Fall of the South: “With Malice Toward None”

For the next few months, we'll be covering the final days of the Civil War exactly 150 years later. This is the third installment of the series. 

March 2-4, 1865: “With Malice Toward None” 

As March 1865 began the final outcome of the Civil War was all but certain, as the South faced overwhelming Northern numbers and firepower, supported by a much larger population and industrial base. And yet the war dragged on, with the main Confederate Army of Northern Virginia putting up a fierce last-ditch defense at the siege of Petersburg, protecting the Confederate capital at Richmond, while a smaller rebel force attempted to distract and delay the Union army in the Carolinas.

Seeing the writing on the wall, in early March Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee extended a tentative peace feeler to Union commander Ulysses S. Grant, but was firmly rebuffed, as President Lincoln continued to demand unconditional surrender. Meanwhile Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau to grapple with the enormous problems facing millions of freed slaves, and Lincoln looked ahead to an era of national reconciliation in his stirring Second Inaugural Address. 

Lee Proposes Ceasefire 

With spring approaching the military situation was looking increasingly hopeless for the Confederacy. In the main theater the Army of Northern Virginia, numbering around 50,000 men, was pinned down by the much larger Union Army of the Potomac, 125,000 strong, at the Siege of Petersburg around 20 miles south of Richmond. In North Carolina Joe Johnston’s new Army of the South, a composite force of around 25,000 men scraped together from various sources, was preparing to confront William Tecumseh Sherman’s swiftly advancing Union force, soon boosted to 90,000 men by reinforcements from the coast under John Schofield.

The news from peripheral theaters was hardly any better: on March 2 Philip Sheridan’s Union cavalry destroyed what was left of Jubal Early’s small Army of the Valley in the Battle of Waynesboro, effectively ending rebel resistance in the Shenandoah Valley and freeing Sheridan to add his forces to Grant’s at Petersburg. In the second half of the month Union cavalry under George Stoneman would begin a raid into western North Carolina, basically unopposed, while another Union force under James Wilson raided Alabama, brushing aside a much smaller force under Nathan Bedford Forrest and destroying Confederate arsenals and industry. 

Robert E. Lee was keenly aware of the effect physical privations and collapsing morale were having on his troops, as around 6,000 soldiers deserted from January to March 1865, further weakening the already outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia. Lee tried to reverse the manpower decline by offering an amnesty to deserters, but there was little hope of luring exhausted, hungry men back to a losing cause. Following the Battle of Hatcher’s Run in February, he wrote to Confederate Secretary of War John Breckinridge: “Some of my men had been without meat for three days, and all were suffering from reduced rations and scant clothing, exposed to battle, cold, hail, and sleet… Taking these facts in connection with the paucity of our numbers, you must not be surprised if calamity befalls us.” 

Pinning his hopes on the Northern public’s desire for peace, with typical Southern grandiloquence on March 2, 1865 Lee wrote a letter to Grant suggesting a ceasefire to be followed by peace negotiations: 

Sincerely desiring to leave nothing untried which may put an end to the calamities of war, I propose to meet you at such convenient time and place as you may designate, with the hope that upon an interchange of views it may be found practicable to submit the subjects of controversy between the belligerents to a convention of the kind mentioned. 

Grant immediately conveyed Lee’s message to Washington via telegraph, asking for guidance. But Lincoln had already made his stance clear in his meeting with the Confederate peace commissioners: the only way to end the war was unconditional surrender. The next day Grant received an emphatic telegram from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton conveying his unambiguous orders: 

The President directs me to say to you that he wishes you to have no conference with Gen. Lee unless it be for the capitulation of Gen. Lee’s army or on some minor and purely military matter. He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds in his own hands, and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. Meantime you are to press to the utmost your military advantages. 

Grant in turn responded: “I can assure you that no act of the enemy will prevent me pressing all advantages gained to the utmost of my ability.” Another month of death and destruction lay ahead, largely needless judging by Lee’s own judgment. On March 9 the Confederate commander again wrote Breckinridge, warning that it was now “almost impossible to maintain our present position.”  

Congress Establishes Freedmen’s Bureau 

Following Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, the arrival of Union troops meant freedom for millions of slaves across the Confederacy, extending to the entire country with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment on January 31, 1865. In February and March 1865 Sherman’s march north spread emancipation to two of the last remaining bastions of slavery, in North and South Carolina.

As might be expected the process was often chaotic, and unsurprisingly many Southern whites were scared and angry. Charlotte St. Julien Ravenel, a white female diarist in North Carolina, wrote in March 1865: “The field negroes are in a dreadful state; they will not work, but either roam the country, or sit in their houses…. I do not see how we are to live in this country without any rule or regulation. We are afraid now to walk outside of the gate.” As always the social upheaval was even harder for older people: Ravenel noted that her grandfather “seems completely broken down,” adding it “must be hard for one of his age to have everything so changed from what he has been accustomed to all of his life.” 

As Union troops approached some masters clung to the old ways to the bitter end, using threats of violence to keep slaves subservient, as later recalled by W.L. Bost, freed during this period: “Most of the people get everything jes ready to run when the Yankee sojers come through the town. This was toward the las’ of the war. Cose the niggers knew what all the fightin’ was about, but they didn’t dare say anything. The man who owned the slaves was too mad as it was, and if the niggers say anything they get shot right then and thar.” However other whites resigned themselves to the end of their old way of life and tried to part with their former slaves on good terms. Mary Anderson, who was freed as a young girl in North Carolina, remembered the arrival of Union troops:

In a day or two everybody on the plantation seemed to be disturbed and marster and missus were crying. Marster ordered all the slaves to come to the great house at nine o’clock… marster and missus came out on the porch and stood side by side. You could hear a pin drop everything was so quiet… They were both crying. Then marster said, “Men, women and children, you are free. You are no longer my slaves. The Yankees will soon be here.” Marster and missus then went into the house, got two large arm chairs, put them on the porch facing the avenue, and sat down side by side and remained there watching. In about an hour there was one of the blackest clouds coming up the avenue from the main road. It was the Yankee soldiers… They called the slaves, saying “You are free.” Slaves were whooping and laughing and acting like they were crazy. Yankee soldiers were shaking hands with the Negroes and… asking them questions. They busted the door to the smoke house and got all the hams. They went to the icehouse and got several barrels of brandy, and such a time. The Negroes and Yankees were cooking and eating together… Marster and missus sat on the porch and they were so humble no Yankee bothered anything in the great house. 

After the initial euphoria of freedom, however, freed slaves faced daunting challenges, including finding work, food, and shelter in the midst of general chaos and economic paralysis. Thousands of displaced and dispossessed slaves trailed behind Sherman’s army, forming a growing column of refugees that hindered its mobility, or simply wandered the countryside more or less aimlessly. 

To help provide for these people and manage the transition to a post-slavery society, on March 3, 1865 Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau was given wide responsibilities but limited resources to carry them out, including providing former slaves health care, education, job training, work placement, and physical and legal protection. 

Of these its greatest successes were probably in education, as it helped independent charities and aid organizations establish hundreds of schools across the South, where hundreds of thousands of freed slaves learned how to read and write. By contrast the legal and physical protections extended to freedmen depended in the short term on the continuing presence of Federal troops, and in the long term on Congress demanding recognition of African-American rights as a condition for restoring sovereignty to conquered Confederate states. Unfortunately congressional commitment to enforcing the rights of freedmen, technically guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, proved lacking next to the demands of political expediency and reconciliation with Southern whites. 

In the immediate postwar years, records of the legal activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau provide a unique window into the daily lives of freedmen, and the problems they faced in their dealings with white neighbors and employers, as well as with each other. Complaints about unpaid wages were common, as whites tried to exploit freedmen by relying on intimidation and the lack of alternative employment to extract free labor; freedmen also often complained about neighbors, both white and black, “borrowing” livestock or tools without returning it. 

Family disputes also crop up, as in this record from Augusta County, Virginia, dated November 16, 1865: “Eliza Jackson complains that her Brother Samuel turned her out of Doors and drove her from his House under circumstances perticularly trying to her and refused to pay her her wages which he collected from her Employer.” Another dramatic slice of life dated March 5, 1866, reads: “Maria Miller… complains that Robert Coleman… deceived her by promise of marriage and now refuses to have anything to do with her.” In an entry from April 1866, “Allan Lewis… complains that his two daughters… aged 22, the other 16, have been seduced; and the oldest by a white man the youngest by a colored man who has a wife and two children; both the girls have children, he asked that some action may be taken to compel these men to contribute to support of the children.” 

Lincoln Looks Ahead and Above

On March 4, 1865, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase first administered the oath of office to the new Vice President, Andrew Johnson – a Democrat from Tennessee, who was chosen to demonstrate the new administration’s desire for reconciliation. Before the oath was administered in the Senate chamber, Johnson, apparently totally inebriated, delivered a rambling speech that prompted Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells to whisper to Stanton, “Johnson is either drunk or crazy.” Johnson’s relations with Stanton and Congress would deteriorate even more after he ascended to the presidency. 

The inauguration party next moved on to the steps of the Capitol, where Chase administered the oath of office to Lincoln in front of large, enthusiastic crowd. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (top) was another tour de force from the master orator, melding practical matters with philosophical and even mystic concerns. After reviewing the causes and course of the war over the four eventful years since his first inauguration, Lincoln reminded his listeners that God’s will is mysterious, seeming to imply that the war was a punishment as much for the North as the South, and urged them to prepare for reconciliation with their erstwhile enemies:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 

After the speech Frederick Douglass congratulated the president, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.” The actor John Wilkes Booth, who was also probably present, doubtless felt differently.

See the previous entry here. See all entries here.

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11 Facts About the Battle of Gettysburg
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By mid-1863, Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had humiliated the Union in the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. They seemed unbeatable—yet when they met the Union's blue-shirted troops in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July 1863, General Lee was outdone at last. The three-day Battle of Gettysburg was a badly-needed win for the north. But like all victories, it came with a price: This fight went down in history as the Civil War’s bloodiest confrontation. Here’s a short introduction to one of the great turning points in the story of America.

1. BY INVADING PENNSYLVANIA, LEE THOUGHT HE COULD DEMORALIZE THE NORTH.

Robert E. Lee
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the late spring of 1863, the Union Army had Vicksburg, Mississippi in its sights. With its capture, Union generals hoped to split the Confederacy in half while also asserting control over the lower Mississippi River, a vital transportation route. To keep that from happening, some in the Confederate government wanted to send over reinforcements from the Army of Northern Virginia, but Lee had other ideas.

The general, emboldened by recent victories, mounted an offensive campaign into Pennsylvania. He believed that a strong Confederate presence north of the Mason-Dixon line would pressure the Union into withdrawing some of its soldiers from the Mississippi Delta—and that a huge Confederate invasion would set off a panic in cities like Philadelphia and New York, weakening northern support for the war effort. Lincoln might then lose his 1864 reelection bid, and with Honest Abe out of the White House, the tired north might initiate peace talks. If all had gone well for General Lee, his assault on the Keystone State may have ended the war in the south’s favor. But of course, all did not go well for Lee.

2. THE FIGHT WAS PRECEDED BY AN EXODUS OF BLACK FAMILIES.

On June 12, 1863, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin put his constituents on high alert. In a statement re-printed by newspapers all over the state, he announced that “information has been obtained by the War Department that a large rebel force, composed of cavalry, artillery, and mounted infantry, has been prepared for the purpose of making a raid into Pennsylvania.”

This news was especially alarming to black families: When Confederate soldiers entered Union territory, they’d often seize African Americans—women, children, and freeborn citizens included—as "contraband." By the end of June, hundreds of black refugees from Gettysburg and other southern Pennsylvania towns had come pouring into Harrisburg, the state’s capital. When Confederates tried to take the city on June 28, black volunteers helped thwart their efforts.

3. ONE MAJOR GENERAL BLAMED THE SHOWDOWN ON A NEED FOR SHOES.

According to Henry Heth, a major general in the Confederate army, he was the one who started the Battle of Gettysburg. Heth said that on July 1, 1863, he sent two brigades into Gettysburg, where they encountered Union resistance, and what began as a minor skirmish mushroomed into a three-day conflict—and a critical victory for the North.

All this begs the question of why Heth dispatched those troops into Gettysburg in the first place, considering he was under strict orders not to go on the offensive. Heth explained his rationale like this: He needed to go shoe shopping. “Hearing that a supply of shoes was to be obtained in Gettysburg,” Heth wrote in 1877, “and greatly needing shoes for my men, [on June 30] I directed General Pettigrew [a brigade commander of his] to go to Gettysburg and get these supplies.” Pettigrew returned with stories that there was cavalry present in Gettysburg, but the commanders believed that this was just an observation detachment and the bulk of the Union army was far away, meaning an assault on Gettysburg would likely succeed. Heth later recalled saying “I will take my division tomorrow and go to Gettysburg and get those shoes!”

Historians think Heth wasn’t being entirely truthful about the matter. Another Confederate division had already gone on a "supply run" through Gettysburg and didn’t obtain many shoes.

While it is generally agreed that Heth did send troops ahead for reconnaissance of the area, and those troops’ interaction with Union soldiers started the battle, historians continue to debate the rest of the specifics. Some propose that Heth was searching for non-shoe supplies, while others propose that Heth was eager to impress Lee and might have used the supplies as an excuse to pick a fight. Still others argue that the roads funneled both armies through Gettysburg, making a showdown inevitable.

4. ALMOST 16,000 MEN DIED ON THE FIRST DAY ALONE …

Battle of Gettysburg
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At first, the rebels’ odds of scoring a victory in Gettysburg seemed pretty good—the first major clash on July 1 involved 7600 Confederate infantry fighting against just 2748 Union cavalrymen. Later on that day, around 27,000 Confederate soldiers approached from the north and drove 22,000 Union soldiers out of the town, leaving them to reconvene on Cemetery Hill to the south. By nightfall, Lee had lost over 6000 men and around 9000 northerners had been killed in total. Had the fighting ended after that first day, Gettysburg still would have had one of the 20 highest body counts of any battle in the war.

5. … AND YET THERE WAS ONLY ONE CIVILIAN CASUALTY OVERALL.

The Union forces bounced back on July 2 with the arrival of Major General George Meade and most of his army, which brought the total number of northern troops up to 90,000. They were fighting against 75,000 Confederate troops. The battle stretched into July 3, with the Army of Northern Virginia leaving the area the next day. It’s estimated that there were between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties at Gettysburg overall.

Still, just about every innocent bystander who witnessed the carnage lived to tell the tale. Twenty-year-old Mary Virginia Wade (also known as "Jennie" or "Gennie") had the distinction of being the only civilian to die within Gettysburg’s borders during the battle. A resident of the town, she was reportedly hit by a stray bullet that tore through her home as she was baking a loaf of bread. Wade is now commemorated by a statue on Baltimore Street.

6. FEMALE SOLDIERS FOUGHT ON BOTH SIDES.

While the Civil War is generally viewed as a male conflict with the demure women staying behind, that’s not actually true: Hundreds of women—drawn by a sense of adventure, a commitment to the cause, or just the opportunity for a steady income—are thought to have enlisted. Nine verified female soldiers died on a Civil War battlefield, and one of them was killed at Gettysburg. Lying among the corpses of all the southerners who had fallen in Pickett’s charge was the uniformed body of a woman. Another female Confederate soldier took a bullet to one leg, which had to be amputated. It’s known that a third woman fought for the south at Gettysburg as well—and at least two female soldiers saw action there as part of the Union army.

7. GEORGE PICKETT DIDN’T COMMAND ALL OF THE TROOPS IN PICKETT’S CHARGE.

By the third day, the fighting had shifted to the south of Gettysburg proper. The Union troops stood in a fishhook-shaped arrangement that began down at the twin hills of Big and Little Round Top, stretched the length of Cemetery Ridge (a raised geologic feature), and curved around Cemetery Hill. Confederates were moving in from the north and the west.

Lee wanted to strike at the heart of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge. But to get there, his men would have to cross an open field, leaving them exposed to Union artillery fire. Against the advice of his righthand man General James Longstreet, Lee went ahead with the charge. Of the 12,000 Confederate men who were ordered to participate, more than half were killed, captured, or wounded while the Union line remained unbroken (though it suffered heavy losses as well). Remembered today as the “High Watermark of the Confederacy,” this disastrous event was romanticized by southern writers and incorporated into Dixie’s “Lost Cause” narrative. The effort is more formally called “Pickett’s Charge” because one division in the Confederate attack was led by George Pickett, a Major General from Richmond. He would spend the rest of his life nursing a grudge against Robert E. Lee; in Pickett’s own words, “That old man … had my division massacred.”

Posterity may have attached Pickett’s name to the charge, but his division only supplied between 4000 and 6200 of the soldiers who were in it. Accompanying his men were thousands of other troops under the command of James Pettigrew and Isaac Trimble.

8. GEORGE A. CUSTER WAS THERE.

Pickett’s charge is thought to have been one half of a pincer-like assault: While Pettigrew, Trimble, and Pickett himself led their brigades towards Cemetery Ridge, 6000 mounted cavalrymen tried to sneak around it. By doing this, the horsemen could have opened fire on the Union line from the east just as Pickett and company were rushing over from the west. Enter George A. Custer—a graduate of West Point and a Brigadier General in the Union army—who stopped them in their tracks with their own cavaliers. The Confederate riders were eventually driven away, leaving the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge free to mow down Pickett’s charge.

Gettysburg wasn't the only infamous battle Custer would be a part of: In 1876, he and 267 of his cavalrymen were killed by Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors in a Montana valley in the Battle of Little Bighorn.

9. THE WAGON TRAIN OF WOUNDED CONFEDERATES WAS 17 MILES LONG.

Beaten and battered, the Army of Northern Virginia pulled out of Gettysburg on the fourth of July (the same day Ulysses S. Grant finally took Vicksburg). There were enough wounded Confederates to fill a 17-mile wagon train that Lee took back to the South. On its way back to Virginia, the convoy ran into trouble at the Potomac River. The weather had been calm and cloudy throughout the clash at Gettysburg. But on July 4, a heavy rainfall arrived that lasted for several days. So when Lee’s men finally reached the Potomac, high water levels trapped them on the northern side of it.

Lincoln wanted General Meade to grab this opportunity and wipe out the now-cornered Army of Northern Virginia. Meade chose to proceed with caution—in part because his troops were still weary from the action at Gettysburg. Some of his outfits had skirmishes with Lee’s men until the Confederates were finally able to cross the Potomac at Williamsport, Maryland on July 13/14. “Our army held the war in the hollow of their hand and they would not close it,” said a disappointed Lincoln.

10. THE BODY OF ONE FALLEN SOLDIER DIDN’T TURN UP UNTIL 1996.

Once the fighting at Gettysburg subsided, the town’s 2400 residents had to dispose of nearly 7000 human corpses the armies left behind. Shallow, rock-covered graves were hastily dug for the deceased.

After the battle, Governor Curtin lobbied for a Soldier’s National Cemetery to be built at Gettysburg. His request was granted, and the bodies of Union soldiers were reinterred at the chosen burial site, which was formally consecrated on November 19, 1863. President Lincoln attended the ceremony and gave the speech that would come to be known as the Gettysburg Address. The scent of death hung in the air while Abe spoke. That’s because thousands of Confederates were still lying in shoddy graves on the town’s outskirts—attracting flies and vultures. Most remained in situ until southern organizations started digging up fallen Confederates in 1871 so the bodies could receive proper burials.

A few cadavers apparently escaped their notice: In 1996, the body of a Civil War soldier was found near Railroad Cut. Archaeologists couldn’t identify the man, or even determine which side he’d fought for. (It’s been suggested that he was a Mississippi Confederate.)

11. THERE WAS A BIG REUNION IN 1913.

With some help from the U.S. War Department, multiple state legislatures, and a Major League baseball player who had become Pennsylvania’s governor, Gettysburg threw a massive party to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its great battle. The event began on June 29, 1913 and lasted until the sixth of July. Over 50,000 Civil War vets—most of whom were in their seventies—turned up to commemorate the battle. New memorials were dedicated, former enemies took photos together, and President Woodrow Wilson dropped by to give a speech. A highlight was the peaceful reenactment of Pickett’s Charge: 200 men retraced the steps they’d taken half a century prior and then met up on Cemetery Ridge to trade handshakes.

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Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
13 Incredible Facts About Frederick Douglass
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock

The list of Frederick Douglass's accomplishments is astonishing—respected orator, famous writer, abolitionist, civil rights leader, presidential consultant—even without considering that he was a former slave with no formal education. In honor of his birth 200 years ago, here are 13 incredible facts about the life of Frederick Douglass.

1. HE BARTERED BREAD FOR KNOWLEDGE.

Because Douglass was a slave, he wasn't allowed to learn to read or write. A wife of a Baltimore slave owner did teach him the alphabet when he was around 12, but she stopped after her husband interfered. Young Douglass took matters into his own hands, cleverly fitting in a reading lesson whenever he was on the street running errands for his owner. As he detailed in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he'd carry a book with him while out and about and trade small pieces of bread to the white kids in his neighborhood, asking them to help him learn to read the book in exchange.

2. HE CREDITED A SCHOOLBOOK FOR SHAPING HIS VIEWS ON HUMAN RIGHTS.

Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

During his youth, Douglass obtained a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of essays, dialogues, and speeches on a range of subjects, including slavery. Published in 1797, the Orator was required reading for most schoolchildren in the 1800s and featured 84 selections from authors like Cicero and Milton. Abraham Lincoln was also influenced by the collection when he was first starting in politics.

3. HE TAUGHT OTHER SLAVES TO READ.

While he was hired out to a farmer named William Freeland, a teenaged Douglass taught fellow slaves to read the New Testament—but a mob of locals soon broke up the classes. Undeterred, Douglas began the classes again, sometimes teaching as many as 40 people.

4. HIS FIRST WIFE HELPED HIM ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY.

Portrait of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass's first wife.
First published in Rosetta Douglass Sprague's book My Mother As I Recall Her, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Anna Murray was an independent laundress in Baltimore and met Douglass at some point in the mid-1830s. Together they hatched a plan, and one night in 1838, Douglass took a northbound train clothed in a sailor's uniform procured by Anna, with money from her savings in his pocket alongside papers from a sailor friend. About 24 hours later, he arrived in Manhattan a free man. Anna soon joined him, and they married on September 15, 1838.

5. HE CALLED OUT HIS FORMER OWNER.

In an 1848 open letter in the newspaper he owned and published, The North Star, Douglass wrote passionately about the evils of slavery to his former owner, Thomas Auld, saying "I am your fellow man, but not your slave." He also inquired after his family members who were still enslaved a decade after his escape.

6. HE TOOK HIS NAME FROM A POEM.

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but after escaping slavery, Douglass used assumed names to avoid detection. Arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass, then using the surname "Johnson," felt there were too many other Johnsons in the area to distinguish himself. He asked his host (ironically named Nathan Johnson) to suggest a new name, and Mr. Johnson came up with Douglas, a character in Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake.

7. HE'S CALLED THE 19TH CENTURY'S MOST PHOTOGRAPHED AMERICAN.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are 160 separate portraits of Douglass, more than Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman, two other heroes of the 19th century. Douglass wrote extensively on the subject during the Civil War, calling photography a "democratic art" that could finally represent black people as humans rather than "things." He gave his portraits away at talks and lectures, hoping his image could change the common perceptions of black men.

8. HE REFUSED TO CELEBRATE THE 4TH OF JULY.

Douglass was well-known as a powerful orator, and his July 5, 1852 speech to a group of hundreds of abolitionists in Rochester, New York, is considered a masterwork. Entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," the speech ridiculed the audience for inviting a former slave to speak at a celebration of the country who enslaved him. "This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine," he famously said to those in attendance. "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?" Douglass refused to celebrate the holiday until all slaves were emancipated and laws like the Compromise of 1850, which required citizens (including northerners) to return runaway slaves to their owners, were negated.

9. HE RECRUITED BLACK SOLDIERS FOR THE CIVIL WAR.

The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Douglass was a famous abolitionist by the time the war began in 1861. He actively petitioned President Lincoln to allow black troops in the Union army, writing in his newspaper: "Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass worked tirelessly to enlist black soldiers, and two of his sons would join the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, famous for its contributions in the brutal battle of Fort Wagner.

10. HE SERVED UNDER FIVE PRESIDENTS.

Later in life, Douglass became more of a statesman, serving in highly appointed federal positions, including U.S. Marshal for D.C., Recorder of Deeds for D.C., and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first to appoint Douglass to a position in 1877, and Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison each sought his counsel in various positions as well.

11. HE WAS NOMINATED FOR VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.

As part of the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872, Douglass was nominated as a VP candidate, with Victoria Woodhull as the Presidential candidate. (Woodhull was the first-ever female presidential candidate, which is why Hillary Clinton was called "the first female presidential candidate from a major party" during the 2016 election.) However, the nomination was made without his consent, and Douglass never acknowledged it (and Woodhull's candidacy itself is controversial because she wouldn't have been old enough to be president on Inauguration Day). Also, though he was never a presidential candidate, he did receive one vote at each of two nomination conventions.

12. HIS SECOND MARRIAGE STIRRED UP CONTROVERSY.

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.
Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.

Two years after his first wife, Anna, died of a stroke in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white abolitionist and feminist who was 20 years younger than him. Even though she was the daughter of an abolitionist, Pitts's family (which had ancestral ties directly to the Mayflower) disapproved and disowned her—showing just how taboo interracial marriage was at the time. The black community also questioned why their most prominent spokesperson chose to marry a white woman, regardless of her politics. But despite the public's and their families' reaction, the Douglasses had a happy marriage and were together until his death in 1895 of a heart attack.

13. AFTER EARLY SUCCESS, HIS NARRATIVE WENT OUT OF PRINT.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, his seminal autobiography, was heralded a success when it came out in 1845, with some estimating that 5000 copies sold in the first few months; the book was also popular in Ireland and Britain. But post-Civil War, as the country moved toward reconciliation and slave narratives fell out favor, the book went out of print. The first modern publication appeared in 1960—during another important era for the fight for civil rights. It is now available for free online.

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