• Exploring American History

Abraham Lincoln meets Frederick Douglass

Following Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Frederick Douglass abolitionist now became Frederick Douglass recruiter. Traveling throughout the northern United States, Douglass signed recruits for the Massachusetts 54th and 55th Volunteers. In the state of New York, two of Douglass’s three sons, Charles and Lewis, were the first to register. The pride Douglass had in the Negro recruits was enormous:


The 54th was not long in the field before it proved itself gallant and strong, worthy to rank with the most courageous of its white companions in arms. Its assault upon Fort Wagner, in which it was so fearfully cut to pieces, and lost nearly half its officers, including its beloved and trusted commander, Colonel Shaw, at once gave it a name and fame throughout the country. In that terrible battle, under the wing of night, more cavils in respect of the quality of Negro manhood were set at rent than could have been during a century of ordinary life and observation.”


Douglass’s sons also made Papa proud. During the assault on Fort Wagner, Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass reached the parapet and hollered, “Come, boys, come. Let’s fight for God and Governor Andrew!” When retreat suddenly became the name of the game, Sgt Major Douglass was the last to return to safety.


During the course of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln on two occasions. When he went the first time, he felt a need compelled him to be there.


My efforts to secure just and fair treatment for the colored soldiers did not stop at letters and speeches. I was induced to go to Washington and lay the complaints of my people before President Lincoln.


As the brilliant orator prepared for his meeting with President Lincoln, he quickly felt unsure about his pending mission. Speaking to a roomful of white abolitionists had helped Douglass gain a surety about himself when it came to getting his message across to a crowd. Now he would be addressing the President of the United States and doing so in an entirely different arena - the White House.


The distance between the black man and the white American citizen was immeasurable. I was an ex-slave, identified with a despised race, and yet I was to meet the most exalted person in this great republic. It was altogether an unwelcome duty and one from which I would gladly have been excused. I could not know what kind of a reception would be accorded me.”


As Douglass was shown into the room where the president met with visitors, he noticed Lincoln appeared tired and horribly overworked. That changed when the two men were introduced. The mention of Douglass’s name brought a renewed light to Lincoln’s face. The president rose and extended his hand to the former slave, bidding him welcome. As Douglass proceeded to explain who he was and why he was there, Lincoln told him, “I know who you are, Mr. Douglass.”


The petition Douglass delivered to Lincoln was a request for fair treatment for the Negro soldiers who were fighting on behalf of the Union. When Lincoln requested Douglass elaborate his remarks,


Douglass offered three major points:

  • Negro troops should be paid the same wages as the white soldiers.

  • Negro POWs should be given the same level of protection as white soldiers.

  • Negro soldiers should be offered the same awards for heroism shown on the battlefield.

Following their first meeting, Douglass left with a partially satisfying feeling. Though he did not totally see eye to eye with Lincoln on a number of things, the two leaders agreed enough to cause Douglass to go on acting as a recruiter of Negro troops.



Douglass's second meeting with Lincoln was at the president’s invitation. Lincoln shared with Douglass a fear he had that the Civil War would end without the situation of slavery being resolved. As a result, he sought Douglass’s advice. Lincoln was disappointed in the number of Negro recruits who had joined the Union Army, having hoped the number would be much larger. Douglass explained to Lincoln the fact slave owners were able to keep such news from their slaves and more than likely, few of them knew anything about the Emancipation Proclamation.


Plans were now discussed regarding Douglass assembling a group of individuals who could sneak into the South to act as spies and messengers. Their mission would be to pass the information on to the slaves regarding the Emancipation Proclamation and encourage the Negroes to find a method of escape, make their way north and join the Union Army.


During the meeting, one of Lincoln’s aides entered the room to inform the president Governor William Buckingham from Connecticut was there to meet with him. Lincoln told the aide to inform the governor he was presently in a meeting with his friend, Frederick Douglass, and he would meet with the governor when they were through. Douglass offered to leave the room and return later so the president and governor could carry on their meeting. The president told Douglass to keep his seat, stating it would not hurt for the governor to wait his turn. The respect the President showed to this former slave deeply touched Douglass and his admiration for Lincoln grew by leaps and bounds.


I have often said elsewhere what I wish to repeat here, that Mr. Lincoln was not only a great president, but a great man - too great to be small in anything.”


As Douglass left his second meeting with Lincoln, he did so with a determination in his heart to carry out the President’s request. A short time later, however, the winds of war suddenly changed. Not long after the two giants had met, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman entered Georgia and took the city of Atlanta. His “March to the Sea” had now begun. The great victory accomplished by Sherman provided Lincoln the support he needed for re-election and helped to drive the final nails into slavery’s coffin.

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The meeting of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass went into the history books as a landmark in the shifting sands of time. Though Douglass continued to remain unsure of whether or not his meeting with President Lincoln had been worth the effort, time would later prove it truly was. At the close of the Civil War, all three of Douglass’s requests had been fulfilled:


  • Negro troops were paid the same wages as the white troops, retroactive to their dates of enlistment.

  • Laws had been passed which offered them greater protection as POWs.

  • 20 Negro soldiers received the Medal of Honor for the heroism they demonstrated.





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