Necessary Sacrifices at Ford’s Theater
My wife and I cried at the ending of Necessary Sacrifices, a brand new play at Ford’s Theater about conversations between President Abraham Lincoln in the thick of the civil war and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This story about their guarded but growing friendship plays until Feb. 18.
It was fitting we saw this play Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month, and 151 years from the day Texas seceded from the Union, helping to cause that horrible war that cost at least 620,000 souls from a population of 35 million in 1865.
Historical records suggest there were three conversations between President Lincoln and Mr. Douglass. This play is an imaginative re-creation of these conversations, exploring the motivations and fears of these two patriots.
President Abe is portrayed as a wily yet humble country lawyer weighted down by the impossible burdens of being the President of a country ripped violently apart. Even though he also has his own backstabbing Cabinet and other domestic considerations, he keeps and uses his sense of humor as an adept weapon to disarm and recruit Frederick Douglass to support the Union cause.
Compared to Lincoln, about whom the only man who has more books written about him in the English language is Jesus Christ himself (!), we know somewhat less about Frederick Douglass, though he was an editor and there are many original documents. We know he was born into slavery on the eastern shore of Maryland, escaped, changed his name and was a self-educated eloquent writer, orator, and like Lincoln, a self-made man. So who were these men, besides being bearded, over 6′ tall and fathers, and more importantly, what did they want from each other?
The play raised many more questions. There was a failed movement to sends the newly emancipated slaves to Haiti! Anywhere but next door, many 1865 white Americans may have thought, maybe an original NIMBY? It was a long time between the idea of emancipation and the concept of a peacefully coexisting multiracial society here in the US. And for more than a few, it still is hard to swallow, unfortunately. The DC Emancipation Proclamation, issued 9 months before the national Emancipation Proclamation (freeing the slaves in the South, only), had sentences compensating slave owners AND giving $100. for any African American deported to any foreign country!
The play begins with the first meeting between Douglass and Lincoln at The White House where Douglass is angry with Lincoln over unequal pay for the black Union troops. There was a known Confederate order, “Any African Americans under arms will be killed when captured.” and Douglass was bitterly enraged when he heard about several battles where this policy was carried out and Negroes were slaughtered. He expects equal retaliation for summary execution of captured black soldiers: direct execution of captured Confederate prisoners
President Lincoln needed African-American help to win the civil war. The Contrabands, fugitive slaves now in the Union were employed by the Army and for a variety of uses and thus allowed white Union soldiers to be employed for other duties
And Sec. of War Stanton said to Douglass that he would make him an Officer in the Union Army? Lincoln wanted Douglass to help with recruitment of African-Americans. 209 thousand African Americans fought for the Union (this figure from the new African-American Civil War Museum Director Frank Smith on C-SPAN.) In 1800 there were 1 million slaves in the South. In 1865 there were 4 million slaves, so slavery wasn’t dying under its own weight. It had to be killed.
I heard from a very respected guide with perhaps latent sympathies toward the Old South suggest that the reason Douglass went to England was to avoid prosecution (or worse, lynching) because he was in favor of eye-for-an-eye Old Testament violent retribution against slavery and that John Brown inspired him to such violence.
Park Ranger Braden Paynter, who works at Douglass’ home atop Anacostia, Cedar Hill, and recently at the MLK Memorial, told me the reason for FD’s first trip to England was because in his original autobiography he was a fugitive slave. He named his original owners and revealed his own name. Slave hunters were after him. Douglass fled to Europe twice, first as a fugitive slave. Later, his friends purchased his freedom and he returned to the USA. Then, over a decade later, Douglass had to flee because of his association with John Brown.
Abolitionist John Brown had an idea for a sort of armed Underground Railroad to foment insurrection in the South. Then Brown thought to raid the Federal Arsenal in Harper’s Ferry to provide weapons for this proposed slave revolt. Douglass doesn’t think it is a good plan but when Brown was captured after the unsuccessful raid, papers are found on captured Brown with Douglass’ name. There is a letter to his son that said,” Go to my roll top desk and burn certain papers.”
So both Douglass needed Lincoln and Lincoln needed Douglass, both were limited in what they could actually do. If politics is the art of the possible, Lincoln needed Douglass to push the envelope, to “agitate, agitate, agitate” for abolition and freedom. Douglass needed Lincoln to win the civil war and the elections to be able to do anything politically for freedom. The play is about the evolution in thinking of both men, and the evolution from a guarded friendship to an ardent respect.
Grateful kudos to Park Ranger Braden Paynter for fact-checking and Prof. Owen Muelder of Knox College, and writer Fergus Bordewich who helped me better understand the complexity of the answer to the question, “How many slaves actually escaped via the Underground Railroad?”