In the Defense of the Republic

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The American Civil War had cost more than 620,000 lives and had nearly torn the nation apart, but by May 1865 it was finally over. To celebrate, thousands of people gathered in Washington, D.C., to express their gratitude to the military forces that had made the Union victory possible. More than 200,000 Union troops paraded through the city in this Grand Review—but only white troops participated. Even though more than 185,000 African American soldiers had served the Union cause and suffered disproportionately high casualty rates in battle, black soldiers were not invited to the Washington celebration.

Several months later, the citizens of Pennsylvania, a state that had sent 11 black regiments to the war, tried to make up for that injustice. On November 14 the city of Harrisburg hosted its own Grand Review of black troops in the Pennsylvania capital. Thomas Morris Chester, the city’s most distinguished African American, served as grand marshal.

He had served as a war correspondent for the Philadelphia Press and had reported fi rsthand about the roles played by black fighting men. “This land of our birth is, if possible, more endeared to us, and rendered ours more rightfully by the courage of the colored soldiers in its defense,” he wrote.

The war in which those men had defended their country arose from generations of unsuccessful efforts to deal with the nation’s most critical contradiction: the presence of slavery in a land that had declared its commitment to human freedom in the Declaration of Independence. By the mid-19th century, American slavery had become a significant part of the national economy, although it was largely concentrated in the South, where almost 4 million blacks lived in bondage. By midcentury the "Free Soil" movement had emerged from the efforts of free blacks and their white abolitionist allies in the North to prevent slavery from expanding into the western territories. The Republican Party, founded in 1854, opposed slavery’s spread, but Republicans did not fi ght vigorously against the institution where it already existed.

Most blacks were encouraged, however, when the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency in 1860. Although he was not a noted abolitionist, Lincoln strongly opposed the spread of slavery into the territories. He also criticized the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case, which declared that African Americans, both free and enslaved, were not citizens of the United States.

Most white Southerners interpreted Lincoln’s election as a threat to slavery, their central economic and social institution. In December 1860 South Carolina issued a proclamation of secession, quickly followed by the secessions of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. In February 1861 these seven states formed the Confederate States of America, a new nation constructed to protect individual property rights, especially those of slaveholders. Weeks later Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina also threatened to secede. Many free African Americans in the North welcomed these developments, believing that Southern secession would remove slavery from the federal government’s protection. H. Ford Douglass, a former Virginia slave, expressed the feelings of most Northern blacks. “Stand not upon the order of your going,” he challenged, “but go at once . . . there is no union of ideas and interests in the country, and there can be no union between freedom and slavery.”

President Lincoln reacted cautiously to Southern secession. In his inaugural address in early March 1861 he fi rmly opposed the right of states to secede. Yet he reassured slaveholders by saying, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” Nevertheless, on April 12, 1861, Confederate batteries in Charleston Harbor opened fi re on the federal Fort Sumter and launched the fi rst combat of the Civil War. Lincoln immediately issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to serve in the U.S. military and quash the Southern rebellion.

Within days approximately 475 Pennsylvania volunteers set out from Harrisburg for Washington, D.C., to protect the nation’s capital. Among these “First Defenders” was Nicholas Biddle, a 65-year-old man who had escaped slavery in Delaware, took refuge in Philadelphia, and fi nally found employment as a servant in Pottsville. He had an interest in the city’s militia units, but Biddle could not enlist as a soldier because he was black. Still, he served as an aide to Capt. James Wren, the commander of an artillery company, and he marched with the men when they left for Washington. On the way through Baltimore, a mob attacked the soldiers. One of the rioters hurled a brick that struck Biddle in the face, making him “the fi rst man wounded in the Great American Rebellion,” as a wartime photograph described him.