• Exploring American History

Frederick Douglass’s dream becomes a reality

Douglass greeted the opening days of the Civil War with mixed emotions. Though he was not happy to see the war itself erupt, he was thankful the time had now arrived when the chains of slavery could finally be destroyed.

One month into the war, Douglass published an article in his newspaper entitled, How to End the War. In the article, he emphasized two important points:

  • Freedom to the slave should now be proclaimed from the Capitol and should be seen above the battlefields' smoke and fire.

  • Negro troops should be enlisted into the Union Army.

Douglass carried his message throughout the northern states by way of letters and meetings with political leaders. Though he was definitely on the right track, it would require several years for the political leaders to catch on.

Frederick soon changed the name of his publication to Douglass's Monthly. In addition to championing the end of slavery, he followed the war’s progress; including such topics as the progress of emancipation and Negro enlistments. The paper also offered a platform for other abolitionists to join in.

A number of Douglass’s articles endeavored to put pressure on President Lincoln to move forward on both agendas, in addition to encouraging the northern citizens to support his causes.

“From the first, I reproached the North that they fought the rebels with only one hand, when they might strike effectually with two – that they fought with their soft white hand, while they kept their black iron hand chained and helpless behind them."

Though Douglass was able to reach a lot of people through his publication, he utilized other platforms as well – speaking engagements and letters to friends at home and abroad.

As the Union continued to take further steps towards emancipation and the arming of Negro regiments, Frederick Douglass rejoiced General Benjamin Franklin Butler later announced a new policy to receive runaway slaves as “contraband” of war, Douglass proclaimed his approval. He stated, “The slave was not only the stomach of the rebellion, by supplying its commissary department; but he built its forts, dug its entrenchments and performed other duties of the camp which left the rebel soldier freer to fight the loyal army than he could otherwise have been.

When President Lincoln allowed the enlistment of 50,000 Negroes to build fortifications and for scouting and foraging, Douglass sang out his approval. “At last the truth began to dawn upon the administration that the Negro might be made useful to loyalty, as well as to treason, to the Union as well as to the Confederacy.

As the first summer of the Civil War emerged, both the Confederacy and Union armies had experienced devastating losses on the battlefield. The Union, however, encountered a problem unique to them. When the Union troops moved deeper into Confederate territory, suddenly they were overrun with escaped Negros wanting to join the Union lines. In some cases, these individuals brought their entire family with them. Others were searching for family members which had previously been sold.

Frederick Douglass continued to press home his solution of freeing the slaves and enlisting them as fighting troops in the Union Army. Various Union generals were now beginning to see the benefit of his recommendation. After the Union troops moved into the South Carolina Sea Islands, thousands of slaves were left behind when the plantation owners fled. Utilizing Douglass’s solution, General Hunter announced freedom to any Negro who joined the Union Army. When the news reached Douglass, he expressed his hearty support.

President Lincoln’s opinion was also changing as he began to see the benefit of offering freedom to the slaves. In doing so, it would not only decrease the labor force of the Confederate Army; it would also offer a large number of laborers for the Union. In September 1862, Douglass rejoiced when he heard Lincoln would issue his Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day. 1863 was shaping up to be a good year.

New Year’s Day, 1863 found Frederick Douglass in Boston with a large group at Tremont Temple, anxiously awaiting the announcement. Everyone waited with bated breath to see if Lincoln would keep his promise. Gathered with Douglass were fellow abolitionists William Wells Brown and William C. Nell. A few short speeches were offered to the crowd, with everyone’s main interest in the news about Lincoln’s speech.

Throughout the day and on into the evening, the people waited. As each hour ticked by, it became harder to hold onto the hope the president would fulfill his September promise. 10:00 p.m. and still no word from Washington. Douglass was beginning to lose his battle to resist the desire to give in to worry and despair. Suddenly, a man burst through the crowd and Douglass never forgot the moment:

With a face fairly illumined with the news he bore, he exclaimed in tones that thrilled all hearts; ‘It’s coming! It is on the wires!

The meeting hall normally closed at midnight, but the celebrating was still going so strong, no one wanted to leave. A short time later, everyone packed up and relocated to the Twelfth Baptist Church, home to Boston’s largest Negro congregation. The slaves were now free.

* * * * *

“It was one of the most affecting and thrilling occasions I ever witnessed!”

Frederick Douglass

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