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Frederick Douglass' Letters

During May, Frederick Douglass IV visited New York City to participate in the unveiling of "Behind the Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters," a brilliant compilation of letters edited by Andrew W. Carroll. FDIV read excerpts of his great great grandfather's letter "To My Old Master" and a civil war letter written by Theodore Hodkins about the atrocities at Fort Pillow. Other readers on the program included Gary Trudeau,Jane Pauley, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Ann Curry, and Christopher Buckley, The stellar event was attended by more than 600 people and was held at the The New York Society for Ethical Culture adjacent to Central Park.

African American Union Soldier Defends Actions at Fort Pillow

When the Civil War erupted in April 1861, citizens and soldiers in the North condemned the South for betraying their country and the ideals of freedom and democracy. Southerners denounced the North for doing exactly the same. While genuine, the acrimony was fueled more by regional pride than outright hatred for the other side. This would change. By late 1861 and early 1862, tens of thousands of homes were receiving notification that their loved ones had been killed in battle. Soldiers passing through enemy lands often terrorized the local citizenry, further antagonizing already raw nerves. After surveying the damage wrought by Union troops on the land of his birth, one Confederate soldier wrote to his family that the war had entered a new, more savage phase. "We must fight to the death," he seethed,

and lay low every invader that we can; the boy who knows naught of war must learn to glance his bright eye along the gun barrel, and strengthen his sinews to grasp the knife; and the young girl whose soul is innocent, whose thoughts are purity must learn to hurl the torch and with crafty hands prepare the subtle poison for the invaders cup. This must be a war of extermination.

Southern troops were not alone in their disgust; "I long for the day when we shall attack the Rebels with an overwhelming force and annihilate them," wrote one Union captain. "May I live long enough to see them running before us [and] hacked to little pieces."

Those who frequently bore the brunt of this rage on both sides were prisoners of war. Cruelties were committed by Union as well as Confederate troops, but one of the most infamous atrocities of the war is believed to have occurred at Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864. The Union Army accused Southern troops led by Nathan Bedford Forrest of going on a murderous rampage against black troops, who, unarmed and begging for their lives, were shot in the face, stabbed in the head and chest, and, if only wounded, buried alive. What became known as the Fort Pillow massacre prompted outrage throughout the country, especially among blacks. One gentleman, Theodore Hodgkins, wrote to Secretary of War Edward Stanton about the matter, offering what he believed to be a perfectly rational and simple proposal as to how the North should respond.

Sir: Some sixty or seventy thousand of my down trodden brethren now wear the uniform of the United States and are bearing the gun and sword in protecting the life of this once great nation.

With this in view I am emboldened to address a few words to you in their behalf if not in behalf of the government itself. [Confederate President] Jeff Davis issued a threat that black men fighting for the U.S. should not be treated as prisoners of war, and the President issued a proclamation threatening retaliation. Since then black soldiers have been murdered again and again yet where is there an instance of retaliation?

If the murder of the colored troops at Fort Pillow is not followed by prompt action on the part of our government it may as well disband all its colored troops for no soldiers whom the government will not protect can be depended upon.

Now sir if you will permit a colored man to give not exactly advice to your excellency but the expression of his fellow colored men. Let the same number of rebel soldiers, privates and officers be selected from those now in confinement as prisoners of war and let them be surrounded by two or three regiments of colored troops.

[Let these troops] be allowed to open fire upon them in squads of 50 or 100, with howitzers loaded with grape. The whole civilized world will approve of this necessary execution and the rebels will learn that the U.S. Govt. is not to be trifled with. This request or suggestion is not made in a spirit of vindicativeness but simply in the interest of my poor suffering negros who are even now assembling at Annapolis and other points to reinforce the army of the Union.

I am Sir with great respect
Your humble Servant
Theodore Hodgkins

.....Read "To My Old Master" by Frederick Douglass