Men of Color To Arms

Should Free African Americans Support the Union Cause?

What was in it for them? Initially nothing, as Lincoln declined to declare the end of slavery as a goal. But the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 changed all that, as did an upsurge in slaves who abandoned the plantations and flocked to Union lines to help out however they could. As early as July 1862, Congress authorized the President to make use of slaves as he saw fit, and in New Orleans and South Carolina some had already been recruited into impromptu regiments. And in Virginia,


General Benjamin Butler had declared fleeing slaves to be contraband of war, setting them to work supporting Union troops rather than returning them to their rebel masters. African American leaders like Philadelphia’s young educator Octavius Catto and elder statesman Frederick Douglass believed that if African Americans could convince the North to arm black regiments, their valor could overcome Northern racial prejudice and lead to emancipation and black freedom. They agitated vigorously for the right to fight for the Union. Massachusetts took the lead and organized the famous 54th Regiment of Colored Troops. In June of 1863 the War Department authorized the raising of "Colored Regiments," and by volunteering blacks took another step in their revolutionary political evolution from slave to contraband to soldier to freedman to citizen.

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Order of Arrangement for the Consecration of the Soldiers’ Cemetery… (Philadelphia, 1863).

Men of Color of Philadelphia! (Philadelphia, 1863).

In the face of the impending Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania in June of 1863, the young African American educator and activist Octavius Catto worked to organize a black regiment for defense of the state. When they arrived in Harrisburg they were turned back. State authorities were not yet ready or willing to accept black soldiers. This rallying cry is signed by forty-five Philadelphia African American leaders – clergymen, educators, businessmen – joined by Frederick Douglass, touring the north encouraging African American enlistment.

Men of the Washington Grays. Alumen print photograph (Philadelphia, 1861).

Men of Color! To Arms! To Arms! (Philadelphia, 1863).


On June 22nd the Adjutant-General of the Army authorized the recruitment of “three Regiments of Infantry, to be composed of colored men.” On July 6 a mass meeting of African Americans ratified the text of this dramatic broadside, printed on three joined sheets. Frederick Douglass, still busy in town, joined fifty-three local leaders in signing the call to arms.

E. W. Carryl, Army and Navy Goods (Philadelphia, 1861).


Phillip Wilson & Co., The Soldier’s Friend (Philadelphia, 1861).

Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments, Freedom to the Slave. Colored lithograph. (Philadelphia, 1863 or 1864).


The reverse of this dramatic illustration is a recruiting poster. From its reference to emancipation, and the phrase urging “colored men” to come “to the nearest United States Camp,” (rather than any specific camp) suggests this handbill may have been circulated by Union troops in the South
R. Newell & Son, Ordnance Dept. Phila. Navy Yard . Albumen print photograph (Philadelphia, ca.1862).

Tom Craig, Colored Volunteer (Philadelphia, 1863).

This is one of several song sheets McAllister collected celebrating the valor of the colored volunteers.

Parr’s Patent American Camp Chest (Philadelphia, 1861).

Addresses of the Hon. W. D. Kelley, Miss Anna E. Dickinson, and Mr. Frederick Douglass, at a Mass Meeting, held at National Hall, Philadelphia, July 6, 1863, for The Promotion Of Colored Enlistments (Philadelphia, 1863).


Abolitionist Congressman William D. Kelley and fiery orator Anna E. Dickinson join Frederick Douglass and African American community leaders in this spirited rally to encourage African American enlistment

R. B. Fitts, E. P. Thornburgh, and William Stacy, The Army Feed and Water Bucket (Philadelphia, 1861).

Nick Biddle. Albumen print carte-de-visite (1864).


Nick Biddle of Pottsville was a long-time member of the local militia. His unit was mobilized into the First Defenders and sent to Washington to guard the capital. On April 18, while marching through Baltimore, his unit was attacked by a mob throwing rocks and bricks, and Biddle suffered a severe head wound. This photograph of the elderly Biddle was sold at the Great Central Fair in June, 1864.

James Robinson, The American Watch (Philadelphia, 1861).

Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments, No Person Is Wanted as an Officer in a Colored Regiment who “feels that he is making a sacrifice in accepting a position in a Colored Regiment” . . . . (Philadelphia, 1863).


The Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments, largely the creation of the Union League, coordinated African American enlistments and raised funds for the colored regiments. Their anti-racist attitude is evident in this admonition to would-be white officers.

Chas. Laing & Co., Military Dress Hats and Fatigue Caps (Philadelphia, 1861).

24th Regiment. U.S.C.T. [i.e., United States Colored Troops] at Camp Wm: Penn. Albumen print photograph(Philadelphia, 1863).

C. B. Coventry, To The Volunteers- an Old Soldier’s Advice (Philadelphia, 1861).

Attention. Unprecedented Attraction. Grand Musical Soiree Dansante at the Franklin Hall (Philadelphia, 1863).


Mary L. Brown and her association of African American ladies sponsored this evening of music and dancing to raise funds for a regimental flag for the First Colored Troop recently sent into combat. Music was provided by Joseph Anderson, successor to Philadelphia’s famous African American band leader and composer Francis Johnson.

Soldier’s Vote (New York?, 1864).

United States Army, Adjutant General’s Office Washington,  June 22d, 1863, Sir: I am instructed by the Secretary of War to inform you that you are hereby authorized  . . . to raise in Philadelphia, or the eastern  part of Pennsylvania, three Regiments of  Infantry, to be composed of colored men . . .  (Washington, 1863).

View of the Reception of the 29th Regiment Published for the Benefit of the Cooper Shop Soldiers’ Home. Colored lithograph (Philadelphia, 1863).

P. S. Duval & Sons. United States Soldiers at Camp William Penn. Chromolithograph(Philadelphia, 1864).


Local African American regiments trained at Camp William Penn, in Cheltenham Township, just north of the city. Shown here are men of Company G of the 25th Regiment United States Colored Troops, one of a dozen African American regiments that trained here.

Robert P. King. An Appeal on Behalf of the “Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home” (Philadelphia, 1863?).

James Paul Cobbett,  An Answer to the Manchester Southern Club, or Southern Independence Association (Manchester, 1863).

Cooper Shop Soldier’s Home (Philadelphia, 1863).

Corrected galley proofs for An Answer to the Manchester Southern Club.


With emancipation established as a war goal, British abolitionists mobilized to check the movement by textile manufacturers to recognize the Confederacy. This rare pamphlet is part of that agitation, one of only three known surviving copies, and the only one in the United States. It was given to us in 1864. We don’t know how McAllister acquired the corrected galley proofs for this rarity.

John L. Magee, View of the encampment of the Corn Exchange Regiment 118th. Penn. Vols. near Falls of Schuylkill Colored lithograph (Philadelphia, 1863).

Henry Louis Stephens, Story of a Slave. Chromolithographed cards (Philadelphia, 1863).


These twelve collecting cards illustrate the story of a slave, from the plantation, to his escape, enlistment in the Union Army, and death on the battlefield. They are among the many illustrated works by Philadelphia artist Henry Louis Stephens. Other examples of his work are also displayed.

Continental Cavalry! Col. J. E. Peyton: To horse! To horse! An opportunity is offered to all bold and daring men to engage in this most attractive species of military service (Philadelphia, 1861).


Rally for the defense of the city! Robeson Guards! Union league regiment! Now organizing for the defense of the city against rebel invaders (Philadelphia, 1863).


Irish Brigade! 2nd Regiment, Col. Robert Emmett Patterson. Recruits wanted for Company A, Two dollars bounty paid to each man on being mustered in (Philadelphia, 1861 or 1862).


Achtung! Achtung! Russel-Garde Leichte Infanterie! (Philadelphia, 1862 or 1863).


W. C. Whiteman, Soldiers’ Philadelphia City Messenger Company (Philadelphia, 1863?).  
Jos. H. Jefferies, Metallic Coffins (Philadelphia, 1863).