Fighting For Freedom: African Americans During the Civil War

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John Mercer Langston (1829-1897) Photograph of John Mercer Langston (1829-1897), an African American lawyer, congressman, and university official from Virginia and Ohio. In 1855, Langston was elected as clerk of Brownhelm Township, Lorain County, Ohio, making him the first African American elected to public office in the United States. Item Link

While Ohio was an integral part of the Underground Railroad and home to numerous abolitionists, Ohio was not free from racial bigotry. An incident that occurred in September of 1862, the same month the first Executive Order of the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, demonstrates this point. In Cincinnati African American men were rounded up like criminals and placed in jail and forced to do menial labor for the Union army. The imprisonment of these free men left their families to fend for themselves and even after they were released the men were never compensated for their labor.(1)

Despite this incident, and numerous others, Ohio African Americans supported the Union cause and even formed a home guard which came to be known as the "Black Brigade." Others left the state and joined regiments in other states.

In 1862 John Mercer Langston, an Oberlin College graduate and African American lawyer, approached Governor David Tod requesting permission to raise a black regiment. Governor Tod rejected Langston's offer stating, "This is a white man's government; that white men are able to defend and protect it, and that to enlist a negro soldier would be to drive every white man out of the service," and chose to follow a precedent set in 1803 when African Americans were barred from Ohio militia service.(2)

Tod was not alone in his sentiment. Ohio Democrats opposed the idea of a  black regiment stating in the Cincinnati Enquirer, "The employment of negro soldiers is...a disgrace to the Government that employs them--a reproach to our cause--calculated to bring upon us the shame of the whole world, and to cause the South to fight as one man against us." (3)

Prior to Langston's request, Tod had been receiving threats from Irish immigrants residing in Cincinnati warning of mob violence if African Americans were allowed to enlist. The threat of violence was not Tod's sole reason for rejecting Langston's offer, Tod was a Northern Democrat and known for his stance against emancipation of the slaves.

Langston responded the only way he could in the situation, he stated, "Governor, when you need us, send for us." Therefore, before Ohio formed its own African American regiments, those brave men that wanted to fight for their freedom were required to leave the state to do so. Many traveled to Massachusetts, the first state to organize a black regiment in the North, to enlist in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.*

* The 54th M.V.I. was also known as the 1st United States Colored Troop.

1. Forbes, Ella. African American Women During the Civil War. Garland Publishing, Inc: New York, 1998, p. 171

2. Washington, Versalle F. Eagles on Their Buttons: A Black Regiment  in the Civil War. University of Missouri Press: Columbia, 1999, pp. 2-3

3. Ibid, p. 11