“I am a colored woman and my son was strong and able to fight for his country and the colored people have as much to fight for as any,” declared Hannah Johnson, from Buffalo, N.Y., in a July 31, 1863, letter to President Abraham Lincoln.
What business did a black woman assume to have with the president? Johnson’s son was a soldier in the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry of the United States Colored Troops, which was by then two weeks into a successful campaign at Fort Wagner, S.C. Knowing that her son was likely facing mortal danger and might well die in battle, Johnson was deeply concerned that he, and thousands of other black men fighting for their country, would be treated unjustly despite their service.
It was a courageous letter: Johnson claimed the right and duty of personal petition to the highest official in the land, despite that, as an African-American woman, her status as a citizen was still contested. The letter offers a glimpse of the way African-Americans viewed the war, their place in it and their relationship to the man who would come to be known as the Great Emancipator.
Johnson was a freeborn daughter of a slave man who escaped from Louisiana and fled to the North. This legacy, along with her pride as a mother of a Union soldier, shaped how she understood the opportunities and costs of the Civil War. They framed her assertion of claims to citizenship — and those of other black women, slave and free.
She noted in the letter that she lacked a formal education. But the eloquence of her expression underlines how lapses in grammar and spelling are no bar to intelligence or political acumen. “Now I know it is right that a colored man should go and fight for his country, and so ought to a white man,” she wrote. “I know that a colored man ought to run no greater risques than a white, his pay is no greater his obligation to fight is the same.”
Close to 180,000 black men served in the Union Army by war’s end. Most of them were slaves who had fled from the Confederate states. Three-fourths of all black Northern men volunteered, virtually everyone who was eligible. But they were segregated in units initially led by white officers and were often assigned the most arduous jobs and the most dangerous combat roles. To add insult to injury, they were denied equal pay. This imposed a double burden to fight against enemy forces and to protest against the “friendly fire” of racial prejudice. These inequities kept at least some men from joining the Army, but more often than not, they eagerly enrolled with a strong commitment to serve their country and rescue their people from bondage.
But there were other unique obstacles in their way, which Johnson turned to the president to address. She made clear to Lincoln that she had weighed the pros and cons of her son’s enlistment beforehand. She even considered the horror that he might be taken prisoner. Confederates identified black soldiers as slave insurrectionists, regardless of their antebellum status. They released their wrath on captives in the form of summary executions and re-enslavement, as if they had engaged in high treason against the Southern nation-state. This was a clear violation of the Lieber Code of conduct in war, which mandated humane treatment of prisoners of war regardless of race.
Johnson initially felt certain that Lincoln “will never let them sell our colored soldiers for slaves, if they do he will g[et] them back quck [.] he will retallyate and stop it.” Her own son survived Fort Wagner and was not captured, but many others weren’t so lucky. Yet the president and other officials did not respond swiftly enough to protect them. If black soldiers suffered equal risks of losing their lives, Johnson asked the president, “So why should not our enemies be compelled to treat him the same, Made to do it.”
This soldier’s mother encouraged the president to contemplate the larger issues that undergirded her call for justice. Of the Confederates she argued, “they have lived in idleness all their lives on stolen labor and made savages of the colored people, but they now are so furious because they are proving themselves to be men.” The idea that slavery constituted a theft of the fruits of one’s labor was a core principle of Lincoln’s own anti-slavery views.
Johnson urged the president to act on this belief and punish errant Confederates who violated it: “You must put the rebels to work in State prisons to making shoes and things, if they sell our colored soldiers, till they let them all go. And give their wounded the same treatment, it would seem cruel, but their [is] no other way.”
She also called forth a long tradition of African-American struggles against unjust laws that had buttressed the entire edifice of slavery. “Ought one man to own another, law for or not, who made the law, surely the poor slave did not, so it is wicked, and a horrible Outrage, there is no sense in it,” she stated and queried, all at once. Crimes against humanity over centuries could not be justified or made right by the perverse logic of slaveholders who were self-styled victims of their own creation.
It is important to remember that for all the trials that black soldiers faced, they gained much. The mere sight of black men in blue uniforms broadcast the humiliation of Confederates who had failed to win their loyalty. Black men who took up arms against former masters proved their valor and manliness on the battlefield. Their sense of dignity and self-respect were emboldened. They were rewarded with reverence in the eyes of their families, communities and in the nation at large.
In the process a new path to citizenship was opened — but one that only men could achieve. So what about women like Hannah Johnson, and those who lived in the direct line of fire in the South? By what route could they advance their standing in the republic?
Johnson’s letter is important because it reminds us that black men were not the only ones fighting for full recognition of their rights, either as slaves escaping from the South or free men in the North. Women like Johnson were increasingly leading themselves, their children and elderly kin out of bondage as men’s enlistment accelerated. They poured into contraband camps or set up makeshift shantytowns close to federal lines when they were not welcomed within them. They faced hostile Union soldiers who defied orders by sending them back to slave owners. They encountered slave patrols and rebel soldiers who sought to re-enslave them.
Women were also disproportionately represented among slaves left behind on the home front still forced into plantation labor. Those who were related to soldiers and could not be rescued by them were especially vulnerable to reprisals.
When Martha Glover’s husband escaped to join the Army, she was left in Mexico, Mo., to contend with her brutal masters. “I have had nothing but trouble sin[c]e you left,” she wrote him. “They abuse me because you went & say that they will not take care of our children & do nothing but quarrel with me all the time and beat me scandalously.” Her husband’s departure was bittersweet no matter how gallant the cause: “You ought not to left me in the fix I am in & all these little helpless children to take care of.” She wished he had waited until she could follow him: “for I do nothing but grieve all the time about you,” she stated in palpable agony.
Many other women found ways of contributing to the war effort wherever they were. Susie King Taylor, a fugitive slave, served as cook, nurse, teacher and laundress for a South Carolina regiment. “There were ‘loyal women’ as well as men, in those days, who did not fear shell or shot, who cared for the sick and dying: women who camped and fared as the boys did,” she recalled in her postwar memoir. “They were hundreds of them who assisted the Union soldiers by hiding them and helping them to escape. Many were punished for taking food to prison stockades for the prisoners.”
Taylor informed her readers that “many lives were lost — not men alone but noble women as well.” And yet she knew that their nobility was often denied and ignored. She insisted that the memory of black women’s wartime deeds be preserved: “These things should be kept in history before the people.” Black women were often perceived to be nuisances, beggars and thorns in the side of their allies, far afield from the respect heralded in verse and song for white Union and Confederate women.
If Lincoln responded to Johnson, that letter has been lost in time. But in other places he shared his thoughts about other black women who came under his auspices. When advising an officer who complained about fugitive women being a “weight and encumbrance,” Lincoln made a clear distinction between “able bodied male contrabands [who] are already employed by the Army” and “the rest [who] are in confusion and destitution.” Clearly, to the president, women, as well as children and the elderly, fell into the latter category. “They better be set to digging their subsistence out of the ground,” he urged. He had little patience or interest in these women, whom he perceived to be nonessential dependents and consumers of precious resources.
African-American women’s own perceptions contrasted sharply with Lincoln’s. Destitute, yes, but they were not confused about their objectives for inserting themselves in the war for liberation. Lucy Chase, a white volunteer at a contraband camp in Virginia, noted the arrival of women and children with fathers and “husbands [who] are with the army, they know not where.” She stated that “they are alone, with no one to comfort them,” and yet they claimed their own contributions and sacrifices, as though they too had “entered the army.”
Hannah Johnson’s letter pays tribute to these women who entered the Army on their own terms. She dared to claim the rights of citizenship despite the fact that her standing in the republic was at once vital and undervalued. She addressed the commander in chief directly, appealing to his highest instincts to take hold. Of course, she said, “You know all about this.” But she refused to leave it to chance, and used her letter to educate him on the war’s most pressing concerns. Even his own place in history, she correctly predicted, was at stake: “A just man must do hard things sometimes, that shew him to be a great man.”
She closed with a combined plea and a final demand: “Will you see that the colored men fighting now, are fairly treated. You ought to do this, and do it at once, Not let the thing run along meet it quickly and manfully, and stop this, mean cowardly cruelty. We poor oppressed ones, appeal to you, and ask fair play.”
Until such time, and until the killing of black mothers’ sons matter as much as the killing of white mothers sons, the Hannah Johnsons would assert their right to speak, protest and petition all the way up the chain of command. That struggle continues.