For all the volumes written about Abraham Lincoln, for all the eloquent words spoken by Lincoln himself—for all the polls that mark him a great man, a national, even international, hero—the Civil War President remains something of an enigma. [1] Our continuation today of the "Lincoln and" tradition suggests our preoccupation with his views on great issues. Given a correlary interest in the topic of race in American history, it is not surprising that Lincoln's place in that central theme remains a subject of debate. The revolutionary developments of the post-World War II period in the area of what is broadly termed "civil rights" have led to a reevaluation of Lincoln—from the great emancipator to the reluctant emancipator to the white supremacist, or, in more vulgar terms, Lincoln as just another honkie. Page  [End Page 6]

Historians, ordinarily a judicious lot, are as much involved in the reevaluation as those with more obvious ideological interests. But historians should have a greater appreciation of context. Hence, to wrench Lincoln from context, from the backdrop of his times, from the exigencies of policy, from the fortunes of war, and from the historical record, is not a path calculated for arrival at something approximating historical truth. In our relativistic age, perhaps it is too much to expect fidelity to the record; perhaps Lincoln should remain more symbol than historical reality. Perhaps the record is discomfiting; it often is.

Abraham Lincoln was born into a political culture that was profoundly racist (to use a somewhat anachronistic term). For centuries, Europeans, whether living on the continent, in the United States, or elsewhere, had deemed the Africans a race apart, one that was in no guise the equal of the European. It was a combination of that racism with economic considerations that made the enslavement of the African fundamentally different from the slavery of other places and other times. Practically speaking, there was nothing in Lincoln's formative years that would lead us to expect him to be other than a man of his culture. Page  [End Page 7] The laws of Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois—in common with those of other political jurisdictions within the United States—held the African to be less than a citizen, less than a person.

Yet Lincoln imbibed other influences—the idea of political democracy (however limited); the idea of social mobility (however restricted); the idea of economic improvement (how ever problematical). Lincoln believed the words of the Declaration of Independence; he believed that a person should not be constrained by circumstances of birth; and he embraced the Whig notions of economic growth. As an individual he was, from all reports, singularly free from bigotry—against individuals and groups.[2]

As much as any public man of his day, he advocated the widest sharing in the American dream. His reentry into national politics in the wake of the exacerbated sectional conflict of the 1850s was predicated upon the ideas that slavery was an evil and that, in certain instances, racial bigotry was unworthy of a great nation. That his political fortunes, and those of his party, were tied to the geographical restriction of slavery, set him, and his party, apart from his political opponents. In the context of 1858 or 1860 (and 1948 or 1960), he could have been seen as something of a radical.

The threat to slavery perceived by Lincoln's election in 1860 precipitated a train of events that culminated in civil war. That war, whatever else it may have been, or whatever else we may wish it had been, was a titanic military struggle, frought with profound political and social consequences. Lincoln, as he Page  [End Page 8] remarked in his Second Inaugural Address, did not anticipate, nor did other Americans anticipate, those consequences any more than they anticipated the full horrors of that wretched conflict Lincoln expected a relatively short war once the apparently overwhelming resources of the Union could be brought to bear against the Confederacy. Thus, the ancient prejudices of his country might have survived the war intact had the war indeed ended with Union victory in the first year or so. But that was not the case. Lincoln necessarily had to accept, and then defend, policies that arose from circumstances—circumstances that forced a reconsideration of the place of the African (more accurately, the Afro-American) in the United States.

The American political and military establishment decreed in 1861 that the war would be fought by white men. Lincoln concurred. The Congress decreed in July, 1861, that the war would be fought for the Union—not for conquest or the abolition of slavery. Lincoln concurred. When his generals and Cabinet officials moved beyond the President's plan, Lincoln overruled them. When black leaders asked that regiments of black soldiers be enrolled under the flag of freedom, Lincoln and his advisors refused.[3] Many northerners, in stations high and low, seemed to fear a rebellion of slaves more than they feared a rebellion of slaveowners.[4] Had northern arms prevailed in 1861 or even in early 1862, slavery might have remained status quo ante bellum.

The political attack on slavery was embodied in a series of laws, termed the Confiscation Acts. Under the provisions of those laws, Lincoln could have enrolled black men as laborers and support elements for the armies in the field. Lincoln chose rather not to invoke those aspects of the Acts. A primary reason was his concern for the border states, especially Kentucky. Lincoln believed that wholesale emancipation or the enlistment of black soldiers would Page  [End Page 9]

Negroes on a Port Royal, South Carolina, plantation
Negroes on a Port Royal, South Carolina, plantation
cause Kentucky, and probably Missouri and Maryland, to become even greater obstacles to the Union cause—to say nothing of antagonism elsewhere in the North. In the case of Kentucky he was correct. Holding that state in the Union necessitated either overwhelming military force or some deference to the wishes of its white population. Lincoln's policy reflected a combination of both. Eventually, more black men entered the Army from Kentucky than from any other state except Louisiana. And the reaction of the white population in Kentucky was as negative as had been predicted. But by 1863, negative reaction in Kentucky was considerably less consequential than in 1861 or 1862. [5]

For practical political reasons, Lincoln did not openly lead the movement toward the enlistment of blacks. Prior to 1863, long Page  [End Page 10] before he expressed enthusiasm for the idea, he allowed others to take the first steps; he remained silent, overruled them, or caused them to be overruled. He was always sensitive to political considerations and to the perequisites and powers of his office. Timing, the right moment, was critical—and Lincoln always deemed himself a better judge of the moment than those who advised him, formally or informally.

On September 25, 1861, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles allowed the recruitment of blacks into the Navy, but only with the rank of "boy" and at a compensation of no more than $10.00 per month. The step caused little comment, perhaps because "boys" on ships were not expected to shoot Rebels or to function as part of the military establishment. [6]

Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, was less subtle. On October 14, 1861, he authorized Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman to hire black fugitives for service in South Carolina, although he disclaimed any intent to arm them as soldiers. Lincoln seemed amenable to the idea of blacks as "auxiliaries," but the plan failed because General Sherman apparently neither wished to use blacks nor wished to offend unduly the sensibilities of white South Carolinians. In December, Cameron took a more direct step. In his annual report he openly advocated employment of slaves as soldiers. More important, he allowed the report to be copied and distributed before giving it to Lincoln. The President disavowed the offensive portions of the report and ordered them deleted from his own annual message to Congress. Because of that misstep but also because he was a general embarrassment to the administration, Cameron was removed from the Cabinet and named minister to Russia. [7]

During the first half of 1862, Congress moved towards bringing blacks into the Army—March, rendition of slaves by military forbidden; April, abolition of slavery in D.C.; July, Second Confiscation Act and Militia Act. In April and May, the new Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, encouraged (at least implicitly) Page  [End Page 11] the arming of blacks in South Carolina. The situation there caused a great stir, because the general in command, David Hunter, proved to be politically inept and hence a political liability. He managed to offend many officers and men in the white regiments as well as two congressmen of a border state, Kentucky. When those congressmen demanded explanations of what was transpiring in South Carolina, Stanton retreated into his bureaucratic defenses but did ask General Hunter for a report, which he forwarded to Congress. Hunter's report was entertaining to some Republicans (referring to "fugitive rebels"), and to the border state congressmen—insulting.[8]

During the summer of 1862, Lincoln evinced no inclination to support Hunter, to implement the provisions of the Second Confiscation Act liberating the slaves of Rebels, or to employ blacks other than as laborers. He stated his views to the Cabinet in late July, and on August 6 he told a delegation of "Western gentlemen" that he would not arm blacks "unless some new and more pressing emergency arises." Such, he said, would turn "50,000 bayonets" in the border states against the Union. Steps short of actually arming blacks would be continued—upon this he and his critics did not differ. And in the same context, on August 22 he wrote his famous reply to Horace Greeley's "Prayer of Twenty Millions": as President, he would save the Union; all else would be subordinate to that goal.[9]

On August 10, the disheartened (if not chastened) General Hunter reported to Stanton that he was disbanding his regiment of South Carolina volunteers. But as the curtain fell on Hunter, Stanton on August 25 authorized Brigadier General Rufus Saxton at Beaufort, South Carolina, to "arm, uniform, equip, and receive into the service of the United States such number of volunteers of African descent as you may deem expedient, not exceeding 5,000." Why the reversal? Why had Stanton authorized Saxton to do what had been denied Hunter? A comment by Lieutenant Charles Francis Adams, Jr., may be pertinent. Regarding Hunter, "Why could not fanatics be silent and let Providence work for Page  [End Page 12]

1864 Harper's Weekly depiction of a Negro soldier
"endowed for the first time with his birth-right of freedom ...
fighting for the nation which is hereafter pledged to protect him
and his."
1864 Harper's Weekly depiction of a Negro soldier "endowed for the first time with his birth-right of freedom ... fighting for the nation which is hereafter pledged to protect him and his." Page  [End Page 13]
awhile?" [10] (And if not Providence, at least the President.) In short, had Hunter managed to be more politic with respect to his fellow officers and the Congress, had he been able to restrain his rhetorical flourishes, he may not have run afoul of the critics of his policy, to say nothing of the President. The fact was, blacks were now to be brought into the service, not by a general acting more or less on his own authority, but by order of the War Department— and the President.

In other corners of the conflict, namely Louisiana and Kansas, other generals proceeded to enlist blacks. In New Orleans, for example, Benjamin F. Butler had negated earlier enlisting efforts but now, encouraged by Secretary of the Treasury Chase (and by Mrs. Butler), called for free blacks to enter the service. By mid-fall three such regiments were formed in Louisiana. On August 5, 1862, the redoubtable abolitionist James H. Lane in Kansas wired Stanton that he was raising black as well as white regiments, and was there any objection? Stanton wrote Lane on August 22 and again on September 23 that such action was without the authority of the President Lane never received authorization, but he continued enrolling black soldiers for the Union. Benjamin Quarles has termed such enrollments "trial balloons," which when no one of consequence tried to pop, Lincoln allowed to float. [11]

Of course, Lincoln was discussing another matter with his Cabinet in the summer of 1862—namely, emancipation. In his "preliminary" proclamation of September 22, 1862, Lincoln did not mention black soldiers. In October, however, he presumably talked to one Daniel Ullmann of New York, who urged that very course. After hearing Ullmann's argument, Lincoln asked: "Would you be willing to command black soldiers?" Although stunned by the question, Ullmann replied in the affirmative. [12] Given the events of the late summer and early fall in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Kansas, Lincoln seemed to be evolving a plan—perhaps Ullmann would pilot another of those trial balloons. Page  [End Page 14]

F. B. Carpenter's "First Reading of the Emancipation
F. B. Carpenter's "First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation"

The Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, called for the enrollment of blacks in the Union Army and Navy. It was contained in an almost offhand passage—fully in keeping with Lincoln's tendency to hint, approach indirectly, and finally, defend the stated policy. Yet the proclamation was fundamental. It was a war message, a political document. The government of the United States, through the Office of the President, was now unequivocally on the side of emancipation and of bringing black men into the army of the Republic.

Over the next several months the new policy was put into effect. Ullmann, appointed a brigadier general of volunteers, was specifically charged with raising four regiments of volunteers in Louisiana (where he found public opinion far from supportive). Colonel James Montgomery of Kansas was authorized to raise a Page  [End Page 15] black regiment in South Carolina, and the governors of Massachusetts and Rhode Island were given similar authorization. [13] Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, in fact, raised most of his black troops from the southern states. [14]

The major organizing effort was placed in the hands of Lorenzo Thomas, adjutant general of the Army. His order of March 25 from Secretary Stanton was to proceed to the Mississippi Valley, in order to enlist black troops and find white officers and enlisted men who would take commissions in black regiments. Thomas was an effective recruiter, stressing that he spoke with the full authority of the President, the Secretary of War, and the General- in-Chief. Henry W. Halleck (who was notorious for his General Order No. 3 in 1861) had fallen in line with administration policy and now was telling other officers in the Mississippi Valley to do the same. Of particular interest was the reaction of Ulysses S. Grant, who early in the war had no more sympathy for emancipation than did many other regulars. Yet Grant was certainly a man to follow orders from Washington. Indeed, he had already made provision for organizing "contrabands" into a work force. Accoring to John Eaton, Jr., in charge of the contrabands, Grant believed that if the occasion arose, the fugitives could carry rifles instead of hoes, rakes, and shovels.

Halleck's advice to Grant, in a friendly if somewhat patronizing letter, was an effective statement of administration policy. "From my position here, where I can survey the whole field, perhaps I may be better able to understand the tone of public opinion and the intentions of the Government." Grant then assured Halleck (and later the President) that he would support the policy even to the extent of ordering subordinate officers to be active in "removing prejudice" against blacks. Thomas's mission, after all, went beyond recruiting black men into the ranks. As Dudley Cornish has stated: "Rather was his task that of initiating Union policy on a Page  [End Page 16] grand scale, of breaking down white opposition to the use of Negro soldiers, of educating Union troops in the valley on this one subject, of starting the work of organization," and then leaving others to finish the work of recruiting and training. Lincoln approved of Thomas's work, telling Stanton that Thomas was "one of the best (if not the best) instruments for this service." [15] Perhaps Lincoln had been right after all. It was best to bring the general public along, then put the task in the hands of the professional soldiers who, while not without ideological biases, placed great stock in order, system, and hierarchy. The road to favor with the administration was not in embarrassing the President, but in efficiently following his policy, once that policy was clearly enunciated.

Recruiting poster
Recruiting posterPage  [End Page 17]

"Contrabands Coming into Camp in Consequence of
the Proclamation"—Harper's Weekly, January 31,
"Contrabands Coming into Camp in Consequence of the Proclamation"—Harper's Weekly, January 31, 1863

On Independence Day, 1863, Vicksburg surrendered; the "Father of Waters" again flowed "unvexed to the sea." Thanks were given to not only the Great Northwest, but also New England, and the "Sunny South, too, in more colors than one." [16]

In early August, Lincoln wrote to Grant, congratulating him upon his magnificent military achievement, but also noting: "Gen. Thomas has gone again to the Mississippi Valley, with the view of raising colored troops. I have not 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 this contest. It works doubly, weakening the enemy and strengthening us. We were not fully ripe for it until the river was opened."[17] On August 26, Lincoln wrote to a political friend in Page  [End Page 18] Illinois that some of his field commanders "who have given us our most important successes, 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." He could have recited the practical, some might say cynical, reasons given for bringing blacks into the Army—saving the lives of white soldiers. Yet, said Lincoln, "Negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing 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." One day peace would come. "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."[18]

The force of the effort for recruiting blacks lay in the deep South and in the Northeast. Lincoln still had no wish to press the issue in the border states. And his caution was well founded, although he did authorize (through Stanton) recruiting in Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.

Kentuckians were particularly resentful. When Ambrose Burnside suggested in June, 1863, that the administration disavow any intention to conscript free blacks in Kentucky, Lincoln concurred that the effort would cost more than it would gain. In January, 1864, however, the War Department established a recruiting post in Paducah. Kentucky Governor Thomas E. Bramlette traveled to Washington and protested directly to Lincoln. The President explained that he had come to his policy of emancipation and arming blacks after prudent delay—early in the war it was not an "indespensible necessity." He changed his mind when he knew that he had to choose between "surrendering the Union, and with it, the Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the colored element." He had not been certain at that time that he Page  [End Page 19] had made the right decision, but after a year's experience, he was convinced of it. "We have the men [130,000]; and we could not have had them without the measure. And now let any Union man who complains of the measure, test himself by writing down in one line that he is for subduing the rebellion by force of arms; and in the next, that he is for taking these hundred and thirty thousand men from the Union side, and placing them where they would be but for the measure he condemns. If he can not face his case so stated, it is only because he can not face the truth." That letter contained Lincoln's memorable line, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me." [19] Lincoln meant for the letter to be circulated among the white population of Kentucky. Although his correspondents expressed satisfaction with it, Kentuckians in general resented recruitment of blacks more intensely than did people of any other state. But Lincoln knew, and he made the point repeatedly from mid-1863 to the end of the war; without the black soldiers, there would be no Union.

Frederick Douglass said so well in 1876:

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.[20]

The enlistment of blacks into the Union Army was part of Lincoln's evolving policy on slavery and race, a policy charged with political, social, and psychological overtones. The black man as soldier—with rifle and bayonet—was a different figure from the Page  [End Page 20] slave. His presence, while a military necessity, was also a potent blow to the idea of the innate inferiority of the African, an idea not peculiar to the South. Those who urged the enlistment of blacks realized its implications. Some political figures saw it as a necessity, calculated to outrage the South. Black leaders saw it from a different perspective. Not only would the enlistment of blacks serve a military purpose, but most assuredly it would also enhance the sense of manhood among black men, a sense deliberately blunted by public policy throughout the nation. Thus, while Douglass remarked on the "tardiness" of the President who "loved Rome more than he did Caesar," he insisted that emancipation and manhood, in the most profound sense, were indispensable steps toward participation in American society.

Lincoln acted as he did from necessity. His almost mystical devotion to the Union and his personal compassion for the dispossessed of the world combined into policy. Events moved him in the sense that events determined the time for action. During the Civil War a basic truth emerged: Black people understood the meaning of the war and contributed to the great goal of freedom. Yet blacks were also objects; in order to defeat the white South, the white North needed black men. Lincoln was their emancipator, their savior, when he spoke as the cautious, prudent political leader and when he eloquently spoke of the magnificent contribution that black soldiers made to the Union. The war brought the time, and Lincoln—"preeminently the white man's President"—became the black man's hero. Page  [End Page 21]


  1. Cf. Frederick Douglass's perceptive comment: "Any man can say things that are true of Abraham Lincoln, but no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln.... He was a mystery to no man who saw him and heard him." Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written By Himself (Hartford, Ct.: Park Publishing Co., 1882), p. 541. The quoted words are from Douglass's magnificent oration "on the occasion of the unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument, in memory of Abraham Lincoln, in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., April 14, 1876." return to text
  2. When Douglass remarked that Lincoln "shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race," he was speaking in the context of public policy. Note also his moving description of Lincoln's Second Inaugural and subsequent conversation with the President (ibid., pp. 364–66, 402–07, 488). In a letter to Joshua Speed, Aug. 24, 1855, Lincoln wrote: "As a nation, we begin by declaring that 'All men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy." Roy P. Basler, ed., Marion Dolores Pratt and Lloyd A. Dunlap, asst. eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), II, 323 (hereafter cited as Collected Works). return to text
  3. Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861–1865 (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1956), pp. 1–12. return to text
  4. See, for example, Ulysses S. Grant to his father, Jesse Root Grant, May 6, 1861, in John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Vol. 2: April–Sept., 1861 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), pp. 20–22: "A Northern army may be required in the next ninety days to go south to suppress a negro insurrection." return to text
  5. Allan Nevins, The War For the Union: Vol. II, War Becomes Revolution (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960), p. 513; Benjamin Quarles, Lincoln and the Negro (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 163–66; J. G. Randall, Lincoln the President: Springfield to Gettysburg (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1946), II, 1–16. return to text
  6. Cornish, pp. 17–18. return to text
  7. Ibid., pp. 18–24; Randall, pp. 54–61; Benjamin P. Thomas and Harold M. Hyman, Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln's Secretary of War (New York: Knopf, 1962), pp. 131–37. return to text
  8. Thomas and Hyman, pp. 234–37; Cornish, pp. 43–46. return to text
  9. Cornish, pp. 50–52; Nevins, pp. 231–33. return to text
  10. Cornish, pp. 52–55, 80 (Adams's remark is on p. 55). return to text
  11. Ibid., pp. 56–78; Quarles, pp. 155–56. return to text
  12. Cornish, p. 100. return to text
  13. Ibid., pp. 101–06. return to text
  14. Richard H. Abbott, "Massachusetts and the Recruitment of Negro Soldiers, 1863–1865," Civil War History, 14 (1968), 197–210. return to text
  15. Cornish, pp. 111–31, contains an excellent account of Thomas's recruiting efforts. The reference to Eaton is in John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907), pp. 9–15. Grant's exchanges with Hallack are in Simon, Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Vol. 8 (1979), 90–94. return to text
  16. Lincoln to James C. Conkling, Aug. 26, 1863, in Collected Works, VI, 409. return to text
  17. Lincoln to Grant, Aug. 9, 1863, ibid., p. 374. return to text
  18. Lincoln to Conkling, Aug. 26, 1863, ibid., pp. 408–10. This letter was intended to be a campaign document for the fall elections in Illinois and a public statement on his policy regarding blacks. return to text
  19. Queries, pp. 163–65; Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864, Collected Works, VII, 281–83. return to text
  20. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, pp. 541–42. return to text