For the first two years of the Civil War black and white abolitionists urged both the liberation of the slaves and the recruitment of African American men in defense of the Union. Barely three months after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, New York on March 2, 1863, titled “Men of Color, To Arms!” which urged African American men to join what was increasingly a war to make real what the Proclamation only promised—complete freedom.
When first the rebel cannon shattered the walls of Sumter and drove away its starving garrison, I predicted that the war then and there inaugurated would not be fought out entirely by white men. Every months experience during these dreary years has confirmed that opinion. A war undertaken and brazenly carried on for the per¬petual enslavement of colored men, calls logically and loudly for colored men to help suppress it. Only a moderate share of sagacity was needed to see that the arm of the slave was the best defense against the arm of the slaveholder. Hence with every reverse to the national arms, with every exulting shout of victory raised by the slaveholding rebels, I have implored the imperiled nation to unchain against her foes, her powerful black hand. Slowly and reluctantly that appeal is beginning to be heeded. Stop not now to complain that it was not heeded sooner. It may or it may not have been best that it should not. This is not the time to discuss that question. Leave it to the future. When the war is over, the country is saved, peace is established, and the black mans rights are secured, as they will be, history with an impartial hand will dispose of that and sundry other questions. Action! Action! not criticism is the plain duty of this hour. Words are now useful only as they stimulate to blows. The office of speech now is only to point out when, where, and how to strike to the best advantage. There is no time to delay. The tide is at its flood that leads on to fortune. From East to West, from