Lewis Henry Douglass, If I Die, I Die in a Good Cause
By Graham Warder, Ph.D., Keene State College
The story of Frederick Douglass is well known. The story of his son, Lewis, is less so. Frederick Douglass was the most important African American of the nineteenth century. His autobiographies, the first of which was published in 1845, when Lewis was five and living in New Bedford, Massachusetts, are both literary classics and invaluable historical sources. His career as an abolitionist helped to pressure Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. In the Proclamation, Lincoln declared people enslaved in areas still controlled by the Confederacy free. He also declared “that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States.” African Americans rushed to take up arms against the South.
For the rest of war, Frederick Douglass worked tirelessly to recruit African American men to enlist to fight for the Union and to destroy slavery. Two of his sons, Lewis and Charles, volunteered to fight. On March 25, Lewis Henry Douglass joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the most famous African American unit of the war and the one immortalized in the film Glory. He was named the regiment’s sergeant major, the highest rank then permitted to an African American man.
Lewis Douglass fought at the Battle of Fort Wagner, a decisive turning point in how white Northerners viewed Black soldiers and one commemorated in the pages of Harper’s Weekly. Just before the battle on July 18, 1863, that killed or wounded about half of his regiment, including its commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, Lewis wrote a letter to his future wife, Helen Amelia Loguen, which described the costly first attempt to take the fort. Though he was unhurt in that engagement, he feared that he might be killed in the next assault on the fort, but he also recognized how crucial it was to have African American men help to defeat the Confederacy. Lewis Douglass wrote, “My Dear girl I hope again to see you. I must bid you farewell should I be killed. Remember if I die I die in a good cause. I wish we had a hundred thousand colored troops we would put an end to this war.”
In the Battle of Fort Wagner, Lewis Douglass didn’t die, but he was badly wounded. That wound and the illness that followed ultimately caused him to leave the military “by reason of disability” on February 29, 1864.
The description of his injury makes for difficult reading. He was examined by Dr. James McCune Smith, the first African American to receive a medical degree, on October 6, 1863, in New York City. Smith wrote that Douglass “was very ill with diarrhea, cachexy [cachexia] and spontaneous gangrene of left half of scrotum. He continues [to be] seriously ill at the present date, the slough having separated leaving the part named entirely divided: he is too feeble to be safely removed from this city and, in our judgement, several months must elapse before he will be able to do even the lightest military duty.” On March 2, 1864, an Assistant Surgeon of U.S. Army in Boston wrote, “I certify that I have carefully examined the said Lewis H. Douglass and find him incapable of performing the duties of a soldier because of a scrotal gangrenous now a fistulous opening.” How much pain and discomfort Lewis Douglass felt after such a traumatic injury is difficult to determine. Though disabled by the war, he did not apply for a disability pension.
Before the war, in Rochester, New York, Lewis Douglass had been a printer and typesetter, working to help produce his father’s newspapers, The North Star and Douglass’ Weekly. After the war, Douglass returned to that occupation and became the first African American to work as a typesetter at the Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C. He did not work there for long, though, because of the racially discriminatory policies of the typesetters’ union. For the rest of his life, Lewis Douglass remained active in Washington, D.C., politics.
After suffering a stroke that incapacitated him, Lewis Douglass finally received a disability pension on February 2, 1904. He died in Washington, D.C., on September 19, 1908.
Greene, Robert Ewell, Swamp Angels: A Biographical Sketch of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. BoMark/Greene Publishing Group, 1990.
“Lewis Henry Douglass,” The Civil War in American, The Library of Congress. https://loc.gov/exhibits/civil-war-in-america/biographies/lewis-henry-douglass.html