"A Liberating Army"
In September 1861, Frederick Douglass, a former slave and
passionate and influential advocate for black rights, wrote,
"Let it be known that the American flag is the flag of freedom
to all who will rally under it and defend it with their blood
Let colored troops from the North be enlisted and permitted
to share the danger and honor of upholding the Government."
It was 1863 before the War Department listened to Douglass
and many others who believed that black men should be
allowed to serve in the Union army.
By late summer of 1862 it was clear that there would be no
peaceful end to the war. Since the beginning of the war, free
black men in the North had insisted that they had the right to
fight for their country. Now, entering the third year of the
war, the War Department decided that arming black men was
solid war policy. The army needed men, and black men were
willing to take up arms against the Confederacy.
In late March 1863, just three months after the
Emancipation Proclamation took effect, the Department
of War sent Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas to the
Mississippi Valley to recruit African Americans into the
Union army. Thomas began his efforts in Cairo, Illinois.
He reached Helena on
April 6, 1863.
Lorenzo Thomas later reported that when he began his
task, "the prejudice against colored troops was quite
general, and it required in the first instance all my efforts
to counteract it, but finally it was overcome, and the
blacks themselves subsequently by their coolness and
determination in battle fought themselves into their
present high standing as soldiers."
Lincoln wanted to issue the preliminary Emancipation
Proclamation but thought that doing so when the
Union was losing on the battlefield would make it look
like an act of desperation. The victory at Antietam in
September 1862 gave Lincoln the opportunity he
sought. He issued the proclamation two weeks later.
Top left: Frederick Douglass spoke for many—black and white—when
he wrote in May 1861, "Let the slaves and free colored people
be called into service, and formed into a liberating army."
Middle right: President Abraham Lincoln, center, Allan Pinkerton and General John
McClernand on the Antietam Battlefield near Sharpsburg Maryland.
Bottom left: When finally given the opportunity African Americans by the
thousands volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army and Navy.