The Negro's Civil War
How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union
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About the author
James M. McPherson is the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of History, Emeritus at Princeton University. America’s leading historian of the Civil War, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom, which was a New York Times bestseller, and he won the Lincoln Prize for For Cause and Comrades.
In this classic study, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson deftly narrates the experience of blacks--former slaves and soldiers, preachers, visionaries, doctors, intellectuals, and common people--during the Civil War. Drawing on contemporary journalism, speeches, books, and letters, he presents an eclectic chronicle of their fears and hopes as well as their essential contributions to their own freedom. Through the words of these extraordinary participants, both Northern and Southern, McPherson captures African-American responses to emancipation, the shifting attitudes toward Lincoln and the life of black soldiers in the Union army. Above all, we are allowed to witness the dreams of a disenfranchised people eager to embrace the rights and the equality offered to them, finally, as citizens.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
; December 2008
400 pages; ISBN 9780307488602Read online
, or download in secure EPUB
Title: The Negro's Civil War
Author: James M. McPherson
THE ELECTION OF 1860 AND THE COMING OF WAR
The election of 1860 appeared to promise Negroes little hope for the future. In the first place, few black men could vote. The slaves and free Negroes of the South were disfranchised, of course, and in the North only the New England states (except Connecticut) allowed Negroes to vote on the same terms as whites. All the other Northern states except New York and Ohio denied the ballot to black men. In Ohio only those Negroes with a greater visible admixture of white than black blood were admitted to the polls. New York Negroes could vote only if they possessed property worth $250.
In the second place, none of the four major parties contending for the presidency championed the cause of the Negro. The Constitutional Union party and the two factions of the Democratic party were pledged to preserve or even to strengthen the institution of slavery. The Republican party, nominally antislavery, was officially opposed only to the extension of slavery into the new territories. No major political party proposed to take action against slavery where it already existed. During the campaign, Democrats charged that if the Republicans won the election, they would abolish slavery and grant civil equality to Negroes. "That is not so," rejoined Horace Greeley, an influential Republican spokesman. "Never on earth did the Republican Party propose to abolish slavery. . . . Its object with respect to Slavery is simply, nakedly, avowedly, its restriction to the existing states." Most Republican orators echoed Greeley's statement. Lincoln himself had repeatedly voiced his opposition to equal rights for free Negroes. And although Lincoln had a deep-rooted moral abhorrence of slavery, he favored no stronger measures against the institution than its exclusion from the territories.
It is not surprising, therefore, that many black men had little faith in either the Democratic or the Republican party. The Anglo-African, a weekly newspaper founded in 1859 by Thomas Hamilton as a spokesman for Negroes in New York City, declared in March 1860 that
the two great political parties separate at an angle of two roads, that they may meet eventually at the same goals. They both entertain the same ideas, and both carry the same burdens. They differ only in regard to the way they shall go, and the method of procedure. . . . The Democratic party would make the white man the master and the black man the slave, and have them thus together occupy every foot of the American soil. . . . The Republican party . . . though with larger professions for humanity, is by far its more dangerous enemy. Under the guise of humanity, they do and say many things--as, for example, they oppose the re-opening of the slave-trade.... They oppose the progress of slavery in the territories, and would cry humanity to the world; but . . . their opposition to slavery means opposition to the black man--nothing else. Where it is clearly in their power to do anything for the oppressed colored man, why then they are too nice, too conservative, to do it. . . .
We have no hope from either [of the] political parties. We must rely on ourselves, the righteousness of our cause, and the advance of just sentiments among the great masses of the . . . people.
At a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on January 27, 1860, Dr. John Rock of Boston chastised the Republican party for its antislavery shortcomings. Rock was one of the best-educated Negroes of his day. Only thirty-five years old in 1860, he had been a schoolteacher, a dentist, a physician, and was now practicing law in Boston. He was a graduate of the American Medical College in Philadelphia, a member of the Massachusetts Bar, and could read and speak both French and German. In the 1850s he had become known as an eloquent champion of equal rights for his race in the North. In his speech to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Rock conceded that the Republicans were opposed to the expansion of slavery:
The Republicans are checkmating this power; and, in this respect, I think they are doing a good work. The idea of "no more slave States" is good. The fewer the better. (Applause.) But they do not carry it far enough. I would have them say, "No more slavery!" The Republicans, however, have no idea of abolishing slavery. They go against slavery only so far as slavery goes against their interests; and if they keep on lowering their standard, as they have been for the last few months, they will soon say in New England, what they have said already in the Middle States, that the Republican party is not only the white man's party, but that "it aims to place white men and white labor against black men and black labor." Such Republicanism is no better than [the] Democracy.
H. Ford Douglass, a Negro leader from Illinois, made a lecture tour of the East in 1860 and spoke at the annual Fourth of July picnic of the abolitionists in Framingham, Massachusetts:
We have four parties in this country that have marshalled themselves on the highway of American politics, asking for the votes of the American people. . . . We have what is called the Union party, led by Mr. Bell, of Tennessee; we have what is called the Democratic party, led by Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois; we have the party called the Seceders, or the Slave-Code Democrats, led by John C. Breckinridge, of Kentucky, and then we have the Republican party, led by Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois. . . . So far as the principles of freedom and the hopes of the black men are concerned, all these parties are barren and unfruitful; neither of them seeks to lift the negro out of his fetters, and rescue this day from odium and disgrace.
Take Abraham Lincoln. I want to know if any man can tell me the difference between the anti-slavery of Abraham Lincoln, and the anti-slavery of the old Whig party, or the anti-slavery of Henry Clay? Why, there is no difference between them. Abraham Lincoln is simply a Henry Clay Whig, and he believes just as Henry Clay believed in regard to this question. And Henry Clay was just as odious to the anti-slavery cause and anti-slavery men as ever was John C. Calhoun. . . .
I know the Republicans do not like this kind of talk, because, while they are willing to steal our thunder, they are unwilling to submit to the conditions imposed upon that party that assumes to be anti-slavery. They say that they cannot go as fast as you anti-slavery men go in this matter; that they cannot afford to be uncompromisingly honest, nor so radical as you Garrisonians; that they want to take time; that they want to do the work gradually. They say, "We must not be in too great a hurry to overthrow slavery; at least, we must take half a loaf, if we cannot get the whole." Now, my friends, I believe that the very best way to overthrow slavery in this country is to occupy the highest possible anti-slavery ground.
. . . I do not believe in the anti-slavery of Abraham Lincoln, because he is on the side of this Slave Power of which I am speaking, that has possession of the Federal Government. What does he propose to do? Simply to let the people and the Territories regulate their domestic institutions in their own way. . . . In regard to the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, Abraham Lincoln occupies the same position that the old Whig party occupied in 1852. . . . What did he say at Freeport? Why, that the South was entitled to a Fugitive Slave Law; and although he thought the law could be modified a little, yet, he said, if he was in Congress, he would have it done in such a way as not to lessen its efficiency! Here, then, is Abraham Lincoln in favor of carrying out that infamous Fugitive Slave Law. . . .
Then, there is another item which I want to bring out in this connection. I am a colored man; I am an American citizen; and I think that I am entitled to exercise the elective franchise. . . . No party, it seems to me, is entitled to the sympathy of anti-slavery men, unless that party is willing to extend to the black man all the rights of a citizen. I care nothing about that anti-slavery which wants to make the Territories free, while it is unwilling to extend to me, as a man, in the free States, all the rights of a man. (Applause.) In the State of Illinois . . . we have a code of black laws that would disgrace any Barbary State, or any uncivilized people in the far-off islands of the sea. Men of my complexion are not allowed to testify in a court of justice, where a white man is a party. If a white man happens to owe me anything, unless I can prove it by the testimony of a white man, I cannot collect the debt. Now, two years ago, I went through the State of Illinois for the purpose of getting signers to a petition, asking the Legislature to repeal the "Testimony Law," so as to permit colored men to testify against white men. I went to prominent Republicans, and among others, to Abraham Lincoln and Lyman Trumbull [senator from Illinois], and neither of them dared to sign that petition, to give me the right to testify in a court of justice! ("Hear, hear.") In the State of Illinois, they tax the colored people for every conceivable purpose. They tax the negro's property to support schools for the education of the white man's children, but the colored people are not permitted to enjoy any of the benefits resulting from that taxation. We are compelled to impose upon ourselves additional taxes, in order to educate our children. The State lays its iron hand upon the negro, holds him down, and puts the other hand into his pocket and steals his hard earnings, to educate the children of white men: and if we sent our children to school, Abraham Lincoln would kick them out, in the name of Republicanism and anti-slavery!
The nation's most prominent Negro was Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist orator, journalist, and tribune of his people. Douglass lived in Rochester, New York, where he published a newspaper (Douglass' Monthly), and he lectured all over the North in behalf of emancipation and equal rights. Douglass reached the minds and hearts of white people more effectively than any other man of his race. His monthly journal was read by many antislavery whites, and his lectures drew large numbers of white people. Douglass' first reaction to the nomination of Lincoln by the Republicans in May 1860 was favorable. He described the nomninee as "a man of unblemished private character . . . one of the most frank, honest men in political life." Douglass would have liked the Republicans to inscribe on their banners "Death to Slavery" instead of "No More Slave States." But the people will not have it so, and we are compelled to work and wait for a brighter day, when the masses shall be educated up to a higher standard of human rights and political morality. But as between the hosts of Slavery propagandism and the Republican party--incomplete as is its platform of principles--our preferences cannot hesitate. . . . We can but desire the success of the Republican candidates.
Two months later Douglass said that the Republican party is now the great embodiment of whatever political opposition to the pretensions and demands of slavery is now in the field. . . . A victory by it in the coming contest must and will be hailed as an anti-slavery triumph. In view of this fact, we have no sympathy with those who regard all the parties alike, and especially those who go so far as to prefer the defeat of the Republican party at the coming election to its triumph.
But as the campaign progressed and as Republican leaders repeatedly disavowed any intention to abolish slavery, to grant equal rights to Negroes, or even to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law, Douglass' attitude toward the party underwent a change. In September he wrote that the very best that can be said of that party is, that it is opposed to forcing slavery into any Territory of the United States where the white people of that Territory do not want it. That party . . . is simply opposed to allowing slavery to go where it is not at all likely to go. . . . Even the sentiments of the Republican party, as expressed by its leaders, have become visibly thin and insipid as the canvass has progressed. It promises to be about as good a Southern party as either wing of the old Democratic party.
Douglass and several other Northern Negroes decided to support Gerrit Smith, the candidate of the Radical Abolitionist party, for president. The platform of the Radical Abolitionists proclaimed the constitutional right and duty of the federal government to abolish slavery in the states. The party held its national convention at Syracuse, New York, on August 29, 1860. None of the delegates at Syracuse believed that Smith had any chance of winning the election; the purpose of the party was not to win a victory at the polls but to give voting abolitionists an opportunity to cast their ballots for a genuine abolitionist candidate. Frederick Douglass wrote that to all those who believe that it is the first business of the American people, acting in their collective and national capacity through the forms of the National Government, to abolish and forever put away from among them the stupendous abomination of slavery; who believe . . . that he who stands by pure anti-slavery principle most firmly in this day of accommodation and truckling, bearing aloft the unsullied banner of pure Abolitionism, best serves the cause of the slave . . . will not ask us why we helped make these nominations, and why anti-slavery men, regardless of ridicule and protest, are asked to vote for them. For all such men as are herein described see plainly enough that to vote consistently, they must vote for just such men as have been nominated. Ten thousand votes for GERRIT SMITH at this juncture would do more, in our judgment, for the ultimate abolition of slavery in this country, than two million for ABRAHAM LINCOLN, or any other man who stands pledged before the world against all interference with slavery in the slave States, who is not pledged to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, or anywhere else the system exists, and who is not opposed to making the free States a hunting ground for men under the Fugitive Slave Law. . . . Let Abolitionists, regardless of the outside pressure, regardless of smiles or frowns, mindful only of the true and right, vote in the coming election for the only men now in the field who believe in the complete manhood of the negro, the unconstitutionality and illegality of slavery, and are pledged to the immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
In the press
“McPherson shatters the belief that [blacks] were passive about their freedom. His evidence is telling and, what is more, it is absorbingly retold.” —The New York Times
“Vital reading.” –The New York Times Book Review
“A highly accurate and praiseworthy contribution.” –The San Francisco Chronicle
“Rewarding. . . . Fascinating in detail.” –The Christian Science Monitor
“Tremendous research. . . . Deserves a place on the shelves of readers interested in all phases of the 1861-65 struggle.” –Houston Chronicle
“Impressive. . . . This collection of material is a valuable contribution to history.” –Charleston Evening Post
From the Trade Paperback edition.