Soon after African American soldiers saw combat action in the spring and summer of 1863, reports began to filter back of Confederate mistreatment of black Union POWs as well as their white officers. While the Confederate government had pledged to treat white officers of black soldiers as inciting insurrection (and thus liable to execution if captured), the policy toward captured black soldiers was to return then to their former masters (leaving in legal limbo the treatment of free backs in uniform who were captured). Now, however, it seemed that Confederate captors were doing more than just that.
We hear a great deal about letters from the mothers of soldiers to the president of the United States. Here’s one such letter that deserves more attention:
Buffalo [N.Y.] July 31 1863
Excellent Sir My good friend says I must write to you and she will send it My son went in the 54th regiment. I am a colored woman and my son was strong and able as any to fight for his country and the colored people have as much to fight for as any. My father was a Slave and escaped from Louisiana before I was born morn forty years agone I have but poor edication but I never went to schol, but I know just as well as any what is right between man and man. Now I know it is right that a colored man should go and fight for his country, and so ought to a white man. I know that a colored man ought to run no greater risques than a white, his pay is no greater his obligation to fight is the same. So why should not our enemies be compelled to treat him the same, Made to do it.
My son fought at Fort Wagoner but thank God he was not taken prisoner, as many were I thought of this thing before I let my boy go but then they said Mr. Lincoln will never let them sell our colored soldiers for slaves, if they do he will get them back quck he will rettallyate and stop it. Now Mr Lincoln dont you think you oght to stop this thing and make them do the same by the colored men they have lived in idleness all their lives on stolen labor and made savages of the colored people, but they now are so furious because they are proving themselves to be men, such as have come away and got some edication. It must not be so. You must put the rebels to work in State prisons to making shoes and things, if they sell our colored soldiers, till they let them all go. And give their wounded the same treatment. it would seem cruel, but their no other way, and a just man must do hard things sometimes, that show him to be a great man. They tell me some do you will take back the Proclamation, don’t do it. When you are dead and in Heaven, in a thousand years that action of yours will make the Angels sing your praises I know it. Ought one man to own another, law for or no, who made the law, surely the poor slave did not. so it is wicked and a horrible Outrage, there is no sense in it, because a man has lived by robbing all his life and his father before him, should he complain because the stolen things found on him are taken. Robbing the colored people of their labor is but a small part of the robbery their souls are almost taken, they are made bruits of often. You know all about this
Will you see that the colored men fighting now, are fairly treated. You ought to do this, and do it at once, Not let the thing run along meet it quickly and manfully, and stop this, mean cowardly cruelty. We poor oppressed ones, appeal to you, and as fair play. Yours for Christs sake
[In another handwriting] Hon. Mr. Lincoln The above speaks for itself. Carrie Coburn
Unknown to Mrs. Johnson, the President had already acted to address her request.
It is the duty of every government to give protection to its citizens, of whatever class, color, or condition, and especially to those who are duly organized as soldiers in the public service. The law of nations and the usages and customs of war as carried on by civilized powers, permit no distinction as to color in the treatment of prisoners of war as public enemies. To sell or enslave any captured person, on account of his color, and for no offence against the laws of war, is a relapse into barbarism and a crime against the civilization of the age.
The government of the United States will give the same protection to all its soldiers, and if the enemy shall sell or enslave anyone because of his color, the offense shall be punished by retaliation upon the enemy’s prisoners in our possession.
It is therefore ordered that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war
Unfortunately, these fierce words carried with them no teeth. Lincoln was not about to pursue such a policy in practice, although some of his generals, including Ulysses S. Grant, would have had no problem with it. However, the president would have no problem using the Confederate failure to treat black soldiers just like any other soldiers for purposes of exchanges, one of the major reasons for the collapse of the prisoner exchange system.
That said, this demand for equal treatment carried within it a commitment to equality under law. To be sure, meeting that commitment would not always come quickly, but Lincoln had pressed for equality under law before (although not equal citizenship, including political as well as civil rights). Those folks who cite what Lincoln said at Charleston about social equality during his debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 tend to overlook what he said at Quincy about civil equality.
It’s important to remember that these soldiers were, in fact, soldiers of the United States. You can’t say that you honor the service of the men and women who have fought in defense of the United States unless you accord the same respect and honor due to these freedom fighters. As Lincoln would soon say:
Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon, and come to stay; and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time. It will then have been proved that, among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case, and pay the cost. And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonnet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they strove to hinder it.
He was speaking, of course, of opponents of the war in the North. But those folks who tell us that it’s all about heritage and honor and tell us “they fought for what they believed in” would do well not to slight the contributions of these fighting men, who also fought for what they believed in, indeed dearly desired: freedom.
These are the black soldiers we need to remember.