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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.

Portrait of John Mercer Langston. From Archives/Library collection SC 3512.

Portrait of John Mercer Langston. From Archives/Library collection SC 3512.

In 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."

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.

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Behind the Lines

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