He was one of those white officers who would have been executed.
I believe history shows that Americans are best off when whites and blacks work as brothers and sisters, not enemies, in a spirit of love, not hatred. Our greatest black leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass, believed the same. The founding principles of this nation — through which each person is treated as an individual, with sacred rights — are vastly superior to today’s message of identity politics, which promotes bigotry against groups and classes of people, and in my view smears America.
We should never erase the history of how blacks and whites worked together to defeat slavery.
(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)