One of the unique aspects of the Museum is its ability to tell the history of both the city and the nation through its remarkable collection. At times, these histories intersect in surprising ways that deepen our knowledge and appreciation of past efforts to advance human freedom and equality. One such example is the note Abraham Lincoln sent to Secretary of State William H. Seward on January 1, 1863, ordering him to affix the United States seal to the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln’s note will be on view at the Museum beginning this Friday, January 4, in the Unexpected Chicago display case on the first floor. Although the note is most definitely a piece of American history, it also has connections to Chicago.
Abraham Lincoln’s order to affix the United States seal to the Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863
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Issued by Lincoln in the midst of the American Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation declared freedom for more than three million African American slaves. Lincoln’s revolutionary decree also authorized the recruitment of black soldiers into Northern forces. Over the ensuing months, tens of thousands of African American men joined the Union Army and Navy. By war’s end, about 190,000 African Americans served in uniform. Most were former Southern slaves, but free blacks in the North also enlisted, including many from Chicago.
Recruitment in Chicago began on April 30, 1863, with a large rally at Quinn Chapel, an African American church located on Jackson Street. John Jones, a local tailor and well-known abolitionist, presided over the meeting and appealed to fellow blacks to enlist, but ironically, he could not tell them to join a home regiment as Illinois’ notorious black laws forbade African Americans from serving in the military. Instead, Jones urged them to join the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, which accepted recruits from other states to fill its ranks. Working closely with Jones was Martin R. Delaney, a noted black abolitionist and nationalist. In the 1850s, Delaney had urged African Americans to emigrate to Africa, but when the Civil War broke out, he enlisted in the Union Army. Delaney played a key role in raising the Fifty-Fourth and other black regiments for the North.
The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts became one of the most famous regiments in Civil War history. Generations later, the award-winning film Glory recounted its stirring history for modern audiences, but John Jones is not mentioned. This is not surprising, given his minor role in the regiment’s history, but anyone interested in learning more about Jones can visit the Museum, where his portrait hangs on the second floor in the exhibition Lincoln’s Chicago. We do not know if Jones and Lincoln were personal friends, but Jones served as an honorary pallbearer for the fallen president’s Chicago funeral in May 1865. Today, he lies buried in Graceland Cemetery next to his wife, Mary, who also played an active role in the long campaign to end American slavery.