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Black Soldiers, White Officers: Remarks Delivered in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 28, 29, 1863


Liberator, 5 June 1863. Other texts in National Anti—Slaver Standard, 6, 13 June I863: Speech File, reel 13, frames 767, 769, F1) Papers, DLC.
Such longtime Garrisonians as Samuel J. May, who presided, Edmund Quincy, Andrew T. Foss, Henry C. Wright, Stephen S. Foster, George T. Downing, and William Lloyd Garrison himself dominated the thirtieth annual convention of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, which met at Boston's


Tremont Temple on 28—29 May 1863. While members rejoiced over the Emancipation Proclamation, they also expressed concern over apparent injustices regarding the use of black troops in the Union army. Only after Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts personally lobbied in the nation’s capital in January 1863 had Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized the formation of black military units. Abolitionists hailed the enlistment of blacks into the first of these units, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry, but many of them also criticized the stipulation that the regiment’s officers be white. On several occasions during the convention the crowd recognized Douglass and clamored for him to speak on the issue. On the first evening Douglass briefly defended the use of white officers. At the following morning’s session the audience again called for Douglass, to the chagrin of Stephen S. Foster, who held the floor. Douglass later rose to disavow any connection with the interruption of Foster and to explain further his general approval of Federal policy. Garrison. Henry Wilson, and John C. Cluer joined Douglass in arguing that this was a time to stress the government’s accomplishments, while several black abolitionists, including Robert Morris and William Wells Brown, continued to focus on the inequity of allowing blacks to fight but not to command. The convention did not vote on the question of white officers for black troops. See Appendix A, text 8, for a precis of an alternate text. Lib., 8, 15 May, 21 June 1863; NASS, 16, 23 May 1863; Luis F. Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment: History of the fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863—1865 (Boston, 1891), 2—8; Pearson, Life of John A. Andrew, 2 : 69— 81; Cornish,Sable Arm, 105-107; Quarles, Negro in the Civil War, 8-9.
First Day [28 May 1863]
[Speeches by John A. lnnis, John C. Cluer, William Wells Brown, Edmund Quincy, and Harriet Jacobs]
FREDERICK DOUGLASS, being seen in the audience, was called for, and came to the platform, and spoke of the improved and improving, but by no means yet just and rightful position of the colored man under the United States Government. He said he felt inexpressible pleasure in again taking a place on the platform of the New England Anti-Slavery Convention—the freest platform in the world. He would speak briefly, having given his time and strength, to-day, to the 54th regiment.1Initial efforts to recruit Massachusetts blacks into the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry proved disappointing owing to the small number of blacks resident in that state. Governor John A. Andrew therefore turned to a committee of private citizens. headed by veteran abolitionist George L. Steams, 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. Steams traveled to Rochester. New York. in late February I863 to persuade Douglass to aid in encouraging enlistments into the Fifty-fourth. Douglass immediately agreed. He published a call to arms in his Monthly and toured upstate New York to enlist recruits. By mid-April Douglass had enrolled at 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, and Douglass bragged to him that “no other company has been raised for less than twice that sum.” By May I863. 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, 6 March I863, Gerrit Smith Papers, NSyU; Douglass to Gerrit Smith, 14 April 1863, Norcross Papers, MHiS; Quarles, FD, 204-06; idem, Negro in the Civil War, 8-9; Douglass, Life and Times, 373 —77; Cornish, Sable Arm, 107-10; Emilio, Brave Black Regiment, 8, 14, 24; Pearson, Life of John A. Andrew, 81-84.


It had been officially told him that the 54th was the best drilled and the most sober regiment that has ever left the State. and that there had been less desertion from its lines than from any other.
This is our day, the black men’s day. as Mr. Quincy well remarked.2Douglass refers to veteran Garrisonian abolitionist Edmund Quincy. on whose motion the convention‘s morning session had adjourned to attend the embarkation ceremonies of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Lib., 5 June I863; NASS, 6 June I863.
By and by, Massachusetts will take another step, and not only put a musket in the black man’s hand, but put the badge of office on his shoulder.3It was Governor John A. Andrew‘s hope that qualified blacks number among the commissioned officers of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry. When the War Department rejected Andrew’s request for black commissions. the governor obtained white officers for the Fifty-fourth from among the most socially prominent Massachusetts families so that service with black units would not be deemed second-class. During the Civil War fewer than one hundred of the nearly one hundred eighty thousand blacks in the Union army received commissions as officers. Although frequently petitioned to grant such commissions by black groups and by such sympathetic whites as Governor Andrew. the Lincoln administration hesitated for fear of offending Northern public opinion. Cornish, Sable Arm, 105—07, 214—17; Emilio, Brave Black Regiment, 2-8; Pearson, Life of John A. Andrew, 73—78; Quarles, Negro in the Civil War, 9-10, 208-10; John W. Blassingame, “The Selection of Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers of Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1863- 1865." NHB, 30: 8-11 (January 1967).
We formerly argued against slavery. Now, emancipation is coming, and another question appears, What shall be done with the slaves? Where shall we, the colored people, stand? Shall we be wholly free, an equal at the ballot-box, at the jury-box, and at the cartridge-box, with the white man? Our children are not admitted to be apprentices, clerks, journeymen, and they grow up without ambition or aspiration. There is much prejudice and


injustice against us yet remaining. My own son, an invalid soldier, was to- day set upon and beaten down to the pavement.4The incident was not reported by the press. In fact, the Liberator declared that during the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment's embarkation ceremonies, “there was nowhere along the line a word of disapproval--not a sneer was heard, not an unkind word expressed." The son in question must have been Charles Remond Douglass. Lewis H. Douglass served as sergeant major of the Fifty-fourth and embarked with his fellow troops. Charles, a private in that regiment, was ill at the time of his unit's departure and as late as November 1863 remained at the Readville, Massachusetts, training camp. He eventually saw duty with another black regiment, the Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry, rising to the rank of first sergeant. C[harles] R. Douglass to Douglass, 20 December 1863, General Correspondence File, reel I. frames 824--25, FD Papers, DLC; Douglass to “My Dear Friend," 21 November 1863., FD Collection. CtY; Lib., 5 June 1863; DM, 5: 859-860) August 1863); Massachusetts Adjutant General's Office, Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War,7 vols. (Norwood, Mass., 1931—33), 4: 686, 6: 528. (A voice—“1t is true; I saw it.”) After all, there is something mean in white men asking colored men to fight for them, under the existing circumstances. Still, I am not in favor of having the first black regiments commanded by colored men; because under oppression and calumny, the negro has lost confidence in himself, and may not do justice to his own powers. To obtain full discipline, order and efficiency at once, white officers are necessary. Now, however, some men in the 54th regiment have become capable of command, and advancement should be open to them.
Second Day [29 May 1863]
[Speeches by William Lloyd Garrison, Mr. Pardee, and Daniel S. Whitney; introduction of resolutions; speeches by George Hoyt, Mr. Toohey, William Lloyd Garrison, John C. Cluer, Stephen S. Foster, Abby Kelley Foster, George T. Downing. and Samuel May, Jr.]
FREDERICK DOUGLASS interposed, referring to the colored Regiments found existing by Gen. Butler5When Union troops took control of New Orleans in April 1862. fugitive slaves flocked to their camps. General John W. Phelps began to organize the refugees into military units but was overruled by General Benjamin F. Butler. his superior officer in Louisiana. In August 1862, however, Butler approached the leaders of New Orleans's black community to raise troops for United States service. Soon runaway slaves were accepted into these black units as freedmen under the terms of the Confiscation Act of July 1862. By the end of the year Butler had raised three regiments of Louisiana Native Guards with predominantly black enlisted men and officers. Quarles, Negro in the Civil War, 115-18; Cornish, Sable Army, 58-68; Ripley, Slaves and Freemen, 103—06; Mary F. Berry, “Negro Troops in Blue and Gray: The Louisiana Native Guards, 1861-1863,” Louisiana History, 8 : 170-77 (Spring 1967). in New Orleans, having colored officers,


and enrolled by him in the service of the US. Now we hear that Gen. Banks is re-organizing these on the Massachusetts plan, giving them white officers.6In 1863, Benjamin Butler's successor in Louisiana, Nathaniel Banks, with the approval of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, replaced the black officers of the Louisiana Native Guards with whites. Not until 1865 did Stanton authorize commissions for a small number of black recruiters, surgeons, and line officers. Cornish, Sable Arm, 214; Ripley, Slaves and Freedmen, 116—17; Blassingame, “Selection of Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers,” 10.
[Speeches by Andrew T. Foss, Ezra H. Heywood, Charles L. Remond, James N. Buffum, Liberty Billings, and Henry C. Wright.]
The question was asked if there was no aspiration in the colored soldiers at the South to become one day officers.
Col. B[illings]7Born in Saco, Maine. Liberty Billings (1823-77) had been a Unitarian minister before the Civil War, supplying congregations in Peterborough, New Hampshire; Ware, Massachusetts: Bridgeport, Connecticut; Quincy, Illinois; and Concord, New Hampshire. In July 2862 he was mustered in as chaplain of the Fourth New Hampshire Infantry Regiment and followed his troops to Port Royal, South Carolina. When General David Hunter, the Union commander at Port Royal, organized runaway slaves into the First South Carolina Infantry Regiment, Billings was appointed the unit's lieutenant colonel. At a skirmish in Palatka, Florida, in March 1863, Billings received three minor wounds when he incautiously exposed himself to enemy fire. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the regiment's colonel, claimed that the slightly injured Billings behaved like “an uncommon baby, for his size" and “all but cried to go home. " On 9 July 1863 a board of examiners dismissed Billings from the service for military incompetence. After the war, Billings, a Radical Republican, took part in Florida Reconstruction politics, serving as a delegate to the 1868 Florida state convention and as a member of the state senate between 1871 and 1874. Boston Commonwealth, 13 March 1863; NASS, 18 April, 6, 13 June I863; OR, ser. 1, 1 : 239; Augustus D. Ayling. ed., Revised Register of the Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion, 1861—1866 (Concord, NH, 1895), 159, 1017; Mary Thacher Higginson, ed., Letters and Journals of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1846- 1906 (Boston, 1921), 188—89, 203; General Catalogue of the Meadville Theological School, 1844—1930 (Boston, 1930), 18; Jerrell H. Shofner, “The Constitution of 1868," Florida Historical Quarterly, 41: 356—74 (April 1963). said he did not believe that they looked so far ahead. Sufficient unto the day is the good or evil thereof.
Mr. DOUGLASS thought they had the same feelings of their brethren in Hayti and Brazil.
Mr. REMOND8Charles Lenox Remond. spoke of the obstacles to enlistment, arising from this denial of commissions to colored men. At least, the colored men of the North had aspirations, if those at Port Royal had not.
Mr. DOWNING9George T. Downing. asked, why not train the blacks at the South to obey black officers?


Col. B[illings]—That is just what we are hoping to do.
Mr. DOUGLASS rose to an explanation. He had no connection with the interruption of the meeting this morning, by calls for himself.
The Chairman asked Mr. Douglass to repeat or elucidate his position of last night, that, for the present, he was content with white officers; which he did at some length, explaining that he looked forward to a limit, and that was the development of real merit. The United States have commissioned two black officers, surgeons, and is so far ahead of Massachusetts.10Official records reveal only one black physician, Major Alexander Thomas Augusta (1825—90), in United States service at the time of Douglass's speech. Commissioned on 14 April 1863, Augusta immediately attracted national attention when attacked in uniform on his way to report for duty. Augusta experienced discrimination in the military even when he served with the Seventh United States Colored Infantry. Before the Civil War, Augusta had been a prosperous physician in Toronto, and after the war he practiced medicine in Washington, D.C. A second black surgeon in the U.S. Army was John V. De Grasse (1825—68), George T. Downing's brother-in-law and a physician in New York City before and after the Civil War. He served as assistant surgeon of the Thirty-fifth United States Colored Infantry but not until after the time of Douglass's speech. Because De Grasse had earlier been a civilian physician to black troops at the Readville training camp, Douglass may have mistakenly counted him as a second commissioned officer. Six other blacks were commissioned surgeons with the US. Army, but none before 1864. DM, 5: 815 (March 1863); Lib., 20 February, 8, 29 May 1863; Boston Commonwealth, 1 May 1863; San Francisco Elevator ,22 January 1869; Washington (DC) New National Era, 11 May 1871; Official Army Register of the Volunteer Force of the United States Army for the Years 1861, '62. '63, '64, '65, 8 vols. (Washington. DC, 1865—67), 8 : 176, 206; George W. Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861—1865 (New York, 1888), 143; Quarles, Negro in the Civil War, 203-04; Cornish, Sable Arm, 217; McPherson, Negro's Civil War, 261—62; DANB, 19-20, 169. It has also asserted its intention to protect these officers at the cost of every “Plug-Ugly”11The term plug-ugly. originally a nickname for members of a certain Baltimore fire company, was assumed in the 1850s by a gang of rowdies with strong nativist sentiments who engaged in election-day violence against their political opponents. In April 1861 the term was applied by the northern press to all members of the prosecession mob that had attacked Union troops passing through the city. Mathews, Dictionary of Americanisms, 2 : 1265—66; Richard H. Thornton, An American Glossary: Being an Attempt to Illustrate Certain Americanisms upon Historical Principles, 2 vols. (London. 1912), 2 : 679; West, Lincoln's Scapegoat General, 52; Hamilton Owens, Baltimore on the Chesapeake (Garden City, N.Y., 1941), 263—64, 266, 268. in Baltimore, if need be. We must not yield to the prejudices of other men. We must encounter them, and annoy them, until they are called upon to give a reason for themselves, when they must vanish.
He closed by investigating the idea of a black nationality, and the rights which are to he demanded at the close of the war.
Mr. DOWNING went for the enlistment of Americans, black and white, side by side, to be officered by men of merit; also, irrespective of color. He said that Massachusetts had not gone to the full extent of her power in this matter of giving commissions.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895




Yale University Press 1985



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