Frederick Douglass Gerrit Smith, March 6, 1863
Rochester[, N.Y.] 6 March 1863.
HON GERRIT SMITH:
MY DEAR SIR:
I have thought much of your letter to Mr May,1Samuel J. May.
expressing the wish that
we should send at least one colored company of soldiers from the state of
New York to make part of the regiment now forming at Readville Massa-
chusetts.2Readville was the location of an important training camp for black volunteers in the Union army. It was constructed in early 1863 just outside Boston, Massachusetts. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was placed in command of the camp, with Norwood Hallowell as his second. The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first to muster at Readville, near the end of March; it was among the first black regiments to serve in the Civil War. Governor John A. Andrew, who received authorization from the secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, to raise black troops for the unit, initiated the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts on 26 January 1863. Although initial efforts to recruit volunteers proved disappointing, by May the number of black volunteers was so high that the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts was formed to take in the surplus recruits. Albert G. Browne, Sketch of the Official Life of John A. Andrew (New York, 1868), 4, 108; Luis F. Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment: The History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865, 2d ed. (1894; New York, 1995), 24; Quarles, Negro in the Civil War, 8-9; idem, Frederick Douglass, 204-06; Cornish, Sable Arm, 106-10, 152-56; ACAB, 5:31. At first I saw some ground for hesitation.3Initial efforts to recruit Massachusetts blacks into the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry proved disappointing because of the small number of black residents in that state—less than 1 percent of the population. In response to the low turnout, Governor John A. Andrew turned to a committee of private citizens, headed by the veteran abolitionist George L. Stearns, to undertake an enlistment campaign for the Fifty-fourth throughout the North and in occupied portions of the Confederacy. As part of his strategy to engage prominent blacks as recruiting agents, Stearns traveled to Rochester, New York, in late February 1863 to persuade Douglass to aid in encouraging enlistment in the Fifty-fourth. Douglass immediately agreed, published a call to arms in his Monthly, and toured upstate New York to enlist recruits. By mid-April, Douglass had enrolled a company of more than one hundred men, including his own sons Charles and Lewis. Gerrit Smith contributed $700 to pay the expenses for raising these men; Douglass bragged to him that “no other company has been raised for less than twice that sum.” By May 1863, as a result of the recruiting agents’ work and of newspaper advertisements for enlistments, more than one thousand blacks from every state in the Union as well as from Canada were enrolled in the regiment. Recruiting efforts continued, permitting Massachusetts to raise a total of three black regiments by the end of the war. Douglass to Gerrit Smith, 14 April 1863, Norcross Papers, MHiS; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Negro Population in the United States, 1790-1915 (1918; New York, 1968), 57; Ira Berlin et al., eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867; Selected from the Holdings of the National Archives of the United States, ser. 2: The Black Military Experience (New York, 1982), 75-76; Emilio, Brave Black Regiment, 8-14, 24; Douglass Papers, ser 1, 3:585-86; Quarles, Frederick Douglass, 204-06; idem, Negro in the Civil War, 8-9; Cornish, Sable Arm, 107-10. Subsequent reflection
and conversation with our friend Mr George L Stearns from Boston have
convinced me that your suggestion should be carried out. I have therefore
already set myself to the work of raising at least one company in this state
for the war to be a part of the first colored regiment of Massachusetts.
I have visited Buffalo and obtained seven good men.4Reports of Douglass’s recruiting efforts in upstate New York appeared in several newspapers. Nine Buffalo residents joined the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment in March 1863. These recruits were Thomas Hamilton, Charles Kane, Garnet G. Cezar, John H. Dover, John F. Harrison, George Lucas, John R. Neal, Alexander W. Renkins, and Albert D. Thompson. New Albany Daily Ledger, 18 March 1863; DM, 5:1—2 (April 1863); Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War, 8 vols. (Norwood, Mass, 1932-35), 4:656—714. I spoke here last
night and got thirteen.5An appeal for recruits appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and was reprinted in multiple newspapers. Early Rochester enlistees include Louis and Charles Douglass, Thomas Edward Platnek, Nathan C. Jeffrey, Samuel Robinson, Nathan Sprague, Nathaniel Hurley, Ferdinand Cunningham, James S. Weir, George Madrey, and Warren McEwan. Cleveland Morning Leader, 6 March 1863; Massachusetts Soldiers, 4:656—714. I shall visit Auburn, Syracuse, Ithica, Troy and Al-
bany and other places in the state till I get one hundred men. Charley my
youngest son was the first to put his name down as one of the company.6Charles R. Douglass. It
is a little cruel to say to the black soldier that he shall not rise to be an offi-
cer of the United States whatever may be his merits;7Initially, both commissioned officer and noncommissioned first sergeant and corporal posts were restricted to whites by order of the War Department. While the restriction on noncommissioned posts was quickly lifted, Secretary Stanton refused to accept the promotion of African American officers unless their appointments were individually authorized by special pieces of legislation and approved by Congress and the president. Black soldiers, however, demanded that the Boards of Examination (the normal procedure for promotion) be opened to them, and in early 1864 the governor of Massachusetts ignored Stanton’s wishes and approved the promotion of a black sergeant in the Fifty-fourth to the rank of lieutenant. By the end of the war, 1 in every 2,000 African American soldiers had been promoted into the officer corps. Even so, the vast majority of such appointments did not take place until after the fighting had stopped; for most of the war, promotion commissions remained off limits to black soldiers. Howard C. Westwood, Black Troops, White Commanders, and Freedmen during the Civil War (Carbondale, IIl., 1992), 28-29; Edwin S. Redkey, ed., A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865(New York, 1992), 206; Cornish, Sable Arm, 214-15; Jonathan Sutherland, African Americans at War: An Encyclopedia, 2 vols. (Santa Barbara, Calif., 2004), 1:32-35. but I see that though
coupled with this disadvantage—colored men should hail the opportunity
of getting on the United States uniform as a very great advance. I sent you
a few days ago my call upon colored men to inlist.8On 2 March 1863, Douglass issued a public call urging black men to enlist in the Union army. He claimed that a war being fought to perpetuate the enslavement of blacks naturally demanded that these blacks join the fight for freedom. He argued that victory won only by white men would not mean as much, and quoted Lord Byron in support: “who would be free themselves must strike the blow.” The state of New York did not issue a call for black soldiers, so Douglass implored blacks to join the “first colored regiment from the north", which was forming in Massachusetts. He closed his appeal by urging blacks to fight and win “the gratitude of our Country—and the best blessings of our posterity through all time.” DM, 5:801 (March 1863); Lib., 13 March 1863. It was published in all
the papers here, and is having a good effect. In your letter to Mr May, you
say that you will give two hundred dollars towards raising the proposed
company.9Douglass reported Gerrit Smith’s pledge of $200 to promote the recruitment of a company among New York blacks for the new Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. This was money in addition to $500 already committed to the overall recruitment drive for that unit. DM, 5:804 (March 1863). I have already been at at the expense of two journeys to Buf-
falo and shall be at more before I get a hundred good names on my list.
Mr Stearns and I talking over the matter came to the conclusion to apply
to you for my expenses in getting up the company within the limits of
your your promised two hundred dollars.
I believe I can get up this company so as to hand it over to Governor
Andrew’s10John Albion Andrew (1818-67), governor of Massachusetts, was born in Windham, Maine, and educated at Bowdoin College. After his graduation in 1837, he settled in Boston and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar. Although he was one of the founders of the Free Soil party, Andrew did not hold public office until 1858, when he was elected to the Massachusetts General Court as a Republican. On 19 November 1859, Andrew was chosen to chair and speak at the meeting of John Brown’s sympathizers in Tremont Temple. In 1860 he not only headed his state’s delegation to the Republican National Convention but was also elected governor, a position he held until January 1866. Throughout the Civil War, he was an outspoken advocate of emancipation and a leader in persuading the Lincoln administration to enlist blacks in the Union army. After the Confederate surrender, however, Andrew recommended a conciliatory Reconstruction policy toward Southern whites. Lib.,25 November 1859; Henry Greenleaf Pearson, The Life of John A. Andrew, Governor of Massachusetts, 1561-1865, 2 vols. (Boston, 1904); ACAB, 1:72-73; NCAB, 1:118; DAB, 2:279-81. agents who will take them at the expense of Massachusetts,
for less than the sum you promise to contribute. I shall be in Syracuse
on Wednesday for the purpose of getting men for this company11Douglass recruited troops at the Syracuse A.M.E.Z. Church on 11 and 26 March 1863. Syracuse Daily Standard, 11, 13 March 1863; NASS, 4 April 1863; Sernett, North Star Country, 240. and in
Troy on Thursday, Friday in Albany.12Douglass lectured at the Hamilton Street Methodist Church in Albany on Friday, 13 March 1863. Albany Evening Journal, 10 March 1863.
I shall go to New York13Douglass’s first known recruitment lecture in New York City occurred on 27 April 1863 at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church, which was presided over by the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet. New York World, 29 April 1863.—and at
the request of Mr Stearns go to Philadelphia and Stimulate inlistments
there.14On 18 March 1863, Douglass delivered a lecture entitled “The Crisis” at the Bethel A.M.E. Church on Sixth Street in Philadelphia before a meeting presided over by the Reverend Jabez Campbell. DM, 5:828 (April 1863). Returning from Philadelphia I shall revisit the places named and
make calls at others in this State for the purpose of accommodating those
who wanted time to decide. I have taken nothing from Mr Stearns and
rely upon your contribution for my expenses. Should you not think it well
to send me any part of the sum you have named and prefer to send it to
Boston—mr Stearns, has promised to have my expenses paid and to al-
low me ten dollars per week, for my services. I think my services ought
to be worth a little more than this and if you have the paying me, I shall
get more. But more or less I am now fully bound to get up the company.
I heard of your Speech in Albany15On 27 February 1863, Gerrit Smith spoke in Albany, New York, emphasizing the dire importance of supporting the Union and defeating the Confederacy. In the speech, titled “Stand by the Government," Smith argued that the party and issue-based affiliations of Northerners must be temporarily ignored for the sake of the Union. Furthermore, he argued that despite the Union government’s flaws, unconditionally supporting it was the best chance to end the Confederate rebellion. DM, 5:822 (April 1863). and see it complemented even in the Evening journal16Describing Smith’s speech as “free from all that could offend the most fastidious conservative patriot," the Albany Evening Journal reported a large turnout for the event. Albany Evening Journal, 28 February 1863.—a paper never very lavish in approval of your
words and works. Please write me what you will do and direct your letter
to the care of Mr May of Syracuse for I shall call upon him on Wednesday
Very Truly and gratefully yours
ALS: Gerrit Smith Papers, NSyU.