[spelling is original]
Buffalo July 31, 1863
My good friend says I must write to you and she will send it[.] My son went in the 54th regiment. I am a colored woman and my son was strong and able as any to fight for his country and the colored people have as much to fight for as any. My father was a Slave and escaped from Louisiana before I was born morn forty years agone[.] I have but poor edication but I never went to schol, but I know just as well as any what is right between man and man. Now I know it is right that a colored man should go and fight for his country, and so ought to a white man. 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. So why should not our enemies be compelled to treat him the same, Made to do it.
My son fought at Fort Wagner but thank God he was not taken prisoner, as many were[.] I thought of the thing before I let my boy go but then they said Mr. Lincoln will never let them sell our colored soldiers for slaves, if they do he will get them back quick he will rettallyate and stop it. Now Mr Lincoln dont you think you oght to stop this thing and make them do the same by the colored men[?] they have lived in idleness all their lives on stolen labor and made savages of the colored people, but they now are so furious because they are proving themselves to be men, such as have come away and got some edication. It must not be so. You must put the rebels to work in State prisons to making shoes and things, if they sell our colored soldiers, till they let them all go. And give their wounded the same treatment. it would seem cruel, but their no other way, and a just man must do hard things sometimes, that shew him to be a great man. They tell me some do you will take back the proclamation, don’t do it. When you are dead and in Heaven, in a thousand years that action of yours will make the Angels sing your praises I know it. Ought one man to own another, law for or not, who made the law, surely the poor slave did not. so it is a wicked, and a horrible Outrage, there is no sense in it, because a man has lived by robbing all his life and his father before him, should he complain because the stolen things found on him are taken. Robbing the colored people of their labor is but a small part of the robbery[.] their souls are almost taken, they are made bruits of often. You know all this.
Will you see that the colored men fighting now, are fairly treated. You ought to do this, and do it at once, Not let the thing run along[.] meet it quickly and manfully, and stop this mean cowardly cruelty. We poor oppressed ones, appeal to you, and ask fair play. Yours for Christs sake
On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment – the first African American unit to form and fight for the Union – led a charge against the Confederate-held Fort Wagner which protected Charleston, South Carolina. Ultimately, the charge failed militarily, and the regiment lost heavily; 270 casualties from the 600-strong unit. However, the 54th won its battle reputation and admiration across the North, giving an opportunity for more African American men to enlist.
Unfortunately, with the 54th’s combat experience came the realities grim racism and dangers facing black troops on the battlefield and if captured. These dangers prompted Hannah Johnson to write to President Lincoln addressing her concerns.
Prisoners & Exchanges
The Emancipation Proclamation and recruitment of black troops for the Union cause presented a problem for the Confederacy. How would Southerners treat these freedmen or former slaves if captured in battle? Their initial response: death or severe punishment. Lincoln fired back, announcing that if the Confederate killed prisoners – regardless of race – the Union troops would execute or place their captured foes in hard labor situations.
At first Lincoln planned to keep black soldiers in safer war zones – guarding forts, supplies, etc. However, the new soldiers understandably wanted a chance to fight on the battlefield for freedom and to win respect, prompting the dangers if they were captured.
As the war progressed, the Confederates did not unilaterally follow their initial announcement, but they did not recognize black soldiers as Prisoners of War either. Inconsistencies in the treatment of African American prisoners was common on Southern battlefields and the aftermath actions toward these prisoners depending on the attitude and discretion of the commanding officer; some were shot in no-quarter situations, others were captured but treated more harshly than white Union soldiers, others were returned or sold into slavery.
Because the Confederacy was unwilling to exchange black soldiers, the prisoner exchange system between the North and South broke down, creating difficult circumstances for all prisoners.
We know that Hannah Johnson wrote this letter to Abraham Lincoln. As a mother, she was proud of her son and worried about his safety, but she faced a fear un-experienced by the majority of mothers in the North. Her son could be killed because of his skin color or sold into slavery if he was captured.
Hannah took the matter into her own hands and wrote to the President of the United States, explaining the situation and imploring him to look after the safety of black soldiers. She had believed Lincoln could keep her son safe from slavery and these threats and asked him to follow through on these beliefs.
We don’t know if Lincoln ever saw this letter, but the document was preserved by the National Archives. Today, it reminds us of two things. First, the additional dangers African American troops faced as they fought for freedom during the Civil War. Second, the right in a democratic-republic to reach out directly to those in office. Hannah Johnson could not vote, but she had a voice and she spoke up with her concerns, politely and firmly asking from a mother’s heart.