Daily Archives: 13 February 2023

Recruiting Ex-slaves, 1863

From Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War, by David Williams (New Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 196-198:

The Emancipation Proclamation had its intended effect on African American men. Eager to enlist, they poured into recruiting offices across the North and flocked to Union lines across the South. Frederick Douglass was among the most enthusiastic supporters of black enlistment. “The iron gate of our prison stands half open,” he told African Americans as he urged them to arms. “One gallant rush … will fling it wide.” Two of Douglass’s sons joined that rush, along with more than two hundred thousand other black men who served in the Union’s land and naval forces. Over 80 percent of them were from the southern states. Nearly all of those had been slaves. But no longer. “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, ‘U.S.,’” Douglass proclaimed, “let him get an eagle on his buttons and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” Prince Rivers, a self-emancipated sergeant in the First South Carolina Volunteers, made clear what that meant to him: “Now we sogers are men—men de first time in our lives.”

Despite the enthusiasm of men like Rivers, there were some former slaves who were reluctant to exchange one kind of servitude for another, much less fight for the Union. Recruiters in Kansas sometimes had difficulty finding volunteers among refugee slaves. In South Carolina, Union General David Hunter so often resorted to heavyhanded coercion in trying to get recruits for his first black regiment that some of the conscripts quickly deserted. When blacks enlisted, they did so for their own reasons. “Liberty is what we want and nothing shorter,” wrote an anonymous black soldier in Louisiana. “We care nothing about the union. we have been in it Slaves for over two hundred And fifty years.” At a “war meeting” of former slaves on Georgia’s St. Simons Island, a northern correspondent witnessed several speakers, including one black man, trying to draw new recruits.

They were asked to enlist for pay, rations and uniform, to fight for their country, for freedom and so forth, but not a man stirred. But when it was asked them to fight for themselves, to enlist to protect their wives and children from being sold away from them, and told of the little homes which they might secure to themselves and their families in after years, they all rose to their feet, the men cam forward and said “I’ll go,” and the women shouted, and the old men said “Amen.”

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Filed under labor, migration, military, nationalism, slavery, U.S., war