150 years ago Sanitary Fairs were held throughout the North to support the work of the United States Sanitary Commission. President Lincoln spoke a few words when Baltimore opened its version on April 18th. There might never be an authoritative, all-encompassing definition of liberty, but Mr. Lincoln implied that liberty did not involve the right to enslave other people. There would seem to be another definition involved – in the president’s dictionary black people were human beings, too, and gradually taking on more rights and responsibilities, as I believe can bee seen in Mr. Lincoln’s relatively long coda, in which he discussed the recent and rumored Fort Pillow massacre. The president also said that the government was going to get the facts about the alleged slaughter before taking revenge.
LECTURE ON LIBERTY
ADDRESS AT SANITARY FAIR IN BALTIMORE,
APRIL 18, 1864.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN:—Calling to mind that we are in Baltimore, we cannot fail to note that the world moves. Looking upon these many people assembled here to serve, as they best may, the soldiers of the Union, it occurs at once that three years ago the same soldiers could not so much as pass through Baltimore. The change from then till now is both great and gratifying. Blessings on the brave men who have wrought the change, and the fair women who strive to reward them for it!
But Baltimore suggests more than could happen within Baltimore. The change within Baltimore is part only of a far wider change. When the war began, three years ago, neither party, nor any man, expected it would last till now. Each looked for the end, in some way, long ere to-day. Neither did any anticipate that domestic slavery would be much affected by the war. But here we are; the war has not ended, and slavery has been much affected how much needs not now to be recounted. So true is it that man proposes and God disposes.
But we can see the past, though we may not claim to have directed it; and seeing it, in this case, we feel more hopeful and confident for the future.
The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name, liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names—liberty and tyranny.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act, as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to-day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the process by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty, and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf’s dictionary has been repudiated.
It is not very becoming for one in my position to make speeches at length; but there is another subject upon which I feel that I ought to say a word. A painful rumor, true, I fear, has reached us, of the massacre, by the rebel forces at Fort Pillow, in the west end of Tennessee, on the Mississippi River, of some three hundred colored soldiers and white officers [I believe it latter turned out to be 500], who had just been overpowered by their assailants [numbering 5000]. There seems to be some anxiety in the public mind whether the Government is doing its duty to the colored soldier, and to the service, at this point. At the beginning of the war, and for some time, the use of colored troops was not contemplated; and how the change of purpose was wrought I will not now take time to explain. Upon a clear conviction of duty I resolved to turn that element of strength to account; and I am responsible for it to the American people, to the Christian world, to history, and in my final account to God. Having determined to use the negro as a soldier, there is no way but to give him all the protection given to any other soldier. The difficulty is not in stating the principle, but in practically applying it. It is a mistake to suppose the Government is indifferent to this matter, or is not doing the best it can in regard to it. We do not to-day know that a colored soldier, or white officer commanding colored soldiers, has been massacred by the rebels when made a prisoner. We fear it, we believe it, I may say,—but we do not know it. To take the life of one of their prisoners on the assumption that they murder ours, when it is short of certainty that they do murder ours, might be too serious, too cruel, a mistake. We are having the Fort Pillow affair thoroughly investigated; and such investigation will probably show conclusively how the truth is. If after all that has been said it shall turn out that there has been no massacre at Fort Pillow, it will be almost safe to say there has been none, and will be none, elsewhere. If there has been the massacre of three hundred there, or even the tenth part of three hundred, it will be conclusively proved; and being so proved, the retribution shall as surely come. It will be matter of grave consideration in what exact course to apply the retribution; but in the supposed case it must come.
[There was a massacre of a black company and their officers at Fort Pillow—they were prisoners who later on, the day of their capture, were ordered executed. The black soldiers were tied alive to individual planks—then man and plank were cobbled up like cord wood and burned. The white officers were shot. D.W.]
You can find out more about the Baltimore Fair and Maryland women in the Civil War at the University of Maryland’s library.