LINCOLN, ABRAHAM Autograph note signed instructing Edwin Stanton to meet with the important African American abolitionist and officer Martin Delany.
[Washington:] 21 February 1865. Autograph note in ink on a small card, 2 x 3 1/4 inches (5 x 8 cm), the full text reading "Hon. Sec. of War, Please see this intelligent colored man, Mr. Delany - who wants to assist in raising colored troops. Feb. 21, 1865" and signed "A. Lincoln". A few letters smudged, lightly soiled, the ink dark.
Provenance: the note is accompanied by a copy of a 1962 newspaper article mentioning the note and reporting it part of the Lincoln collection formed by Mrs. Kenneth Simpson and Mrs. McIntyre Faries, Los Angeles
A Lincoln note of the highest impact, noting the intelligence of and endorsing the recruitment plan of polymath Dr. Martin Robison Delany, the important abolitionist, physician, "father of Black nationalism," recruiter of the 54th Massachusetts and, subsequent to his meeting with Lincoln, the highest ranking African American in the United States Army.
Born in 1812 to a free mother and enslaved father in Charles Town, Virginia (part of West Virginia after 1863), Delany was raised and educated in Pennsylvania and, after an apprenticeship with a physician, opened his own medical practice in Pittsburgh. By 1842, Delany was publishing the abolitionist newspaper The Mystery and travelled to Rochester to work alongside Frederick Douglass to publish The North Star. In 1850, Delany was one of the first three Black students accepted to Harvard Medical School only to be dismissed weeks later after complaints from white students. Feeling that Black people had no future in the United States, in 1852 Delany authored The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered and by 1856 he moved his family to Ontario, Canada. There he helped settle American refugees arriving from the Underground Railroad. In response to the passivity of some slaves in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Delany wrote Blake; or The Huts of America, a serialized novel which chronicled the travels of a Black insurrectionist. In 1859, Delany sailed for Liberia to explore the possibility of a Black colony and was a central figure in a treaty with eight indigenous chiefs to create a settlement. The plans were dissolved partly by the coming of the American Civil War and Delany, after having been honored in England during his stopover, returned to the United States. After 1861, Delany devoted himself to the emancipation of American slaves and the recruitment of Black soldiers into the Union Army.
In the war years before his audience with Lincoln, Delany was instrumental in recruiting Black troops to join 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and served as its surgeon. His son, Toussaint L'Ouverture Delany enlisted in the 54th at 15 years old and survived the battle at Fort Wagner (memorialized in the 1989 film Glory). Due partly to Delany's efforts, 179,000 Black men enlisted in the United States Colored Troops, about 10 percent of all who served in the Union Army.
In early February 1865, Delany travelled to Washington to convince President Lincoln that Black men would be more likely to join the Union Army if they served under Black commanding officers. Much of the account of the meeting comes from Frances Rollin's 1868 The Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany which offers a long description of the conversation between Lincoln and Delany. The dates in Rollin's biography seem to rely on Delany's recollections and while the report of the conversation captures the spirit of the meeting, the dates provided seem somewhat unreliable. Rollin notes that "On Monday, the 8th of February, he [Delany] sent his card up to the president ... an audience was granted for the next morning at eight o'clock . The auspicious morning dawned. The president was absent, at the War Department. But not unmindful of his engagement, he left a messenger to be sent after him." The true date of the meeting is not revisited. In a new chapter, Rollin recreates the conversation between Lincoln and Delany, offering such memorable lines such as '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' ... 'This,' replied the president, 'is the very thing I have I have been looking and hoping for; but nobody offered it; I hoped and prayed for it; but till now it has never been proposed.'
The conversation closes with Lincoln commenting on loud cannon fire nearby before handing Delany a handwritten introduction to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The Lincoln chapter closes: '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.'
While the detail of Lincoln handing Delany a card appears correct, his memory of the text and the date for Rollin's book were likely approximated and the present signed card is what was actually handed to Delany. By Rollin's own text, Delany did not meet with Lincoln until February 9th at the earliest and the city of Charleston was not surrendered to General Sherman until February 18th, so more than likely Delany's audience with Lincoln occurred later than remembered.
Delany's meeting with Lincoln was fruitful and changed history. On February 27th, 1865, Delany was commissioned a Major in the U.S. Colored Troops, becoming the U.S. Army's first Black field officer and achieving the highest rank of any African American during the Civil War. Delany joined and recruited for the 104th and 105th U.S.C.T. in Charleston and after the war worked for the Freedmen's Bureau in South Carolina, ran for political office and served as a judge. Unfortunately, many of Delany's papers were destroyed in a fire at Wilberforce University in Ohio on April 14, 1865 and we trace little reference to his meeting with Lincoln outside of the oft-repeated story as told in Rollin's text.
See: ROLLIN, FRANK [FRANCES]. The Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany. Boston: Lea & Shepard, 1868, p. 171.
C Collection of a California Family
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