More than 2 years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a previously devoted Union soldier, Christian Fleetwood, left the service. Fleetwood was disappointed in the injustices the military had inflicted on African-American soldiers. In a letter of resignation from the army, Fleetwood recounts his African-American regiment’s spotless record; however, he explains that “no member of this regiment is considered deserving of a commission or if so cannot receive one”. 19th-century toxic masculinity and immense veneration for those who serve would commend military promotions in the case of any white solder. The Union, starving for soldiers and purpose, denied willing African-American soldiers the right to be promoted. Fleetwood asserted, “No matter how well and faithfully they may perform their duties they will shortly be considered as ‘lazy n—— sojers’”. These racist circumstances surrounding the military corroborate the notion that African-Americans (particularly soldiers) were never genuinely free after emancipation.
Hannah Johnson, the mother of an African-American Union soldier, wrote a letter to Lincoln, nudging him to mandate fair treatment for African-American soldiers. This letter offers an account of African-American soldiers’ families’ views of the war, their place in the conflict, and their relationship to Lincoln. Johnson wrote in the letter that she was not formally educated. But the poise of her statement highlights how trivial grammatical errors do not thwart political and social awareness: “I know that a colored man ought to run no greater risques than a white, his pay is no greater his obligation to fight is the same”, she wrote.
On a war propaganda poster targeting African-American men as recruits to fight in the Union army, the United States government promises “freedom, protection, [and] pay” in exchange for service. A general order (from Lincoln) published in July of 1863 is sprawled across the poster; it asserted that the government would “give the same protection to all its soldiers”. African-American soldiers fought for the North over a three-month span (which included the bloodiest battle of the war, the Battle of Gettysburg) before hearing any formal decree for equality within the military. What does that tell us about the nation and African-Americans’ relationship with the state? The state failed them as they willingly put their lives on the line.
After meeting Mary Elizabeth Booth, widow of African-American soldier Major Lionel Booth, and speaking to her “about equal treatment for the widows and orphans of African-American soldiers”, Lincoln wrote a brief but momentous letter to Senator Charles Sumner. “…Widows and children in fact, of Colored soldiers who fell in our service, be placed in law, the same as if their marriages were legal, so that they can have the benefit of the provisions the widows and orphans of white soldiers”, Lincoln wrote. More than a year after the Emancipation was issued, Lincoln was only just considering the concept of equal benefits for white and African-American soldiers’ families. The national dialogue in regards to the military clearly ostracized African-Americans; and while Lincoln granted small victories to African-American soldiers, he oversaw a military that unjustly discriminated against African-American soldiers (e.g. unequal pay, benefits for families, and the threat of being captured and sold into Southern slavery).
These four primary sources collectively depict the futility of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. On paper, January 1, 1863 is the epitome of liberation and freedom for African-Americans; these documents reinforce the historical argument that actual freedom and social parity did not accompany emancipation, even in the North. African-American soldiers were barred from promotion and subjected to particularly brutal treatment as prisoners; the families of fallen African-American soldiers weren’t well-compensated in contrast to their white counterparts. Months, and even years, after Lincoln issued the Proclamation, widows, mothers, and soldiers documented the racist policies that plagued the government and the military. The correspondence and war propaganda offer insightful accounts of African-American soldiers’ experiences within a military and a society that was far from social and racial parity.