OHS - Fight for the Colors - Behind the Lines - African American Service in the Civil War: Answering the Call
One Country, One Flag, One Destiny: African American
Service in the Civil War
Answering the Call
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Following the attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina on April 12, 1861,
many patriotic Americans rushed to offer their services to defend their
government. Ohio's African American men were also eager to serve, but their offers were refused. Inaccurately assuming that the insurrection in the South would be quickly quelled, President Abraham Lincoln did not want
to antagonize the remaining slave states in the Union (Kentucky,
Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware) by using African American recruits. Thousands
of white men flocked to recruiting stations across the North and some southern
areas still controlled by Federal troops.
Ohio, African Americans responded to Lincoln's call for volunteers. John Mercer
Langston, an Oberlin College graduate and the first African American lawyer
in the state of Ohio volunteered his services as a recruiter to Ohio's African
American population to Governor David Tod. The governor adamantly refused his
offer with the following statement, "Do you not know, Mr. Langston, that this
is a white man's government; that white men are able to defend and protect it,
and that to enlist a negro soldier would be to drive every white man out of
the service? When we want you colored men we will notify you." Langston respectfully
replied, "Governor, when you need us, send for us."
Portrait of John Mercer Langston. From Archives/Library collection SC 3512.
Since the early days of the United States, there had been a tradition of military
service as a duty of citizens. Systematically denied the rights of citizenship,
many African American men believed that through military service that they could
earn respect as men and eventually their citizenship. The relationship between
military service and political equality became a recurring theme in the debates
about the use of African American troops. Frederick Douglass, black abolitionist
and orator declared:
Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters "US," let him get an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.