Lincoln: Black Population “the Great Force for Restoring the Union”

March 26, 1863 (Thursday)

Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee was a Unionist through and through. In the 1860 election, he backed Southern Democrat John Breckinridge, was against the state’s right doctrine and yet was for slavery. Following the election of President Lincoln, he denounced secession and did everything in his power to keep Tennessee true to the Union.

When his efforts failed and the state joined the Confederacy, he fled to Kentucky and became a Lincoln man. By the following year, he was the military governor of Tennessee. But what it meant to be a “Lincoln man” had changed since he took office a year prior to this date.

In Tennessee, there was seemingly nothing wrong with being both pro-slavery and pro-Union. After all, hadn’t Lincoln himself preached as much? But Lincoln was changing. No more was it “Union at any cost,” but “Union at the cost of slavery.” Johnson, wishing to keep in good standing with the Lincoln administration, did not know what to do.

And so in February, he decided to take a trip to Washington, traveling across the Northern states as he went. He didn’t embark on this pilgrimage so that he might see the light – the error of his ways. He headed to Washington to convince Lincoln that East Tennessee needed to be liberated. This had been one of Lincoln’s pet projects so long ago, but had since fallen by the wayside.

To be sure, it was still a vague goal. On the 23rd, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck tasked Ambrose Burnside with moving his forces into Central Kentucky to make raids into East Tennessee. If he moved his entire army there, said Halleck, he would be met with “insurmountable obstacles.” Johnson wanted to overcome the insurmountable and save the whole of Tennessee for the Union.

As Johnston ventured towards the capital, he made speech after speech wherever there was a Unionist meeting. His message was twofold. First, the Southern aristocracy was the blame for the war – no compromise should be made with them. Second was the question of slavery.

Throughout February, he preached much as Lincoln had done in the beginning of the war. “I am for this Government with slavery under the Constitution as it is, if the Government can be saved,” spoke Johnson of the Federal Union. However, “if the institution of slavery denies the Government the right of agitation and seeks to overthrow it, then the Government has a clear right to destroy it.”

Johnson wasn’t exactly hedging his bets, waiting to see which path might be the more opportune for him to wander down. He was very clear on his stance: “Before I see the Government destroyed, I would send every negro back to Africa, disintegrated and blotted out of space.”

He gave similar speeches across Indiana and Ohio, where he spoke in the legislature. Through early March, he gave talks in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Cooper Union in New York, and in Baltimore before arriving in Washington.

Maybe the Nation wasn’t quite ready for this….

Soon after his arrival, he was granted more leeway in raising troops. Along with the President and some of the Cabinet, he tried to figure out the best way to liberate Tennessee from the secessionists.

It was at this time that Lincoln had turned to the idea of recruiting black men into the Union Army. He had long opposed this, insisting that the nation, and especially the slave states still true to the Union, were not yet ready for it.

But ready or not, it was something he could hardly stop. Both Generals Hunter and Butler had raised black regiments months and months ago. The same was true for Kansas. Now, though the taboo wasn’t quite broken, the gates were opening. On the 25th, Lincoln ordered General Lorenzo Thomas to go into the South and recruit black troops. He was also to educate white troops that the enlistment of black troops was a good idea. And on this date, he wanted Andrew Johnson to do much the same thing.

I am told you have at least thought of raising a negro military force. In my opinion the country now needs no specific thing so much as some man of your ability, and position, to go to this work. When I speak of your position, I mean that of an eminent citizen of a slave-state, and himself a slave-holder.

The colored population is the great available and yet unavailed of force for restoring the Union. The bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once.

And who doubts that we can present that sight, if we but take hold in earnest? If you have been thinking of it please do not dismiss the thought.

Johnson had probably not actually been thinking of recruiting a force of 50,000 black infantrymen. But now that Lincoln put the bug in his ear, there wasn’t all that much he could do. The transformation from pro-slavery to anti-slavery would not be a sudden one, but by the summer of 1863, he was as outwardly opposed to slavery as any other Lincoln man.

Inwardly, it would be a different story. For the remainder of his political career, he would see blacks as inferior and would continually rule on side of the whites – even the white Southern aristocracy he had raged so vehemently against.1

Unidentified black family c.1863

  1. Sources: Andrew Johnson: A Biography by Hans Louis Trefousse; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 23, Part 2, p163; Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 6, p149-150. []
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Lincoln: Black Population “the Great Force for Restoring the Union” by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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