Black New Yorker to the Secretary of War

New York [N.Y.] April 18th 1864

Sir:  Some Sixty or Seventy thousand of my down trodden and despised brethren now wear the uniform of the United States and are bearing the gun and sword in protecting the life of this once great nation   with this in view I am emboldened to address a few words to you in their behalf if not in behalf of the government itself.  Jeff Davis issued a threat that black men fighting for the U.S. should not be treated as prisoners of war and the President issued a proclamation threatening retaliation.  Since then black soldiers have been murdered again and again yet where is there an instance of retaliation.  To be sure there has been a sort of secrecy about many of these slaughters of colored troops that prevented an official declaration to be made but there is now an open and bold murder,  an act following the proclaimed threat made in cold blood gives the government an opportunity to show the world whether the rebels or the U.S. have the strongest power.  If the murder of the colored troops at Fort Pillow is not followed by prompt action on the part of our government. it may as well disband all its colored troops for no soldiers whom the goverment will not protect can be depended upon   Now Sir if you will permit a colored man to give not exactly advice to your excellency but the expression of his fellow colored men so as to give them heart and courage to believe in their goverment you can do so by a prompt retaliation.  Let the same no. of rebel soldiers, privates and officers be selected from those now in confinement as prisoners of war captured at the west and let them be surrounded by two or three regiments of colored troops who may be allowed to open fire upon them in squads of 50 or 100, with howitzers loaded with grape.  The whole civilized world will approve of this necessary military execution and the rebels will learn that the U.S. Govt. is not to be trifled with and the black men will feel not a spirit of revenge for have they not often taken the rebels prisoners even their old masters without indulging in a fiendish spirit of revenge or exultation.  Do this sir promptly and without notice to the rebels at Richmond   when the execution has been made then an official declaration or explanation may be made.  If the threat is made first or notice given to the rebels they will set apart the same no. for execution.  Even that mild copperhead Reverdy Johnston avowed in a speech in the Senate that this govt. could only be satisfied with man for man as an act of retaliation.  This request or suggestion is not made in a spirit of vindicativeness but simply in the interest of my poor suffering confiding fellow negros who are even now assembling at Annapolis and other points to reinforce the army of the Union   Act first in this matter   afterward explain or threaten   the act tells   the threat or demand is regarded as idle.  I am Sir with great respect Your humble Servant.

Theodore Hodgkins

Theodore Hodgkins to E. M. Stanton, 18 Apr. 1864, H-868 1864, Letters Received, Secretary of War, Record Group 107, National Archives.

Published in The Black Military Experience, pp. 587–88, in Free at Last, pp. 465–66, and in Freedom's Soldiers, pp. 118–20.