The Civil War Years - The Fight For Emancipation


The election year of 1860 produced many candidates. The Democrats had split into factions; those who were proslavery supported Vice President John Breckinridge, while moderates in the North favored the Illinois senator Stephen Douglas. Abraham Lincoln was the candidate of the Republicans, who were opposed to the spread of slavery into new territories. The candidate from the newly formed Constitutional Union Party, Gerrit Smith, was running on a strong antislavery platform.

At first, Douglass campaigned for Smith. However, a few months before the election, Douglass decided that Smith had no chance of winning and chose instead to back Lincoln. The two Democratic candidates received far more votes than anyone else did, but the division in the party gave the presidency to Lincoln. South Carolina, unwilling to accept the results of the election, seceded from the Union in December 1860. Abolitionists became the targets of angry mobs in the North, which blamed them for dividing the nation. Northern attempts to win back the South were to no avail. In February 1861, six more southern states - Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas seceded and established a separate government under the name of the Confederate States of America.

The country waited for Lincoln to respond to the crisis. The president's address in March was disappointing to Douglass because Lincoln promised to uphold the fugitive slave laws and not interfere with slavery in the states where it was already established. His first priority was to restore the Union, not to end slavery. On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops bombarded Fort Sumter, a federal installation in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The fort surrendered a day later. Lincoln then called for 75,000 troops to be formed and sent to the South to stop the rebellion. Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas immediately joined the Confederacy. The four other slave states - Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky, remained in the Union. The two sides prepared for battle, the North with its 23 states and population of 22 million against the South's 11 states and 9 million people, including 3 and a half million slaves.

The North was fighting to preserve the Union; the South was fighting for the right to secede and establish a nation that guaranteed a person's right to own slaves. For Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists, the war was a battle to end slavery. Douglass's response to the surrender of Fort Sumter was one of thanksgiving. As the Civil War got under way, Douglass marked out two goals for which he would fight: emancipation for all slaves in the Confederacy and the Union border states, and the right of blacks to enlist in the armies of the North. As the war progressed, more and more people in the North would come to agree with these aims. While battles raged throughout the South, Douglass traveled on the lecture circuit, calling for Lincoln to grant slaves their freedom. On April 16, 1862, the president signed a bill outlawing slavery in Washington, D.C., but he was slow to approve congressional measures confiscating slaves in captured areas of the South. Lincoln believed that if he passed laws that emancipated the slaves, the Union's border states might rebel and join the Confederacy.

Douglass continued to insist in his speeches and newspaper editorials that the aim of the war must be to abolish slavery and that blacks must be allowed to join in the battle for their freedom. Battlefield casualties were frighteningly high, and antidraft riots erupted in northern cities. Gradually, as the costly war dragged on, with no final victory in sight for the North, Lincoln began to realize that stronger actions needed to be taken against the Confederacy. In the summer of 1862, Lincoln read to his cabinet a draft of an order that would emancipate slaves in the Confederate states. He decided to issue the proclamation as soon as the North won a major battle. In September, Lincoln got his victory when northern troops pushed back a Confederate army at the bloody battle of Antietam in Maryland. On the night of December 31, 1862, the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that as of the next day all slaves in areas not held by Union troops were free. Slavery was not abolished in the border states or in already captured areas of the South. Nevertheless, Lincoln's act freed millions of blacks, who fled from their masters and took "freedom's road" to areas controlled by Union forces.

In Boston on the night that the proclamation was announced, Douglass wrote of the spirit of those who had gathered with him at the telegraph office to witness slavery's death: "We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky...we were watching...by the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day...we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries." The crowds cheered. The end of slavery was in sight. Douglass next turned his attention to the struggle of blacks to be allowed to fight for their freedom. In 1863, Congress authorized black enlistment in the Union army. The Massachusetts 54th Regimate was the first black unit to be formed, and the governor of the state asked Douglass to help in the recruitment. Douglass agreed and wrote an editorial that was published in the local newspapers. "Men of Color, to Arms," he urged blacks to "end in a day the bondage of centuries" and to earn their equality and show their patriotism by fighting in the Union cause. His sons Lewis and Charles were among the first to enlist.

Douglass's recruitment speeches promised black soldiers equality in the Union army, unfortunately they were not treated equally. They were paid 1/2 of what the white soldiers received and were given inferior weapons and inadequate training. Blacks were not allowed to become officers. Worst of all, black soldiers who were captured by Confederate troops were often shot. Douglass stopped his recruitment efforts when he learned of these conditions. Douglass published his complaints and then requested to meet with the president. His request was granted in the summer of 1863 and Douglass expressed his concerns about the way black soldiers were being treated by Union officers and Confederate captors. President Lincoln did give Douglass some encouragement that changes might be made in the future. Although Douglass was not entirely satisfied with Lincoln's response, he decided to begin recruiting again. Shortly after the meeting, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton offered Douglass a commission on the staff of General Lorenzo Thomas. Douglass accepted the offer and returned to Rochester, where he published the last issue of his newspaper. He waited at home for notice of his commission as an officer, but it never arrived. Apparently, Stanton decided that Douglass would never be accepted by other officers. Douglass was extremely disappointed that the commission fell through, but he continued his recruiting work. By now, Frederick, Jr., had joined his brothers in the Union lines. More than 200,000 blacks enlisted in the Union army and 38,000 were killed or wounded in Civil War battles. Comprising about 10 percent of the North's troops, the black soldiers made their numbers felt on the battlefields and distinguished themselves in many engagements. By mid 1864, with the help of the spirited black troops, the war was slowly turning in favor of the North.

In 1864, Douglass was becoming concerned about the fate of black Americans once they were all free. Douglass not only wanted liberation of the slaves, he wanted equality for his people as well. In the North, discrimination against black soldiers and civilians continued. In May 1864, with the presidential elections approaching, Douglass attended a convention of abolitionists and antislavery members of the Republican party, who were known as radical Republicans. The delegates nominated the former Free Soil party candidate and Union general John C. Fremont for president. The Democrats selected the popular general George McClellan to run against Lincoln on a Copperhead platform. Copperhead was the derogatory name used to refer to anyone who favored making immediate peace with the South and leaving slaves in bondage. Worried that McClellan might win the election, Douglass and other Fremont supporters decided to back Lincoln.

Douglass and Lincoln had a second meeting in August 1864. The president had begun to doubt that the war could be won, and he was worried that he might have to sign a peace with the Confederacy that would leave slavery intact. Lincoln asked Douglass to draw up plans for leading slaves out of the South in the event that a Union victory seemed impossible. Douglass left the interview convinced that the president was a friend of blacks. The president's policies were hated not only by the South but by many people in the North who had grown tired of war. The evacuation plan that Douglass sent to Lincoln never had to be used. In the summer of 1864, General William T. Sherman and his Union troops left a path of destruction as they marched through the heart of the South. In September, Sherman entered Atlanta, the capital of Georgia, burned the city to the ground and left a path of destruction as he headed on to Savannah. The victories gave the North renewed heart and helped Lincoln win easy reelection in November.

By the end of 1864, the South was hungry and bankrupt. As the Confederate armies retreated before their better-supplied opponents, Douglass took the occasion to visit Maryland and Union - controlled areas of Virginia. He lectured in his old home town of Baltimore. On this trip, he was reunited with his sister Eliza, whom he had not seen in 30 years. He was very proud of his sister, who through her own hard work had managed to buy the freedom of herself and her nine children. Back in the North, Douglass attended Lincoln's second inaugural address. Standing among crowds gathered in the nation's capital, Douglass felt himself to be "a man among men." As though to prick that bubble, government officials refused to allow Douglass or any other black to attend the evening reception in the White House. But when Douglass sent word of this refusal to the president, he was quickly ushered in to the ceremony. Lincoln personally greeted him with the words, "Here comes my friend Douglass."

In the beginning of April, the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, was captured. A few days later, the commander of the Confederate forces, General Robert E. Lee, surrendered to the Union commander, Ulysses S. Grant, at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. On April 9, 1865, the Civil War was over. To the horror of the newly reunited nation, President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, while attending a play at Ford's Theater in Washington on April 14. He died the next day. With the rest of the country, Douglass mourned the man he had grown to respect. No sadness could completely overshadow Douglass's joy at this time, however. A single, glorious fact remained: the war to end slavery had been won.
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