A few years back I purchased the above image printed in poster form from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. On the poster is small paragraph of text which notes it being a Civil War recruiting poster from 1863. It is certainly a striking image which shows past (slavery), present (soldiers), and future (freedom) scenes, and would seemingly have been effective for recruiting those who might not be literate. But in all of my reading on USCTs, I had never come in contact with its use in the field.
Well, that changed with my latest read. Looking for books by eminent historian John Hope Franklin, I came across The Diary of James T. Ayers: Civil War Recruiter. Franklin edited the diary for publication by the Illinois State Historical Society in 1947. Fortunately, Louisiana State University Press reprinted it in 1999.
James T. Ayers's diary recounts his experiences in Alabama and Tennessee attempting to get slaves to enlist in the numerous USCT regiments, brigades, and divisions forming there in 1863 and 1864. Ayers was born in Kentucky, but had moved with his family to Ohio as a child and as a young man to Illinois. There he apparently developed a disdain for the institution of slavery. But, although he abhorred the "peculiar institution," he did not believe in the equality of the races or refrain from using racist terms. In fact, one is surprised by the number of times Ayers uses the n-word instead of the more refrained "negro" or "colored."
On the May 7, 1864, entry Ayers commented on encountering a situation in which he used the above image in his recruiting work. Near Huntsville, Alabama, Ayers came upon a group of slaves on a Mr. Eldridge's plantation. The recruiter conversed with the enslaved men for a few minutes asking about their master and their situation. After a few minutes of talking they told Ayers they had to get back to work or suffer the consequences. Ayers informed them that according to President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, they were free. As Ayers described it from here:
"'Bress God,' said two or three voices as the same time.
'Well children, see here' getting off my horse then and handing them one of my Recruiting Pictures. 'Here is what Father Abraham is doin for you' showing them the Darky in Center with flagstaff flag waving and on the write [right], men knocking off the chains from the slaves wrists and some Just has got Loose and hands stretched upward shouting and Praising God for there Deliverance and on the left side A free school in full Operation with miriads of Little Darkies Each with his book . . . . '"
Ayers explained that on the opposite side of the image was the message:
ALL SLAVES were made FREEMEN
BY ABRAHAM LINCOLN,
President of the United States,
January 1st, 1863.
Come, then, able- bodied COLORED MEN, to the nearest U. S.
Camp and fight for the
STARS AND STRIPES!
After speaking with the men, Ayers encountered Eldridge as well as his daughter, whose husband was off in the Confederate army. After verbally sparring with both, Ayers rode off with four of Eldridge's slaves and two others from a neighboring farm. He had them enlisted in a Tennessee USCT regiment.