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Why Colored Men Should Enlist

July 6, 1863 — Mass meeting to promote Black enlistment, National Hall, Philadelphia PA


The People of the United States have decreed justice; the Almighty has answered them with victory. Month after month we have struggled with rebellion in arms; month after month, through more than two years of war, have waited for decisive victory in the East. In vain. Why? We had wealth and strength, numbers and power, intellect and energy, in the North. No one questions the heroism of the men we have sent into the field; men represented by that one who, left dying on a battle-field of the West, was asked by a friend, “Do you regret?” answered, “No, I — we all, are willing that our bodies should form the bridges and ladders, that the coming thousands may cross and mount, to plant their victorious banners on the shattered citadel and conquered wall;” and so died. No one questions the heroism of these men, sent by the North to martyrdom. We were unselfish, too; those who stayed gave freely of treasure, as those who went of life. We had culture to put against their ignorance; schools against rum-shops; churches against race-courses; the brain of New England against the degradation of South Carolina. We have twenty millions against eight millions. We failed. The South gained battles, won victories, trampled our banners in the dust; demanded and received from the world the recognition of the courage and determination of her soldiers.

Yet to-night we are rejoicing over a victory which wipes off all old scores of the army of the Potomac. This South, triumphant through the hatred which is genius; which in its strength reminds one of the story of an old Scotch king, who, seeing a great robber, with his splendid surroundings and the equipments of his band, turned to a knight, saying, “What lacks that knave a king should have?’’ “Sire,” was the answer, “right and legitimacy.” So this South, chiefly victorious through all this terrible conflict, aided by all despotism, almost recognized by the governments of the earth — what has it needed that beseems a nation? It has needed the corner stone of justice and the foundation of liberty. To-night, with its walls rocking to and fro, its supporters are flying from Gettysburg, with its ruins falling on their heads. The North stands triumphant, because the people have clambered up to the stand-point of freedom, and from thence have hurled their missiles on the advancing hosts of despotism. The President’s threatened proclamation of September 22d, 1862; — the actual proclamation of January 1st, 1863, has had the stamp and seal of everlasting endurance set to it, by the people, in the Mass. 54th and 55th, and the Pennsylvania 3d United States Colored Volunteers.

True, through the past we have advocated the use of the black man. For what end? To save ourselves. We wanted them as shields, as barriers, as walls of defence. We would not even say to them, fight beside us. We would put them in the front; their brains contracted, their souls dwarfed, their manhood stunted; mass them together; let them die! That will cover and protect us. Now we hear the voice of the people, solemn and sorrowful, saying, “We have wronged you enough; you have suffered enough; we ask no more at your hands; we stand aside, and let you fight for your own manhood, your future, your race.” Anglo-Africans, we need you; yet it is not because of this need that I ask you to go into the ranks of the regiments forming, to fight in this war. My cheeks would crimson with shame, while my lips put the request that could be answered, “Your soldiers? why don’t you give us the same bounty, and the same pay as the rest?” I have no reply to that.

But for yourselves; because, after ages of watching and agony, your day is breaking; because your hour is come; because you hold the hammer which, upheld or falling, decides your destiny for woe or weal; because you have reached the point from which you must sink, generation after generation, century after century, into deeper depths, into more absolute degradation; or mount to the heights of glory and of fame.

The cause needs you. This is not our war, not a war for territory; not a war for martial power, for mere victory; it is a war of the races, of the ages; the stars and stripes is the people’s flag of the world; the world must be gathered under its folds, the black man beside the white.  

Thirteen dollars a month and bounty are good; liberty is better. Ten dollars a month and no bounty are bad; slavery is worse. The two alternatives are put before you; you make your own future. The to be will, in a little while, do you justice. Soldiers will be proud to welcome as comrades, as brothers, the black men of Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend. Congress, next winter, will look out through the fog and mist of Washington, and will see how, when Pennsylvania was invaded and Philadelphia threatened, while white men haggled over bounty and double pay to defend their own city, their own homes, with the tread of armed rebels almost heard in their streets; black men, without bounty, without pay, without rights or the promise of any, rushed to the beleaguered capital, and were first in their offers of life or of death. Congress will say, “These men are soldiers; we will pay them as such; these men are marvels of loyalty, self-sacrifice, courage; we will give them a chance of promotion.” History will write, “Behold the unselfish heroes; the eager martyrs of this war.” You hesitate because you have not all. Your brothers and sisters of the South cry out, “Come to our help, we have nothing.” Father! you hesitate to send your boy to death; the slave father turns his face of dumb entreaty to you, to save his boy from the death in life; the bondage that crushes soul and body together. Shall your son go to his aid? Mother! you look with pride at the young manly face and figure, growing and strengthening beside you! he is yours! your own. God gave him to you. From the lacerated hearts, the wrung souls of other mothers, comes the wail, “My child, my child, give me back my child!” The slave-master heeds not; the government is tardy; mother! the prayer comes to you; will you falter?

Young man! rejoicing in the hope, the courage, the will, the thews and muscles of young manhood — the red glare of this war falls on the faces and figures of other young men, distorted with suffering, writhing in agony, wrenching their manacles and chains — shouting with despairing voices to you for help — shall it be withheld?

The slave will be freed — with or without you. The conscience and heart of the people have decreed that. Xerxes scourging the Hellespont; Canute commanding the waves to roll back, are but types of that folly which stands up and says to this majestic wave of public opinion, “Thus far.” The black man will be a citizen, only by stamping his right to it in his blood. Now or never! You have not homes — gain them. You have not liberty — gain it. You have not a flag — gain it. You have not a country! — be written down in history as the race who made one for themselves, and saved one for another.



Source: Addresses of the Hon. W. D. Kelley, Miss Anna E. Dickinson, and Mr. Frederick Douglass: At a Mass Meeting, Held at National Hall, Philadelphia, July 6, 1863, for the Promotion of Colored Enlistments, pp. 3-4.


Also: Famous Orators of the World and Their Best Orations: Containing the Lives of the Greatest Orators and their Best Orations from Earliest Times to Present Day. With an Account of Place and Time of Delivery of Each Oration and Explanatory Notes on Obscure Passages: Arrange in Eighteen Great Epochs or Books, ed. Charles Morris, (Philadelphia, John C. Winston Co) 1917, pp. 353-355.