On this date of August 9, of 1863 – 150 years ago today – President Lincoln penned a brief letter to Ulysses Grant in the western theatre. After a brief thought on a possible expedition against Mobile, Alabama, Lincoln wrote the following:
A word upon another subject. General Thomas has gone again to the Mississippi Valley with the view of raising colored troops. I have no reason to doubt that you are doing what you reasonably can upon the same subject. I believe it is a resource which if vigorously applied now, will soon close the contest. It works doubly, weakening the enemy and strengthening us. We were not fully ripe for it until the river was opened. Now, I think at least one hundred thousand can, and ought to be rapidly organized along its shores, relieving all white troops to serve elsewhere. Mr. Dana understands you as believing that the emancipation proclamation has helped some in your military operations. I am very glad if this is so.
Grant gave President Lincoln enthusiastic support for black recruitment, replying on August 23, 1863: I have given the subject of arming the negro my hearty support. This, with the emancipation of the negro, is the heavyest blow yet given the Confederacy. The South care a great deal about it and profess to be very angry. But they were united in their action before and with the negro under subjection could spare their entire white population for the field. Now they complain that nothing can be got out of their negroes.
There has been great difficulty in getting able bodied negroes to fill up the colored regiments in consequence of the rebel cavalry run[n]ing off all that class to Georgia and Texas. This is especially the case for a distance of fifteen or twenty miles on each side of the river. I am now however sending two expeditions into Louisiana, one from Natchez to Harrisonburg and one from Goodrich’s Landing to Monroe, that I expect will bring back a large number. I have ordered recruiting officers to accompany these expeditions. I am also moving a Brigade of Cavalry from Tennessee to Vicksburg which will enable me to move troops to a greater distance into the interior and will facilitate materially the recruiting service.
The portion of Lincoln’s letter where he speaks of relieving white troops to serve elsewhere has the tone of early thoughts upon black regiments – that they would be only best deployed in garrison duty. But the bravery and excellence displayed in battle in places such as Fort Wagner, Port Hudson/Milliken’s Bend, and Nashville demonstrated abilities beyond the expectation of many. In a letter to his friend James Conkling of Illinois, Lincoln wrote of reports from certain successful field commanders who “believe the emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion; and that, at least one of those important successes, could not have been achieved when it was, but for the aid of black soldiers.”
Lincoln also wrote in that same letter (8/26/1863), “Negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do anything for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive—even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.” And with the conviction that indeed a day of peace would come, Lincoln added … “And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, 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 have strove to hinder it.”
We see in this the strength of conviction Lincoln had in the correctness of the Emancipation Proclamation. Gettysburg College historian Allen Guelzo writes: “Black enlistment made the Emancipation Proclamation irrevocable. No one in their right mind could seriously recommend canceling the Proclamation after ordering black soldiers into the nightmare of war.” (Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, p. 219)
Looking back, it is sometimes said that Lincoln appeared either half-hearted or purely utilitarian about the issue of emancipation. I believe this is entirely ungenerous and devoid of an understanding of the many varied and competing realities in Lincoln’s world. Just over a decade after the War in 1876, Frederick Douglas summarized it well by saying:
His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he needed the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow- countrymen. Without those primary and essential conditions to success his efforts would have been utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. From the genuine abolition view, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent, but measuring him by the sentiment of his country—a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult—he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined. (Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, pp. 541–42)