“Men of Color, To Arms!” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The central issue in the American Civil War was the states’ right to determine the fate of slavery in both the existing states as well as the territory of expansion. In that heated and eventually violent discussion, several key voices emerged, including that of the self-educated escaped slave turned free man Frederick Douglass. His story, chronicled in his famous personal narrative, was evidence for abolitionists against the virulent racism that permeated both Northern and Southern consciousnesses. Douglass became a voice for African American men throughout the free and slave states, representing the articulation of black manhood and civilization.

Douglass worked from the start of the war to persuade white administrators and commanders to allow black soldiers to serve in the Union army. For many months these men were denied their opportunity to fight in a war that was deciding their fate. Douglass continued working with intellectuals like Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Anna Elizabeth Dickinson to persuade influential Republican politicians, who were the most sympathetic to the abolitionist crusade, to allow black men to fight for their country. Douglass and others articulated that it was indeed the point of black service to earn full citizenship for African Americans. Beyond emancipation, they fought for equal rights under the American Constitution.

Summary Overview

The central issue in the American Civil War was the states’ right to determine the fate of slavery in both the existing states as well as the territory of expansion. In that heated and eventually violent discussion, several key voices emerged, including that of the self-educated escaped slave turned free man Frederick Douglass. His story, chronicled in his famous personal narrative, was evidence for abolitionists against the virulent racism that permeated both Northern and Southern consciousnesses. Douglass became a voice for African American men throughout the free and slave states, representing the articulation of black manhood and civilization.

Douglass worked from the start of the war to persuade white administrators and commanders to allow black soldiers to serve in the Union army. For many months these men were denied their opportunity to fight in a war that was deciding their fate. Douglass continued working with intellectuals like Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Anna Elizabeth Dickinson to persuade influential Republican politicians, who were the most sympathetic to the abolitionist crusade, to allow black men to fight for their country. Douglass and others articulated that it was indeed the point of black service to earn full citizenship for African Americans. Beyond emancipation, they fought for equal rights under the American Constitution.

Defining Moment

The “Call to Arms” presented by Douglass was a mechanism for rallying African American men, particularly free blacks in the North, to join the Union army. After two years of unsuccessful fighting across the South, especially in Virginia, the Union army needed support to continue the war. The Union high command had several commanders including General Irvin McDowell and General Ambrose Burnside, but there were none that had yet found permanence in the overall command. Despite the strategic stalemate at the Battle of Antietam in the fall of 1862, there were few significant victories for the federal army. The passing of the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863 effectively freed the slaves living in the rebellious states. By doing so, all invading Union armies received droves of slave men attempting to join the ranks.

Additionally, the influx of new soldiers for the Union army proved to be beneficial to the Union cause. Estimates vary, but most historians agree that nearly 200,000 black men fought for the Union military, effectively supporting the Northern effort to win the war against slavery and to preserve the Union. Those soldiers fought with distinction at numerous battles, including Wilson’s Wharf, the fight for Battery Wagner, and the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Virginia among others.

Author Biography

Frederick Douglass was born a slave but became a free man by escaping bondage. His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is one of the most important books in the nineteenth century. In that text, Douglass explains not only his process of becoming a free man, but also in fighting for his own education. Literacy, for Douglass, was the key to his success. While he did not have citizenship, literacy helped him communicate with others who could help him personally as well as his role as an intellectual in nineteenth-century American life. It was his desire to reflect egalitarian humanism, the belief in equality for all human beings regardless of race or sex, wherever possible.

Douglass was the most qualified person to make the call to arms for black troops. Although too old to fight himself, and better connected to the political realm, besides, Douglass presented the argument for why black men should fight for the Union army to defeat their former masters and push to define black citizenship in the United States. Douglass’s tacit support for black soldiers helped to persuade influential politicians to involve African American soldiers in the fight.

Document Analysis

Frederick Douglass’s broadside message, “Men of Color, To Arms!” was a certain rallying cry to the black freedmen of the North. He provided a message from a black man to black men about the necessity of service. He implored that it was high time for slaves to respond to the injustices of their slaveholders. It was time for black men to respond to a call that they had felt for many years. His connection between the struggles of African American men and the promise of a new redefined Union were tangible. Douglass wanted the newly free African American men to realize that they had an opportunity to fight and earn acceptance in the eyes of the broader white American community.

Douglass repeated the theme that now, meaning the spring of 1863, was finally time for black men to take up arms. Many had tried to volunteer and were denied during the first two years of the war, but the Emancipation Proclamation opened the opportunity for black service. He wrote, “A war undertaken and brazenly carried on for the perpetual enslavement of colored men, calls logically and loudly for colored men to help suppress.” The interesting point about that perspective was that Douglass featured the negative Confederate war effort rather than the positive Union effort. For these men that he called, it was not merely a fight for rights, but instead a fight to resist the tyranny of Southern slavery. Their freedom and the freedom of those still in bondage was on the line. Fighting, in this case for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was worth the sacrifice that it might cost. His comments on the timeliness of the service were rooted in the restrictions of the past, but also the urgency of the moment. He added, “In good earnest then, and after the best deliberation, I now for the first time during this war feel at liberty to call and counsel you to arms.” It was important that they serve in the moment that their country needed them.

Douglass asserted that fighting for their freedom, or to stop slaveholders, would ultimately garner black soldiers equality under American law. Speaking specifically of the conditions of fighting, he explained that black troops would be given equal pay. He wrote, “I am authorized to assure you that you will receive the same wages, the same rations, the same equipments, the same protection, the same treatment, and the same bounty, secured to the white soldiers.” Douglass may have been “assured” of this, but it certainly never materialized for black troops. Not only were they chronically under paid, they were also forced to do “slave like” labor, such as fatigue duty, cutting trees, laying roads, hauling supplies, and burying the white dead. When black troops signed up to fight they followed the rallying cries of men like Douglass, only to find themselves doing grunt labor often far from the firing lines of the Army of the Potomac in the early part of their service. As circumstances changed and the war continued, black soldiers did see combat in a variety of contexts, including the now-famous assault on Battery Wagner, South Carolina, by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

Douglass acknowledged division within the black community and spoke against the detractors to service. He mentioned that some warned black men would be “no better off after than before the war,” but Douglass linked the efforts to fight directly to the expansion of rights for many within the nation. He said that it is “your hour and mine.” Their service and sacrifice was not merely for themselves, largely free blacks reading the broadside. Rather, Douglass wanted these men to fight for their “enslaved fellow-countrymen” and generations to come. Douglass saw the Civil War as an opportunity to broaden access to democracy. If the use of force was necessary, he knew that the help of black men would only strengthen the Union cause. He rallied black men on the point not just of the color of their skin, but enlisting them in a liberation army for the good of the nation. His politics were violent, but at the behest of advancing a nation of freedom more than simply to seek vengeance in the face of former masters.

Douglass wanted the men to think of their cause beyond individual motives, pointing to the supernatural as an avenue of support. He described their cause in terms of ultimate good, writing, “Remember that in a contest with oppression, the Almighty has no attribute which can take sides with oppressors. 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.” The combination of bellicose language and the support of the Almighty was typical of the era. It was important that Douglass give the African American men agency in fighting because many thought they did not have a right to fight back against their oppressors. Douglass gave them the rhetoric to explain and justify their violent actions in a way that blended nicely with the Protestant Christianity that was so common among African Americans at the time. Douglass contextualized his statement in terms of both “opportunity” and “wiping out… darkness,” with both providing a combination of urgency and completeness to the task at hand.

Douglass he hoped that soldiers would see themselves among a long line of men who offered resistance to white rule. In the broadside, Douglass made direct reference to the slave rebellion attempts of Denmark Vesey, Nathaniel Turner, and the two men who died martyrs fighting alongside radical abolitionist John Brown, Shields Green and Copeland. These men were not the types of names that were thrown around flippantly. By invoking their sacrifice, Douglass intentionally provoked the men into believing it was indeed time to strike. These earlier attempts for freedom were not successful, but Douglass wanted the men observing the broadside to have a personal and historical connection with the efforts of the war through the violent sacrifice of the past. This war was the consummation of all of the efforts of other brave men. It was time to stand up and fight for the legacy of black men. It was time to fight for the possibility of freedom, both that away from slaveholders and also that of new citizenship in the Union.

Essential Themes

Frederick Douglass’s purpose in the broadside was obviously to motivate soldiers to fight for the Union, but he added other terminology regarding consequences beyond freedom of the individual, including citizenship, a sense of justice for the oppressors, and a sense of personal honor. This collection of ideologies was not unlike that of the white soldiers fighting, which was an intentional point for Douglass. By fighting against white Confederate opponents on the field of mortal combat, the black soldiers had an opportunity to earn respect and dignity, with hopes of citizenship, from the federal government.

Historically, even though black soldiers fought valiantly in numerous engagements throughout the war, they were not immediately granted the citizenship that Douglass imagined. Rather, they were granted nominal freedom with the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865, but many African American men found themselves de facto disfranchised by the perpetuation of “slave laws” renewed as Jim Crow laws in the post–Civil War South. This did not change the historical significance of the broadside. It symbolized an opportunity for black men to stand and fight for their own freedom. It was more than a vote, but rather a sign of manliness (as many in the nineteenth century perceived it) to fight alongside and against white men.

In a similar sense, the dream of racial revenge and eventual reconciliation through the destruction of slaveholders’ property was also less than satisfactory for Douglass and his companions. Despite General William Tecumseh Sherman’s infamous “March to the Sea” and the successful burning of cities like Atlanta, Georgia, and Columbia, South Carolina, much of the South remained able to rebuild during the Reconstruction era. The influx of northern economic capital (much to the chagrin of Southern lawmakers) served to support a rebuilding and new industrialization of the New South. In that new order, the people left with the least amount of support were the former slaves, the people for whom Douglass’s rallying broadside sought to help, found themselves doing slave-like labor in slave-like conditions through sharecropping. These common African Americans lacked the economic mobility to leave their station, instead celebrating the success they found through the Freedmen’s Bureau in unifying families and establishing some basic economic success. Following the corrupt presidential election of 1877, which put Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes in the oval office, federal troops were removed from their occupation of the American South, effectively allowing the Jim Crow laws of the former Confederacy to dominate the political and social landscape of the New South.

This broadside directly influenced a chain of events through black enlistment that changed the cultural landscape of the United States. Not only did black soldiers fight for their own emancipation in securing victory for the Union, but they also helped to maintain a longstanding Republican rule that helped to establish the constitutional amendments that defined black citizenship. Douglass’s work to rally the black men of the North into Civil War service helped to solidify his personal legacy as one of the important historical actors in both Civil War and Civil Rights history.

Bibliography
  • Cornish, Dudley M. The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1987. Print.
  • Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave,Written by Himself (Bedford Series in History and Culture). New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. Print.
  • Martin Jr., Waldo E. Mind of Frederick Douglass. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986. Print.
Further Reading
  • Glatthaar, Joseph. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2000. Print
  • Manning, Chandra. What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War. New York: Vintage, 2008. Print.
  • McFeeley, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton, 1995. Print.
  • McPherson, James M. The Negro’s Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the Civil War. New York: Vintage, 2003. Print.
Categories: History Content