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[Detail] North Star, June 2, 1848. Edited by Frederick Douglass.

Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860-1877

Read Douglass’ “Secession and War,”  in which he called for a commitment that the war would be fought to end slavery as well as to save the union.  He made an appeal for the use of African American troops from the very beginning of the war.  Early in 1863 the governor of Massachusetts announced the formation of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first African American regiment recruited in the North.  Frederick Douglass was asked to serve as a recruiter for this and other Negro regiments and immediately accepted and published his appeal “Men of Color, To Arms!” 

…with every exulting shout of victory raised by the slaveholding rebels, I have implored the imperiled nation to unchain against her foes, her powerful black hand.  Slowly and reluctantly that appeal is beginning to be heeded.

From “Men of Color, To Arms!”

Douglass traveled through New York and New England recruiting African Americans for service in the Union Army.  Read “Why a Colored Man Should Enlist” and his July 1863 address to a mass meeting in Philadelphia promoting enlistment.

  • What arguments did Douglass use to convince African Americans to enlist in the Union Army?
  • How did he respond to those who argued that African American soldiers should not enlist because of unfair treatment by the military?
  • What can you discern from Douglass’ articles and speeches on the importance of African American service in the military?

Douglass delivered a speech at Arlington National Cemetery on Decoration Day, 1871, in which he commemorated the unknown soldiers who died in the Civil War.  He concluded his speech with the lines,

…if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a by-word and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.

From “Address of Frederick Douglass at the Monument of the Unknown Dead, At Arlington, May 30, 1871”

Treatment of African American soldiers during the Civil War was another issue of concern to Douglass. On his first-ever visit to Washington, D.C., in August 1863, he met with President Lincoln to discuss three issues related to African American soldiers: (1) equal pay, (2) access to promotions when these soldiers performed bravely, and (3) retaliation against the south when captured African American soldiers were killed. Remembering the meeting years later, Douglass said:

I never shall forget how quietly and sympathetically Mr. Lincoln listened to what I had to say. I saw, when I came to the last proposition, the first he received with a smile of approval, the second also, but when it came to the third, that of retaliation, I got a peep into that good man’s heart. . . I could see that there was a vista of blood opening to him from which his tender heart shrank. He said, “If I could get hold of the men that murdered your troops, murdered our prisoners of war, I would execute them, but I cannot take men that may not have had anything to do with this murdering of our soldiers and execute them. No, Mr. Douglass, I don’t see where it would stop.”

From “Speech on the 79th Anniversary of Lincoln's Birth, Washington, D. C.”  (pages 16)

In 1865, Douglass made a speech in which he reflected on the two “important and instructive events in American history” that occurred during the year.

  • What were the two “important and instructive events” in 1865?
  • What comparison did Douglass use to explain the effect of Lincoln’s assassination on the American people? Do you think this was a good comparison? What other events in U.S. history might have had a similar effect?
  • What did Douglass see as the lessons of the Civil War?
  • Why did Douglass say that Lincoln’s death was an “unspeakable calamity” for African Americans? Given what you know about ensuing events, do you think he was correct? Why or why not?

In an undated Decoration Day speech in Rochester, Douglass presented a realistic portrayal of African Americans during Reconstruction and called for the nation to combat prejudice. Yet even more challenging times were to come in the post-Reconstruction era.