Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Donald Yacovone et al. | Go to book overview

69

Speech to one Hundred Fortieth indiana Regiment:
CW, 8:360–361

At about four o'clock in the afternoon on March 17, 1865, Lincoln spoke from the balcony of National Hotel, at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Sixth Street, in Washington, D.C. During the ceremony Lincoln presented to the governor of Indiana a rebel flag captured at Fort Anderson, North Carolina, by the 140th Indiana Regiment. He took the opportunity to reassert his opposition to slavery: “I have always thought that all men should be free.” Primarily, he addressed rumors that slaves might be enlisted into the Confederate army, and what that move would mean. Throughout the Civil War rumors circulated concerning the arming of slaves to fight against the North. No rebel black units ever fought Union forces, although many slaves fought alongside their owners, and thousands more were compelled to labor for the Confederacy, rebuilding rail lines or constructing fortifications. As the Confederacy faced defeat in the closing months of the war, cries for the arming of slaves increased. Most Southerners rejected the call. Howell Cobb, who had been secretary of the treasury under President Buchanan and became a general commanding Georgia Confederate troops, exclaimed that “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Nevertheless, late in the war many state governors and commanders in the field cried out for more men—and the four millions of slaves represented the only fresh group available. Desperate to avoid defeat, President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, in February 1865, approved the measure. When it obtained the blessing of General Robert E. Lee, Virginia organized a small contingent of poorly equipped and untrained slaves. Lincoln dismissed those blacks who joined such a unit as deserving the slavery they defended, not considering the possibility that such men faced little choice. More important to the president, the move proved that the Confederacy had reached “the bottom of the

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