The Spring of 1863--A Call to Arms by William W. Layton
The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 3
January 1863 had been a month of great jubilation for blacks and all freedom-loving persons urging the abolition of human slavery for it was on the first day of that month that the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Lincoln, took effect. That document decreed that slaves in the states then in rebellion would henceforth and forever be free. But the federal government had made no provision for the enlistment of blacks into the Union army.
It was Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts, an ardent abolitionist, who first asked permission to raise two regiments of black troops. There followed an authorization by the War Department, giving the Governor the authority to enlist volunteers, including "persons of African descent, to be organized in separate Corps." As a result, Andrew announced the formation of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment and called upon the ex-slave/abolitionist Frederick Douglass to assist in recruitment efforts.
It was Douglass' stirring editorial, "Men of Color, to Arms," comparable to Patrick Henry's and Woodrow Wilson's similar calls in other crises that roused the nation to action. The editorial was reprinted in newspapers throughout the north and made into broadsides that were placed in many public locations. Additionally, Douglass' first two recruits were his sons, Charles and Lewis.
During April and May Douglass' recruitment efforts took him through western New York state where he was successful in urging many young black men to sign up. By the end of May 1863, the all-black 54th Regiment sailed from Boston Harbor for South Carolina. And the rest of the story is a record of gallantry that was brilliantly portrayed in the award-winning movie Glory.
Douglass' moving message in "Men of Color, to Arms," was a challenge to black men to "fly to arms, and smite with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same grave." He concluded his message:
"Remember that in a contest with oppression, the Almighty has the attribute which can take sides with the oppressor. The case is before you. This is our golden opportunity. Let us accept it, and forever wipe out the dark reproaches unsparingly hurled against us by our enemies. Let us win for ourselves the gratitude of our country, and the best blessings of our posterity through all time."
Our thanks to Mr. William W. Layton, who allowed us to use this article, taken from his book of reminiscences, Layton Looks at Life. Copies available by calling 540-837-1544.