Blind to the Signs of the Times

Major General David Hunter, commanding the Federal Department of the South (i.e., South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida), occupied a section of the Atlantic coast between Charleston and Savannah. About 12,000 fugitive slaves had gathered in that area for Federal protection. Fearing that the Confederates were planning a massive effort to take the region back, Hunter declared martial law on April 25 and then set about recruiting the fugitives into the army.

Hunter informed a Treasury agent handling the fugitive slaves that he planned “to organize in squads and companies, and perhaps into a regiment, a portion of the negroes that have escaped bondage and have come into our lines… (and) to have them paid, fed, and clothed, as well as drilled, in the same manner with our other troops.” Hunter assured the agent that the War Department had granted him permission to do this.

When slaves still in bondage learned of Hunter’s plan, their masters told them that the Federals planned to ship them to Cuba. Consequently, few slaves risked escaping their plantations to volunteer for the army. Hunter responded by making army service compulsory. He notified Brigadier General Isaac Stevens, commanding the Federals at Port Royal, South Carolina:

“I am authorized by the War Department to form the negroes into ‘squads, companies, or otherwise,’ as I may deem most beneficial to the public service. I have concluded to enlist two regiments to be officered from the most intelligent and energetic of our non-commissioned officers; men who will go into it with all their hearts.”

Hunter asserted that he was acting in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s order to Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman, Hunter’s predecessor, authorizing the department command to organize freed slaves into “squads, companies, or otherwise.” But Hunter ignored the condition Lincoln had placed on the order: “This, however, not to mean a general arming of them for military service.”

Maj Gen David Hunter | Image Credit:

On May 9, Hunter issued General Orders Number 11: “Slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible. The persons in these States — Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina — heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.”

To force slaves off the plantations and into the army, Hunter ordered his six district commanders “to send immediately to these headquarters, under a guard, all the able-bodied negroes capable of bearing arms within the limits of their several commands.”

Hunter thus became the first American military commander in the nation’s history to not only free slaves but to draft freedmen into the army as well. Federal troops quickly set about taking slaves from nearby plantations and forcing them into Federal service. Many slaves fled from the troops, prompting Hunter to relent and allow slaves who did not want to join the army to stay on their plantations.

Meanwhile, news of Hunter’s order made its way to Washington, where Hunter’s superiors had not authorized him to issue such a directive. Treasury agent Edward L. Pierce in Hunter’s department wrote to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase informing him of Hunter’s decree. Chase notified Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who tacitly approved Hunter’s order by ignoring it.

Lincoln learned about the order from the newspapers. This was the third time that a subordinate had tried issuing an emancipation edict without first consulting him (Major General John C. Fremont and former Secretary of War Simon Cameron had done so in 1861). Lincoln objected because Hunter had not asked for approval beforehand. And even though Hunter enjoyed political support from the influential Radical Republicans in Congress, they would not back his order because he had not sought their permission beforehand either.

But Stanton and Chase remained on Hunter’s side. Chase wrote Lincoln on the 16th that it was “of the highest importance… that this Order not be revoked. It has been made as a military measure, to meet a military exigency…” Stanton worried that with major military campaigns looming, black recruitment may become a necessity. When he asked Massachusetts Governor John Andrew for four new regiments, Andrew replied that he could not persuade men to volunteer who had not already done so. “But,” Andrew added, “if the President will sustain General Hunter, recognize all men, even black men, as legally capable of that loyalty the blacks are waiting to manifest, and let them fight, with God and human nature on their side, the roads will swarm if need be with multitudes whom New England would pour out to obey your call.”

Despite the political pressure, Lincoln responded to Chase, “No commanding general shall do such a thing, upon my responsibility, without consulting me.” Most northerners still opposed slave emancipation, if only because they feared that freed slaves might come north and compete for their jobs. As such, Lincoln was concerned that northern sentiment could quickly turn against the war if its cause changed from preserving the Union to freeing slaves. However, he reserved the right as commander in chief to liberate slaves as a war measure if such a need would arise.

On the 19th, Lincoln publicly ordered Hunter to rescind his proclamation and declared it “altogether void.” The president asserted that he had no prior “knowledge, information, or belief of an intention on the part of General Hunter to issue such a proclamation,” and no military officer could “make proclamations declaring the slaves of any State free.” He explained:

“I further make known that, whether it be competent for me as commander-in-chief of the army and navy to declare the slaves of any State or States free, and whether at any time or in any case it shall have become a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the Government to examine such supposed power, are questions which under my responsibility, I reserve to myself, and which I can not feel justified in leaving to the decision of commanders in the field.”

Though Lincoln still would not allow military commanders to free slaves, this marked the first time that he publicly entertained the idea that he, as commander in chief, may have the power to free slaves if such a need would “become a necessity indispensable.” Prior to this, Lincoln had consistently maintained that he had no authority to do such a thing, since slavery was an institution regulated by the states. Lincoln did allow that Hunter “would employ all colored men as laborers, but would not promise to make soldiers of them.”

As Lincoln voided Hunter’s edict, he issued another call for the border states to voluntarily free their slaves. This included an even stronger warning that the time may come when Lincoln would free their slaves whether they liked it or not. He reminded the border congressmen that he had asked Congress to pass a joint resolution allowing for gradual, compensated, voluntary emancipation, which he called “an authentic, definite, and solemn proposal of the nation to the States and people most immediately interested.” Now, it was “to the people of those states I now earnestly appeal.” The president went on:

“I do not argue–I beseech you to make arguments for yourselves. You can not if you would, be blind to the signs of the times. I beg of you a calm and enlarged consideration of them, ranging, if it may be, far above personal and partisan politics. This proposal makes common cause for a common object, casting no reproaches upon any. It acts not the pharisee. The change it contemplates would come gently as the dews of heaven, not rending or wrecking anything. Will you not embrace it? So much good has not been done, by one effort, in all past time, as in the providence of God it is now your high privilege to do. May the vast future not have to lament that you have neglected it.”

Border state politicians who had ignored Lincoln’s initial pleas to accept this program continued to do so. Some argued that the Federal government had no constitutional authority to invoke such a program. Others gambled on George B. McClellan capturing Richmond and ending the war before freeing the slaves became a military necessity. McClellan, an opponent of Federal interference with slavery, wrote to his wife, “I am very glad that the Presdt has come out as he did about Hunter’s order–I feared he would not have the moral courage to do so.”

Still, Hunter believed that Lincoln had privately supported the proclamation, even if he had to publicly repudiate it. Hunter later wrote, “I believe he rejoined in my action.”


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