The debate over slavery turned violent during the 1850s. Pro- and anti-slavery settlers in the Kansas Territory fought a year-long running battle known as “Bleeding Kansas.” An abortive attempt at a slave rebellion in Virginia, followed closely by Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, made the Civil War inevitable. Although roughly 10% of Union forces were African American, they served in segregated units led by white officers.
Captain John Brown cover, November 29, 1859
John Brown was a veteran of Bleeding Kansas who organized an 1859 attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in hopes of inciting a Virginia slave rebellion. His capture, trial, and execution became a cause célèbre that brought pro- and anti-slavery arguments to a fever pitch. During his final month in jail at Charlestown, Virginia, Brown was allowed to send and receive mail.
“Beardless” Lincoln campaign cover, c. 1861
Slavery Sectional, Freedom National—an abolitionist slogan coined by U.S. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts—here endorses Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential candidacy. The sentiment proved prophetic; Lincoln’s election without the support of a single southern state led to the secession of the Confederate States of America and the Civil War.
Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry at Washington, D.C.’s Fort Lincoln, c. 1862-1865
Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Runaway slaves volunteering for Union army illustrated cover, c. 1861
Early in the Civil War, Union General Benjamin Butler decreed that escaped slaves who reached his station at Fort Monroe would be considered “contraband” and not returned to their owners. Although the idea of black troops is caricatured by these envelopes, nearly 200,000 black men served in the Union forces.
Afrique Corps letter, c. 1863
The Corps d'Afrique was a Union army unit recruited in New Orleans after the city was captured by northern forces in 1862. Initially composed of freeborn, mixed-race Louisiana creoles, it was later augmented by freed slaves.
Loan from David Mielke
121st U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment cover and letter, December 21, 1864
Nothing suits me better than to have command of Darkey Troops... It is a fact that colored Troops learn faster than white Troops.
The 121st consisted almost entirely of black troops raised in Kentucky, where one of the regiment’s white officers mailed this letter shortly before a skirmish with Confederate soldiers.
Loan from John M. Hotchner
First Federal Issue revenue stamps on deed of emancipation, May 9, 1864
Seventeen-year-old Maryland slave William H. Jones enlisted in the 19th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops on December 18, 1863. His owner later filed emancipation papers, possibly to apply for federal compensation. Wounded during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, Jones was discharged and returned to Maryland.
Loan from Howard County Historical Society
William H. Carney on his postal route, c. 1887
William Harvey Carney, born a slave in Virginia in 1840, volunteered for the celebrated, all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Shot twice while rescuing the American flag during an attack on Battery Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina, he later received the Medal of Honor. After the war, he worked as a letter carrier in the New Bedford, Massachusetts post office for more than thirty years.
Photo courtesy Carl J. Cruz
William H. Carney Medal of Honor, 1900
Loan from Carl J. Cruz
Confederate “Office Enrollment of Slaves” cover, c. 1864
You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers. The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end... then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.
—Confederate Major General Howell Cobb, 1865
Robert E. Lee ordered conscription of slaves in 1864 to bolster his faltering Confederate army. General Howell Cobb, well-known for his opposition to enlisting slaves, was placed in charge of doing just that in Georgia. This letter to Cobb was hand-carried by a Confederate officer rather than mailed presumably because it contained $936, a small fortune in the war’s waning days.
Loan from Scott R. Trepel