Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

FREDERICK DOUGLASS
(February 14, 1818–February 20, 1895)

Charles F. Ritter

By the time the Civil War began, Frederick Douglass was one of the best-known figures in America. As a former slave who became an abolitionist stalwart, Douglass was also known for his close involvement with other reform causes, principally woman suffrage and temperance. Traveling from slavery to freedom, from illiteracy to oratorical greatness, from poverty to material comfort and bourgeois values, from obscurity to worldwide recognition, Douglass was a real American success story. By 1860, while still in his early forties, Douglass’s life had become a living symbol of the promise of America and the hope of his race. Yet despite his success as a reform speaker both in the United States and England, Douglass was still a black man in a racist society. He was vilified by opponents of abolition and discriminated against in free territory. The Civil War presented an opportunity to change that and found Douglass at the apogee of his activism and influence.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on Holme Hill Farm in Talbot County, about twelve miles east of Easton, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Because slavery was an institution that regarded slaves as commodities, Douglass never knew his exact birthdate, calculating incorrectly that it was February 1817; in later years, his family celebrated his birthday on February 14, Valentine’s Day. We now know that he was born in February 1818, but his paternity is still uncertain, although scholars assert with some confidence that his father was indeed his owner, Aaron Anthony. Anthony also owned his mother, Harriet Bailey, a member of the fourth generation of the Bailey clan to work as slaves in Talbot County. Harriet christened her son Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.

Young Frederick Bailey was raised at Holme Hill by his grandmother Betsey Bailey, who was married to Isaac Bailey, a free black sawyer. He rarely saw his mother because she lived and worked a dozen miles away on another An

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