During the spring of 1863 U.S. Army private Hezekiah Ford Douglas made a great transition, winning promotion as officer in a newly-organizing black regiment. It was but the latest achievement in a young life devoted to antislavery activity.
Early life and career
H. Ford Douglas, as he referred to himself, was born in Virginia in 1831 to a slave named Mary. His father, William Douglas, was a white man. Escaping slavery in 1846, he settled in Cleveland, Ohio, and soon became active in the African American community there. By his early twenties Douglas had played a role in the Ohio colored convention movement and established himself as a powerful advocate of African American emigration from the United States to free territory in Canada, then under the government of Great Britain. This came from his view that American blacks should not wait for change that might not come.
Activities in 1850s Illinois
In 1854 Douglas moved to Chicago, where he connected himself with the Provincial Freeman, a black newspaper published in Ontario, Canada. His efforts at education had created a writer and speaker of real power. He periodically served the newspaper as an editor, producing powerful editorials condemning any nation that would allow human slavery. At other times Douglas travelled in the northern United States to build self-consciousness among blacks and to press white Americans to work for equal rights. A man reporting on a meeting near Chicago wrote that “Mr. Ford Douglass, is one of our best young men in every way.”
During 1856 Douglas promoted the meeting of a convention of Illinois African Americans to protest against the state’s notorious Black Laws. When delegates met in Alton that November he headed the committee that developed a “Declaration of Sentiment,” which denounced “the cruel prejudice we are compelled to suffer in this our ‘native land,’ as dear to us as it is to white men… the blood-bought inheritance of our ancestors.” During the meeting he spoke against the acceptance of slavery anywhere in the United States-evil was evil no matter where it existed.
Douglas’s view led him in 1858 to condemn U.S. Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln as being no more antislavery than the incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln accepted the existence of slavery in old states, opposing only its expansion. H. Ford encountered Lincoln during the senatorial campaign, challenging him to sign a petition to the Illinois legislature demanding repeal of the Black Laws. Lincoln refused, a response that Douglas recalled angrily in a public address during Lincoln’s candidacy for the presidency in 1860.
Douglas spoke widely in New England in 1860. At the opening of the Civil War he visited Missouri to urge enslaved blacks to seek freedom.
In July 1862 H. Ford Douglas enlisted for service in the 95th Illinois Infantry Regiment, raised in the strongly antislavery counties of Boone and McHenry, which he had visited during the 1850s. While the U.S. government had begun to move toward accepting black men for service, it was routinely expected that the service would take place in segregated units. Douglas’s boldness in signing documents to serve in a white outfit was startling. More so was the willingness of white officials to accept into the regiment a man well known to be an ex-slave and a radical abolitionist.
It appears that Douglas took full part in the life of his outfit. When “comrade” Horace C. Hakes died Douglas was named member of a committee that wrote resolutions of condolence to be sent to the Hakes family. In January 1863 he wrote to the editor of the Belvidere Standard, reporting on the regiment’s movements in the earliest days of the Vicksburg campaign, confident that the rebellion and slavery would be crushed.
At the same time Douglas kept in contact with the African American press. Seven days after the signing of the final Emancipation Proclamation he wrote to Frederick Douglass, explaining his reasons for joining a white regiment:
“The slaves are free! How can I write these precious words?… In anticipation of this result I enlisted six Months ago in order to be better prepared to play my part in the great drama of the Negro’s redemption. I wanted its drill, it practical details for mere theory does not make a good soldier. I have learned something of war for I have seen war in its brightest as well as its bloodiest phase and yet I have nothing to regret.”
In February 1863 he again wrote to Belvidere, hailing the beginning efforts to raise units of black troops, and clearly hoping to play a part. He reported that thousands of African Americans in the area of Lake Providence, Louisiana, could be turned into “the toughest soldiers the world has ever seen,” ending with the declaration that “it is the wrath of the negro, his determination to remain on the soil enriched by the blood and tears of his race for six generations, that makes liberty and union possible.”
Douglas wrote publicly of his satisfaction with service and the trend of the war. At least one surviving private letter indicates that, not unexpectedly, he felt the sting of racism from fellow soldiers:
“…. as it is now I am respected by my own Regiment and treated kindly by those who know me… still there are those in other Regiments with whom I come in contact who have no regard for my feeling simply because I have the hated blood coursing in my veins. My position therefore… is anything but agreeable.”
Even in August 1862 as Douglas trained in Illinois as an infantry private prominent leaders in Boone County submitted a petition with hundreds of signatures to state officials asking that “the eloquent & patriotic H. Ford Douglas of Belvidere” be allowed to raise and organize a regiment of Illinois African Americans. By April 1863, though not mustered out of the 95th Illinois, Douglas had been commissioned as an officer in the 9th Louisiana Infantry of African Descent. He served as an officer in other black units until July 1865, ending his military life as captain commanding a battery of artillery at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Interested in learning more?
Aspects of Douglas’s life have been studied in scholarly articles. A study of Douglas’s full life is Robert L. Harris Jr., “H. Ford Douglas: Afro-American Antislavery Emigrationist,” Journal of Negro History 62:3 (July 1977): 217-34. A discussion that covers Douglas’s activities and differences with Lincoln during the late 1850s is Matthew Norman, “The Other Lincoln-Douglas Debate: The Race Issue in a Comparative Contrast,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 31:1 (Winter 2010): 1-21, which can be found at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/p/pod/dod-idx/other-lincoln-douglas-debate-the-race-issue-in-a-comparative.pdf?c=jala;idno=2629860.0031.103.