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Rollin, Frank [Frances] A.
Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany



We give in Major Delany's own language his interview with President Lincoln.

He tells us, "On entering the executive chamber, and being introduced to his excellency, a generous grasp and shake of the hand brought me to a seat in front of him. No one could mistake the fact that an able and master spirit was before me. Serious without sadness, and pleasant withal, he was soon seated, placing himself at ease, the better to give me a patient audience. He opened the conversation first.

"`What can I do for you, sir?' he inquired.

"Nothing, Mr. President,' I replied;'but I've come to propose something to you, which I think will be beneficial to the nation in this critical hour of her peril.' I shall never forget the expression of his countenance and the inquiring look which he gave me when I answered him.

"`Go on, sir,' he said, as I paused through deference to him. I continued the conversation by reminding him of the full realization of arming the blacks of the South, and the ability of the blacks of the North to defeat it by complicity with those at the South, through

the medium of the Underground Railroads -- a measure known only to themselves.

"I next called his attention to the fact of the heartless and almost relentless prejudice exhibited towards the blacks by the Union army, and that something ought to be done to check this growing feeling against the slave, else nothing that we could do would avail. And if such were not expedited, all might be lost. That the blacks, in every capacity in which they had been called to act, had done their part faithfully and well. To this Mr. Lincoln readily assented. I continued: ' I would call your attention to another fact of great consideration; that is, the position of confidence in which they have been placed, when your officers have been under obligations to them, and in many instances even the army in their power. As pickets, scouts, and guides, you have trusted them, and found them faithful to the duties assigned; and it follows that if you can find them of higher qualifications, they may, with equal credit, fill higher and more important trusts.'

"Certainly," replied the president, in his most emphatic manner. 'And what do you propose to do?' he inquired.

"I responded, `I propose this, sir; but first permit me to say that, whatever I may desire for black men in the army, I know that there exists too much prejudice among the whites for the soldiers to serve under a black commander, or the officers to be willing to associate with him. These are facts which must be admitted, and, under the circumstances, must be regarded, as they cannot be ignored. And I propose, as a most effective remedy to prevent enrollment of the blacks

in the rebel service, and induce them to run to, instead of from, the Union forces--the commissioning and promotion of black men now in the army, according to merit.

"Looking at me for a moment, earnestly yet anxiously, he demanded, 'How will you remedy the great difficulty you have just now so justly described, about the objections of white soldiers to colored commanders, and officers to colored associates?"

"I replied, 'I have the remedy, Mr. President, which has not yet been stated; and it is the most important suggestion of my visit to you. And I think it is just what is required to complete the prestige of the Union army. I propose, sir, an army of blacks, commanded entirely by black officers, except such whites as may volunteer to serve; this army to penetrate through the heart of the south, and make conquests, with the banner of Emancipation unfurled, proclaiming freedom as they go, sustaining and protecting it by arming the emancipated, taking them as fresh troops, and leaving a few veterans among the new freedmen, when occasion requires, keeping this banner unfurled until every slave is free, according to the letter of your proclamation. I would also take from those already in the service all that are competent for commission officers, and establish at once in the South a camp of instructions. By this we could have in about three months an army of forty thousand blacks in motion, the presence of which any where would itself be a power irresistible. You should have an army of blacks, president Lincoln, commanded entirely by blacks, the sight of which is required to give confidence

to the slaves, and retain them to the Union, stop foreign intervention, and speedily bring the war to a close.

"This,' replied the president, 'is the very thing I have been looking and hoping for; but nobody offered it. I have thought it over and over again. I have talked about it; I hoped and prayed for it; but till now it never has been proposed. White men couldn't do this, because they are doing all in that direction now that they can; but we find, for various reasons, it does not meet the case under consideration. The blacks should go to the interior, and the whites be kept on the frontiers.'

"Yes, sir,' I interposed; 'they would require but little, as they could subsist on the country as they went along.'

"Certainly,' continued he; 'a few light artillery, with the cavalry, would comprise your principal advance, because all the siege work would be on the frontiers and waters, done by the white division of the army. Won't this be a grand thing?' he exclaimed, joyfully. He continued, 'When I issued my Emancipation Proclamation, I had this thing in contemplation. I then gave them a chance by prohibiting any interference on the part of the army; but they did not embrace it,' said he, rather sadly, accompanying the word with an emphatic gesture.

"But, Mr. President,' said I, 'these poor people could not read your proclamation, nor could they know anything about it, only, when they did hear, to know that they were free.'

"But you of the North I expected to take advantage of it,'he replied.


"'Our policy, sir I answered, 'was directly opposite, supposing that it met your approbation. To this end I published a letter against embarrassing or compromising the government in any manner whatever; for us to remain passive, except in case of foreign intervention, then immediately to raise the slaves to insurrection.'

"Ah, I remember the letter,' he said, 'and thought at the time that you mistook my designs. But the effect will be better as it is, by giving character to the blacks, both North and South, as a peaceable, inoffensive people.' Suddenly turning, he said, Will you take command?'

"`If there be none better qualified than I am, sir, by that time I will. While it is my desire to serve, as black men we shall have to prepare ourselves, as we have had no opportunities of experience and practice in the service as officers.

"`That matters but little, comparatively,'he replied; as some of the finest officers we have never studied the tactics till they entered the army as subordinates. And again,' said he, the tactics are easily learned, especially among your people. It is the head that we now require most--men of plans and executive ability.

"`I thank you, Mr. President,' said I, 'for the--

"`No--not at all' he interrupted.

"`I will show you some letters of introduction, sir said I, putting my hand in my pocket to get them.

"Not now,'he interposed; I know all about you. I see nothing now to be done but to give you a line of introduction to the secretary of war.

"Just as he began writing, the cannon commenced booming.


"`Stanton is firing! listen! he is in his glory! noble man! he exclaimed.

"'What is it, Mr. President?' I asked.

"'The firing!'

"`What is it about, sir,'I reiterated, ignorant of the cause.

"'Why, don't you know? Haven't you heard the news? Charleston is ours!' he answered, straightening up from the table on which he was writing for an instant, and then resuming it. He soon handed me a card, on which was written,--

February 8, 1865.

'HON. E.M.STANTON, Secretary of War .

`Do not fail to have an interview with this most extraordinary and intelligent black man.


"This card showed he perfectly understood my views and feelings; hence he was not content that my color should make its own impression, but he expressed it with emphasis, as though a point was gained. The thing desired presented itself; not simply a man that was black , because these had previously presented themselves, in many delegations and committees,--men of the highest intelligence,--for various objects; but that which he had wished and hoped for, their own proposed measures matured in the council-chamber had never been fully presented to them in the person of a black man."

This, then, was what was desired to complete the plans of the president and his splendid minister, the secretary of war. The "ponderous beam," being removed, to use his figurative expression, his passport was

clear to every part of the mansion. He entered the war department for the purpose of seeing the minister. As he entered, a glance revealed to him the presiding genius of the situation, surrounded by his assistants. In the room was a pressing crowd of both sexes, representing nearly every condition of life, each in turn endeavoring to reach the centre of the room, where at an elevated desk, stood one of the greatest men of the times, and the able director of the war department.

After he had sent forward his card, he was requested by the secretary in person, to whom he was not previously unknown, to call at the department again.

He had gained the interview with the president that he wished, and the indications were brighter than his most sanguine expectations had promised. The war minister's influence alone could effect the balance.

He sought Dr. William Elder, the distinguished biographer of Dr. Kane, of Arctic memory, who was then chief of the bureau of statistics, and gave him an account of his mission to the president.

After explaining everything to the doctor, his face assuming an expression peculiar to himself, of a whole-souled satisfaction, he exclaimed," I'll be hanged if I haven't got the thing! just the thing! Will you give me that in writing?" he asked; "I mean the points touched upon, that may be written in a letter to me."

On receiving it, in the afternoon of the same day, after he had read it, he turned to the future major, and said," you shall have what you want," in like manner as he replied to a speech of Louis Koussuth, when he told him if he went to war with Austria, he shouldn't die .


When Delany left Dr. Elder, he was throughly convinced, that if the secretary of war could be influenced by any man, in regard to his mission, in none abler could he depend than upon this true and earnest advocate of his race.

"The next call at the war department was made the following Monday, the 12th inst. His reception there, being equally as cordial as the first, seemed already to indicate success to his measures.

"What do you propose to do, doctor?" asked the secretary, as Dr. Delany began to explain to him as he did to the president. "I understand the whole thing, and fully comprehend your design; I have frequently gone over the whole ground, in council with the president. What do you wish? What position?" He replied,--

"In any position or place whatever, in which I may be instrumental in promoting the measures proposed, and be of service to the country, so that I am not subject and subordinate to every man who holds a commission, and, with such, chooses to assume authority."

"Will you take the field?" asked the secretary.

"I should like to do so as soon as possible, but not until I have had sufficient discipline and practice in a camp of instruction, and a sufficient number of black officers to command each regiment," was the answer given.

"Of course," said the secretary; "you must establish your camp of instruction; and as you have a general knowledge of the qualified colored men of the country, I propose to commission you at once, and send you South to commence raising troops, to be commanded by

black officers, on the principles you proposed, of which I most highly approve, to prevent all clashing or jealousy,--because of no contact to arouse prejudices. It is none of white men's business what rank a black man holds over his own people. I shall assign you to Charleston, with advices and instructions to Major General Saxton. Do you know him?" he asked. Being answered, he continued, "He is an unflinching friend of your race. You will impart to him, in detail, that which will not be written. The letter giving special instructions will be given to you--all further instructions to be obtained at the department."

Assistant Adjutant General of Volunteers Colonel C. W. Foster, at this juncture having been sent for, was instructed by the secretary of war to take him to his department, and make the necessary examination; there being no rejection, to prepare and fill out a parchment, with commission of Major of Infantry , the regiment to be left blank, to be filled by order of Major General Saxton, according to instructions to be given, and to report the next morning at eleven o'clock.

After the examination by the adjutant general, he remarked, "This is certainly an important and interesting feature of the war. And the secretary must expect much to be done by you, for he certainly holds you in high esteem."

"I hope, colonel," he replied, "that neither the honorable secretary of war nor the government will expect too much from an individual like myself. My only hope is, that I may be able to do my duty well and satisfactorily."

"I have no fears for your success," returned the colonel;

"you have qualifications and ability, and must succeed, when your chances are such as they will now be. This is a great thing for you," he continued,"and you have now an opportunity of making yourself anything that you please , and doing for your race all that may be required at the hands of the government." He, attempting to thank the colonel for the encouraging as well as complimentary remarks, was stopped by him, saying, "I speak as I think and feel about it. The secretary has great confidence in you, and I simply wish to indorse it for your encouragement. There is nothing now to be done," he continued, "but to call tomorrow, and go with me to the war department to report finally to the secretary of war, and receive your commission from his hands." All arrangements being completed in the adjutant's department, he withdrew.