The US Civil War, 1861-1865

At the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, Frederick Douglass commanded a white racist nation: ‘Unchain your black hand!’ Working tirelessly as a recruiter, he gave powerful speeches inspiring Black men to enlist as combat soldiers in the Union army. Douglass’s own and nationwide campaigns were successful: nearly 200,000 Black men served as soldiers. The men endured the traumas of two wars: they faced the no man’s land of warfare in which they encountered the white racist persecutory and murderous hate of confederate armies and the no man’s land of white racism, north and south, in a prejudicial nation that continued to destroy Black lives.

All too aware of the life and death struggles they faced, Frederick Douglass’s eldest and youngest sons, Lewis Henry Douglass (1840-1908) and Charles Remond Douglass (1844-1920), served distinguished military careers as combat soldiers. They were two among the thousands of Black men whose fight for the right to fight was a battle in and of itself due to the determination of a white racist government to deny Black men all access to military combat. Black men faced life and death struggles on and off the battlefield as they were repeatedly exposed not only to the enemy’s ‘shot and shell’ but to the persecutory hate and discriminatory behaviours of white northern Union army soldiers and commanders who refused to respect, let alone acknowledge and do justice to, Black military heroism.

As their letters and photographs tell us, while Frederick Douglass survived the scars of slavery, Lewis Henry and Charles Remond Douglass survived the wounds of war. A source of hope in the face of despair are the letters Lewis Henry writes to Helen Amelia Loguen (1843-1936), a free woman born in Syracuse, New York, and an antislavery campaigner and social justice reformer in her own right. To the woman who became his fiancée, he writes from the frontlines to tell her of his ‘undying love.’ Unlike so many, their story had a happy ending: they marry after the war.

The letters and photographs in this section from the Walter O. and Linda Evans Foundation are now in the Walter O. Evans Collection at Yale University.

‘Unchain your black hand!’
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)