Before dawn on May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls stealthily took command of a Confederate steamer, the CSS Planter, and steered it out of Charleston Harbor. The 23-year-old, who had worked as a slave aboard the vessel, brought 15 other enslaved people with him, including his wife and their two young children. Smalls knew he might be killed by Confederate guards as he attempted to reach the Union’s fleet off the Atlantic coast.
Word of Smalls’ daring escape quickly spread throughout the North. In a report that merged admiration with racial bigotry, the New York Tribune proclaimed, “This man, though Black, is a hero—one of the few History will delight to honor. He has done something for his race and for the world of mankind.” On May 30, Abraham Lincoln signed a law awarding prize money to Smalls for delivering the Planter and its cargo to federal authorities. The influential Black minister Henry McNeal Turner called Smalls a living example “of unquestionable African heroism.”
In August, Smalls traveled to Washington, D.C., where he met with Lincoln at the White House—perhaps the most consequential meeting Lincoln had with an African American in the first two years of his administration, a critical period in Lincoln’s evolving policy on Black citizenship. In the ensuing months and years, arguments by African Americans who visited Lincoln—and the president’s willingness to listen—would change the course of history. While many historians and biographers have traced the evolution of Lincoln’s sentiments about emancipation and equality for African Americans, few have recognized the central ways that Lincoln’s personal interactions with Black Americans, from Smalls to Union Army surgeon Anderson Ruffin Abbott—the first Black Canadian to graduate from medical school—shaped his thinking. During Smalls’ first meeting with Lincoln, he urged the president to allow Black men to join the Union Army. Since the beginning of the Civil War, Lincoln had rejected Black volunteers, in part because he had “no confidence” they would fight well. But after meeting Smalls, who had secured his own liberty with such bravery, Lincoln finally embraced the idea of enlisting Black troops. And Smalls departed Washington, D.C. bearing a letter from the War Department that authorized the raising of Black volunteers in South Carolina. Thanks to Smalls, Lincoln had come to see that arming Black men was “not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force.” The service of Black soldiers, in short, was essential to winning the war.
Still, after African Americans were allowed to join the Union Army, they didn’t receive equal treatment. They served in segregated units, often received subpar weapons and equipment and were frequently tasked with doing menial labor, such as digging ditches or building fortifications, rather than fighting. Further, federal authorities were determined to underpay Black soldiers by designating them as laborers, rather than soldiers: They enlisted expecting $13 a month, but received only $10 a month, and, unlike white soldiers, had another $3 deducted from their pay as a clothing allowance. A soldier in the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry wrote directly to Lincoln, “We appeal to You, Sir: as the Executive of the Nation, to have us justly Dealt with.”
They also faced much steeper consequences if captured: Confederate authorities threatened to kill or enslave Black soldiers taken alive on the battlefield. On August 10, 1863, Frederick Douglass met with Lincoln and urged him to protect Black soldiers from Confederate threats by retaliating “in kind and degree without delay upon Confederate prisoners in its hands.” He also pressed Lincoln to give Black soldiers equal pay. Lincoln considered retaliation a “terrible remedy” and said that “if he could get hold of the Confederate soldiers who had been guilty of treating colored soldiers as felons he could easily retaliate,” but he did not wish to punish soldiers for the heinous practices of their political leaders—he didn’t wish to hang the soldiers “for a crime perpetrated by others.” The president also said the lower pay rate was a temporary but “necessary concession” to white racism—a way to ease white Northerners into supporting the enlistment of Black soldiers. Nevertheless, Lincoln assured Douglass that Black soldiers would “ultimately...receive the same” pay. Douglass had his doubts, writing: “While I could not agree with [Lincoln]” on every point, “I could but respect his humane spirit.” In 1864, Lincoln did sign a law equalizing the pay of those Black soldiers who had been free before the war.
That year, numerous other Black advocates went to Lincoln to make direct claims for full citizenship. On March 3, two Creoles from New Orleans visited the White House to hand Lincoln a petition calling for wealthy free Black men in their state—which was now under Union control—to have the right to vote. In language that echoed the Declaration of Independence, they told Lincoln they were “ready to sacrifice their fortunes and their lives” for “the Country and the Constitution.” The petitioners, Arnold Bertonneau and Jean Baptiste Roudanez, noted that the free Black population of New Orleans had “spilled their blood” for the Union cause, just as their forebears had done during the War of 1812. “We are men; treat us as such,” they said, as they called for “those inalienable rights which belong to the condition of citizens of the great American Republic.” The petition bore around 1,000 signatures, including those of 28 Black veterans who had fought with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.
In response to this petition, Lincoln told his visitors that he must first “finish the big job on his hands of crushing the rebellion.” If giving African Americans the right to vote became “necessary to close the war, he would not hesitate” to support it, he said, for he saw “no reason why intelligent Black men should not vote.” But this was “not a military question,” and he believed it had to be handled by civil authorities in Louisiana. Still, he assured his guests that he would support their request “whenever they could show” that Black suffrage would help restore the Union.
A week later, on March 10, Roudanez and Bertonneau submitted a new petition that reframed and expanded their request. Now they asked for the right to vote for all Black men in Louisiana, including those who were poor or uneducated or had been born into bondage. Expanding suffrage in this way, they contended, would give “full effect...to all the Union feeling in the rebel States, in order to secure the permanence of the free institutions and loyal governments now organized therein.” Such rights “especially” ought to be given to Black men “who have vindicated their right to vote by bearing arms.” In other words, a crucial way to subdue disloyal sentiment in the South would be to create a new loyal Black electorate.
Roudanez and Bertonneau had crafted a rationale that connected Black suffrage to winning the war and sustaining the peace: Black voters would help create and maintain pro-Union majorities in the South. Lincoln found the argument compelling and almost immediately adopted their view. On March 13, he sent a letter to Louisiana’s governor-elect, Michael Hahn, suggesting that Black men who were “intelligent” or “who have fought gallantly in our ranks” be granted the franchise. Such voters, Lincoln said, “would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom.”
Lincoln’s eloquence captured the idea that America wouldn’t be a truly free country until African Americans were fully integrated into civic life. He had hinted at this idea a few months earlier at Gettysburg, saying “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom” in order that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Part of that new birth meant counting African Americans among “the people.” While most white Southerners were fighting to destroy the republic, Lincoln had become convinced that African Americans would vote to uphold the principles the nation was founded on, and that Black political participation would be essential for maintaining republican government in America during Reconstruction and beyond.
The following month, in April 1864, a delegation of Black North Carolinians asked Lincoln to support Black suffrage in their state. Led by a former enslaved man named Abraham H. Galloway, the delegation’s petition quoted the Declaration of Independence and reminded Lincoln that free Black men had enjoyed voting rights in North Carolina from 1776 to 1835. They asked him “to finish the noble work you have begun” by granting “that greatest of privileges...to exercise the right of suffrage.” The petitioners pledged to fight the rebellion “until every cloud of war shall disappear, and your administration stand justified by the sure results that will follow.”
Lincoln told his visitors he “had labored hard...for the good of the colored race” and would “continue to do so.” He also assured them of his “sympathy in the struggle” they were “making for their rights.” But as voting was a state matter, he said it would have to be attended to once North Carolina resumed its place in the Union.
Seeing the bravery of Black men in uniform as well as meeting with African Americans had transformed Lincoln’s thinking on equality. As a young politician in the 1830s and 1840s, he had ridiculed the thought of Black men wielding the ballot. As recently as the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, he said he opposed “making voters or jurors of negroes.” Now, less than seven years later, he would take the opposite position in a very public way.
On April 11, 1865, Lincoln delivered a speech from the White House balcony publicly calling for educated Black men, and those who had served as soldiers, to be given the right to vote. It had taken him some time to reach this decision. It would be the last speech he ever gave; John Wilkes Booth, listening in the audience below, growled that Lincoln was calling for African American “citizenship.” “Now, by God! I’ll put him through,” Booth said. The actor gunned down Lincoln three days later.
But Booth was powerless to stop the forces that Black petitioners had set in motion during the Civil War. In 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, making it illegal for a state to deprive citizens of the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Over the ensuing years, Black voters would help elect hundreds of African Americans to political office at all levels—including Robert Smalls: The former slave who had secured his own freedom aboard the Planter in 1862 represented South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives for ten years, starting in 1875.
The Smithsonian Channel docuseries “One Thousand Years of Slavery” premieres on February 7.
Helping to Save the Union
By Ted Scheinman