Frederick Douglass on Black Confederates, 1861: A Research Exercise

I happen to love research exercises.  Oh, I know, some of you are fascinated by shows such as History Detectives (a show I find “fascinating” for distinctly different reasons), and I’m sure many of you wish you could bring new things to light without, say, altering documents.  Here at Crossroads we want to encourage critical thinking and research, and so today we turn to yet another quote, this one from Frederick Douglass, who stated in Douglass’ Monthly in September 1861 the following:

It is now pretty well established, that there are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels. There were such soldiers at Manassas, and they are probably there still. There is a Negro in the army as well as in the fence, and our Government is likely to find it out before the war comes to an end. That the Negroes are numerous in the rebel army, and do for that army its heaviest work, is beyond question. They have been the chief laborers upon those temporary defences in which the rebels have been able to mow down our men. Negroes helped to build the batteries at Charleston. They relieve their gentlemanly and military masters from the stiffening drudgery of the camp, and devote them to the nimble and dexterous use of arms. Rising above vulgar prejudice, the slaveholding rebel accepts the aid of the black man as readily as that of any other. If a bad cause can do this, why should a good cause be less wisely conducted?

You can find this quote all over the internet: here are the results for the first 32 words, as well as a portion of the quote as used by Walter Williams.

In this case there’s no doubt that Douglass published those words.  Simply throwing the quote out there, however, doesn’t tell us anything more than that.  Quoting the words is but a point of departure for an informed understanding of this observation in historical context.

So, let’s ask a few questions … and let’s see who might want to take a crack at answering them …

1.  Did Douglass personally observe what he reports?  To answer that, we’d need to know his whereabouts between April 1861 and September 1861.  After all, if Douglass did not venture south of the Potomac River, he wouldn’t be much of a first-person witness, now, would he, and he could not be cited as independent verification of the presence of blacks serving in combat roles.  Was he among the spectators watching the battle of First Manassas on July 21, 1861?  Is there any evidence to that effect?  It’s safe to say that he probably was not at Charleston, South Carolina.

2.  What was Douglass doing at the time?  What political arguments was he advancing?

3.  What else was going on at the time this article appeared that concerned the status of enslaved blacks in Confederate service?  Were there other debates going on about slavery and United States policy at the time Douglass’ editorial appeared?

And those questions are just the first of several that one could ask.  I’m sure people may, in fact, try to ask more in the hope that readers might not notice that they are having a hard time answering the questions I’ve offered.  So let’s try to find some answers to these questions first, and see what questions inquiry might generate.

Now get to work.

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25 thoughts on “Frederick Douglass on Black Confederates, 1861: A Research Exercise

  1. As I pointed out on Civil War Memory last summer (first link below), he was in Rochester, New York, commenting on press accounts of First Bull Run while writing editorials trying to convince the administration to enlist black soldiers. I’ve seen no evidence that he had been south that summer. To me, the more interesting question is why we always see this editorial, but never his “Only One Hand” speech of three months later, in which he reversed course and flatly asserted that “there are no black rebels. The black man at heart, even if found in the rebel camp, is a loyal man, forced out of his place by circumstances beyond his control” (second link).

    http://cwmemory.com/2010/06/01/cutting-and-pasting-black-confederates/

    http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=4381

    • Thanks, Ken. I recall the exchange: it was buried in the comments section of the post you reference on Civil War Memory. I’m trying to bring more attention to the quote by featuring it front and center.

    • The more you over think things the more complicated you make them. It is really quite simple.
      There are reports in the Official Records and entries in letters and diaries of Union soldiers complaining of being fired upon by Negros in CS ranks. Douglass being situated in Washington would have access to these reports that would eventually be collected. he would also have had access to information commonly denied White men. So he would have heard of enough instances to know it was true. Just as I did not have to hear the Gettysburg address to know it happened, duglass didn’t have to see the battleline in action to have a good picture of what was there to see.

      Those in search of political correctness will often go so far to deny inescapable fact they prove their bias and disingenuousness. They are not interested in the truth but defining their preconceived bias. If we are to dismiss his statements on the basis that he wasn’t there to see the Blacks in ranks, we must by the same measure dismiss most of recorded history.

      By “in the fence” he simply meant ‘working in the fields.’ Fields under cultivation were (and still frequently are) fenced.

      • Douglass would have heard of enough reports to know that there were reports. He would not be in a position to know whether they were true or to analyze them. For example,we hear of blacks forced to work a battery under fire at First Manassas. That’s not quite the same thing s blacks flocking to the Confederate cause. I note no Confederate heritage organization is willing to commemorate the actions of that unit given when the participants said what was happening. Is that an example of “heritage correctness,” which seems to have more substance that the oft-invoked but rarely defined concept of “political correctness”?

        Is is simple indeed. The Confederacy claimed there were no enslaved black soldiers. It was not until 1865 that it made provision for them. That’s historically accurate. End of story.

      • “Douglass being situated in Washington. . . .”

        In 1861 Frederick Douglass lived in Rochester, in upstate New York. He moved to Washington much later.

        Douglass had plenty of reason to believe reports of black Confederates at Manassas to be plausible, because they appeared over and over again in the Northern press. What Douglass and many other readers probably did not realize at the time was that most of those reports can be traced back to a single news item (that itself cannot be verified), that got rewritten and republished, over an over again for weeks, in papers as far away as London. While we don’t know for certain where Douglass got his information, we do know these reports were published in at least two papers he almost certainly would have seen, the New York Daily Tribune (July 22, 1861) and Moore’s Rural New Yorker (July 27, 1861), the latter of which was published there in Rochester. There were likely others, as well, but these are two examples that we can be reasonably sure Douglass saw at the time.

  2. #1, Looking at the wording Douglass used >”It is now pretty well established”< my question is, established by who? Douglass did not give a source or did he claim to have observed these "real soldiers" himself. Things that established can become unestablished .

    #2 Douglass , the abolitionists and others viewed the war as a war to end slavery . Using that argument Douglass openly promoted blacks being allowed to serve and fight in the Union army. That was one of the "political arguments was he advancing."

    My synopsis is, Douglass , the abolitionists , the fire eaters in the south, politicians both north and south were not insusceptible when it came to using exaggerated information to advance their political agendas.

    • What douglas was using the language of victorian speech , meaning that the ” negros were in the fence or meaning: they are within the confines of Confederate camps as labor help , cooks Musicians , ( yes musicians and yes were paid for thier services , at the rate of $12.00 a month much to the disgust of many soldier on both sides ! ) they also did service at Vicksburg where one man was a sniper zaping Berdans sharpshooters for several months , untill they finally had enough and found him and shot him in the tree he was shotting from. yes dear knowledge minded men of ure the blacks DID TAKE UP ARMS AGAINST UNION DESPOTS AND DID KILL YANKEES and yes gentlemen your putting to much in the reading of what Douglas was saying : by the way Douglas for many of you who don”t know did have slaves within his house , and yes he was a FREEMAN OF COLOR even though he had status within the white abolistonist community he was there for one thing and one thing only MONEY AND PRESTIGE . He could not vote either by law until after the war.

      • Douglass certainly could vote in Massachusetts, the 1780 Constitution gave black males the right to vote. What do you mean by “money and prestige?” Sorry but I don’t understand what points you are trying to make with your comment, what do you mean by Union Despots?, and what makes you think that Southern black slaves would view federal soldiers such?

    • Charles, we don’t know how Douglass came to his conclusion, but it seems likely he’d read about in the newspapers — likely multiple papers — including at least one published in his hometown of Rochester. Most of these accounts seem to have snowballed from a single report from a captured Confederate prisoner, which were repeated, rewritten, and republished over several weeks, as far away as London. Each time, the original account got a little more vague, and a little more grandiose. You can see that clearly if you look at them all at once, side by side, but if you were reading them at the time, they would likely seem more like multiple reports and therefore (in Douglass’ words), “pretty well established.”

    • 1. Douglass no doubt had access to the Black grapevine inaccessible to Whites as well as the established means of information. There were also no doubt many reports by the soldiers themselves for any who would have listened.
      2. The abolitionists were about the only ones besides the Negros who saw thee war as a path to abolition. Certainly not Lincoln. You have to recall that Fremont abolished slavery in Missouri in 1861 and Lincoln had the order revoked. Lincoln had no interest in freeing the slaves, only in restricting them to the areas the were in already. He was a dedicated White supremest. His “Emancipation Proclamation” effectively freed no one and was only issued to allow for recruitment of Black soldiers and hopefully disrupting the slave structure in the south, at which it failed. He had no interest in or intentions of providing for Black equality. He later went so far as to order ‘feasibility studies’ done on the possibility of relocating on Negros in America to a colony in Africa. Lincoln’s vision of America was as a White America.

  3. Here’s one fine piece of historical analysis I’ve come across:

    1. Did Douglass personally observe what he reports? To answer that, we’d need to know his whereabouts between April 1861 and September 1861.

    No we don’t need to know his whereabouts then to answer that. That may be an interesting incidental question but nothing in Frederick Douglass’s quote suggests it, to begin with. Secondly, if he had, he’d most certainly have said so.

    I’ll leave it to my readers to discern the problems with this answer. Generally speaking, in order to determine whether someone personally observed something, we’d want to determine whether it was possible for them to have observed it, and that would involve an awareness of their whereabouts. Only if we want to concede that Douglass was simply passing on second-hand reports would his whereabouts become irrelevant (although his sources of information would then become important). That would mean that citing Frederick Douglass as a witness would be bad history.

    • The problem is really a refusal to even bother analyzing the quote. Here is the very next statement by the individual who wrote the “historical analysis” quoted above:

      “Simply reading, literally, (as is), what’s in front to you, is all you need to do. (I’m finding, more and more these days, people are prone not to heed what other people say, nor register other people’s words as written.)”

      There you have it – don’t even bother to look beyond the words themselves! The advantage of this approach is that cherry-picking to support a claim is made so much easier.

      • Whether or not he knew what he was talking about is irrelevant as long as what he wrote agrees with the preconceived position of the “analyst.” The goal isn’t understanding. The goal is to propagandize.

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  7. Ystdy, by accident, I came across the linked article by Edward Spencer, “Confederate Negro Enlistments,” in McClure’s 1879 “Annals of the War.” I’m sure this is already familiar to those most interested in this overall subject, but thought I would post the link anyway. CRS

    http://books.google.com/books?id=yqpYAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA536&dq=spencer+confederate+negro+enlistments&hl=en&ei=PPvUTurfCKHm0QG579yfAg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=spencer%20confederate%20negro%20enlistments&f=false

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