Yet, even as they fought for their country and freedom, the men struggled for equal pay and recognition for valor from white officers and fellow soldiers. In summer 1863, abolitionist Frederick Douglass met with the president about their treatment. Lincoln “listened with patience and silence to all I had to say,” Douglass wrote in his autobiography, “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.”
“He began by saying that the employment of colored troops at all was a great gain to the colored people; . . . that they had larger motives for being soldiers than white men; that they ought to be willing to enter the service upon any conditions; that the fact that they were not to receive the same pay as white soldiers, seemed a necessary concession to smooth the way to their employment at all as soldiers; but that ultimately they would receive the same.”
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But if Lincoln sometimes disappointed, at other times he demonstrated a powerful kinship.
Mary Dines was a former slave who lived at Camp Barker, on the route between the White House and the Soldiers’ Home where Lincoln stayed during the summers.
Aunt Mary, as she was known, gave several contemporary accounts of her encounters with the president. (Some scholars have doubted her accounts, questioning the frequency of Lincoln’s visits.) Once, at a performance for visiting dignitaries, she said, Lincoln stood not with the visitors but beside the camp’s elders.
As they sang, she saw him “wiping the tears off his face with his bare hands.”
“[M]any of the real old folks forgot about the president being present and began to shout and yell, but he didn’t laugh at them, but stood like a stone and bowed his head.”
In a “sweet voice” that sounded “so sad,” he joined the chorus. “Lincoln did just like everybody else,” Dines said. “He was no president when he came to camp.
“He stood and sang and prayed just like all the rest of the people.”
This story was included in a Washington Post special section, “Ripples of War.” See more stories on the Civil War.