“From Something Evil Good May Come”: Sojourner Truth and the Civil War


On April 28, 2009, the National Congress of Black Women recognized Sojourner Truth as the first African American woman represented by a bust in the US Capitol.[1] Almost all Americans know Sojourner Truth as a tireless fighter for African American and women’s rights. Born a slave in Ulster County, New York in approximately 1797, Truth escaped from slavery. She later petitioned successfully to free one of her sons, a remarkable feat in itself. She gained enough notoriety in her lifetime to speak personally with two US presidents. Though illiterate throughout her life, Truth was an activist, and a charismatic speaker, who protested slavery, racial inequality and women’s status for most of her long lifetime. Truth is perhaps best known for her activities in the women’s movement. She brought together the issues of race and gender like no other feminist in her 19th-century circle. This article considers Truth’s activities during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Prior to the Civil War, Truth was a pacifist. She associated with several utopian communities, including the interracial Kingdom of Matthias in Northampton, Massachusetts and the Society of Friends (Quakers) in Michigan. “The Northampton Association,” wrote biographer Carleton Mabee, “encouraged liberty of thought and speech. It had no religious creed, no antislavery creed, no nonresistance creed….” [2] Abolitionists in the area of this community attracted Truth’s attention, though, and she absorbed the principles of Garrisonian nonresistance. [3] She admired the society’s teachings so much that she loudly criticized Frederick Douglass when he announced that he thought slavery could only be destroyed by blood.

That, however, was before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Truth saw as early as the summer of 1863 that the war had set in motion events that would eventually free all slaves. [4] During the Civil War, Truth, and other nonresistant abolitionists (including, eventually, William Lloyd Garrison), rejected peaceful compromise with the slaveholding South. In fact, many hoped that the war would go on until both the Confederacy and slavery were completely obliterated.

Many dissented from this view. Quakers, pacifists and activists such as Ezra Heywood insisted that a government that could end slavery by violence could re-establish it the same way, if they wanted to. However, Black abolitionists almost unanimously supported the war.

Sojourner Truth actively recruited troops for the Union Army. In the Fall of 1863, when Michigan organized a black regiment, she walked around the town of Battle Creek, Michigan, collecting donations for a Thanksgiving dinner for the troops. When she delivered the goods, the colonel in charge of the troops allowed her to speak to the soldiers. She wrote a marching song, “The Valiant Soldiers,” for the First Michigan Colored Regiment. Her impassioned hymn, sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” expresses the views of many African Americans who chose to fight:

Look there above the center, where the flag is waving bright; We are going out of slavery; we are bound for freedom’s light; We mean to show Jeff Davis how the Africans can fight, As we go marching on! [5]

Truth’s own grandson, James Caldwell, enlisted in the Massachusetts 54th Regiment.

Sojourner made a trip to Washington, DC, in 1864 to thank President Lincoln for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and to persuade him to do more to aid freed slaves. While in Washington, she worked with freed slaves at a government refugee camp and was employed by the National Freedman’s Relief Association.

After the Civil War ended, she realized, as did many, that the best way freed slaves could help themselves was to have land. For the remainder of her life, she pushed for redistribution of land to freed slaves. In 1870, she tried to get land grants for former slaves from the federal government, and petitioned President Ulysses S. Grant personally.The government dragged its feet, frustrating her.

Then, in 1879, she witnessed large numbers of freed people migrating on their own from the South into the Kansas. Though aging and in ill health, Truth traveled to Kansas to support this group of “Exodusters.” [6]

At the unveiling ceremony for the bronze statue in the Capitol this past April, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke about memorializing Sojourner Truth and her legacy. “All the visitors in the US Capitol will hear the story of brave women who endured the greatest of humanity’s indignities (and who) used her powers to help others,” Obama said. [7] It is important to remember, however, that the most important of Truth’s dreams remains unfulfilled. Sojourner Truth’s revolutionary push to gain land, meaning real wealth and power, for the freed slaves did not succeed. Industrialists and Southern sympathizers circumvented and suppressed the most revolutionary parts of Radical Reconstruction in the United Sates. So, bronze bust notwithstanding, the best way to honor the legacy of Sojourner Truth is to work for true equality, for a distribution of wealth in this country that recognizes the dignity of all people.


1. Keck, Kristi, “Truth Comes to the U.S. Capitol,” CNN.com, April 29, 2009.
2. Mabee, Carleton. Black Freedom: The Nonviolent Abolitionists From 1830 Through the Civil War, The MacMillan Company, 1970, p. 83.
3. Abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison sought an immediate end to slavery, but insisted that this should be accomplished through civil disobedience, not violence.
4. Mabee, Carleton, “Sojourner Truth and President Lincoln.” The New England Quarterly 61:4 (Dec. 1988), p. 525-26.
5. Mabee, Carleton, and Susan Mabee Newhouse, Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend, New York: 1993., pp. 117-118.
6. Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. New York: 1996.
7. Obama, Michelle, Speech at unveiling of Sojourner Truth’s statue, Washington, D.C., April 28, 2009.