Category Archives: Slavery

Confederate Slave Recruitment

March 13, 1865 – Confederate President Jefferson Davis signed a bill into law authorizing the recruitment of slaves into the Confederate armies.

The bill had passed the Confederate House of Representatives last month but was defeated in the Senate by one vote. Both Virginia senators voted against the bill. The Virginia legislature then passed its own black military recruitment bill (without offering freedom to slaves who enlisted) and directed its senators to push a re-vote. In the re-vote on the 8th, the bill narrowly passed, 9 to 8. Several senators abstained.

Two days later, General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee requested that Davis approve the measure as soon as Congress reconciled the final version, stating, “I attach great importance to the result of the first experiment with these troops…”

The law, officially titled “A Bill to Increase the Military Forces of the Confederate States,” contained five sections:

  1. The President be and is hereby authorized to ask for and accept from the owners of slaves the services of such number of able bodied negro men as he may deem expedient for and during the war, to perform military service in whatever capacity he may direct.
  2. That the General-in-Chief be authorized to organize the said slaves into companies, battalions, regiments, and brigades, under such rules and regulations as the Secretary of War may prescribe, and to be commanded by such officers as the President may appoint.
  3. That while employed in the service the said troops shall receive the same rations, clothing, and compensation as are allowed to other troops in the same branch of the service.
  4. That if, under the previous section of this act, the President shall not be able to raise a sufficient number of troops to prosecute the war successfully and maintain the sovereignty of the States and the independence of the Confederate States, then he is hereby authorized to call on each State, whenever he thinks it expedient, for her quota of 300,000 troops in addition to those subject to military service under existing laws, or so many thereof as the President may deem necessary to be raised from such classes of the population, irrespective of color, in each State, as the proper authorities thereof may determine. Provided, that not more than 25 per cent of the male slaves between the ages of 18 and 45 in any State shall be called for under the provisions of this act.
  5. That nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners, except by the consent of their owners and of the states in which they may reside, and in pursuance of the laws thereof.

Adhering to the Confederate Constitution’s protection of states’ rights, Congress deferred to slaveholders and their state legislatures to decide whether to offer freedom to slaves for their service. This fell far short of what Major General Patrick R. Cleburne had proposed in January 1864, and it disappointed both Lee and Davis, who felt that any slave who fought for the Confederate cause should be automatically freed. Moreover, slaves would not be given the choice to volunteer; rather, their owners would hand them over upon request for mandatory service.

Despite these provisions, most officials acknowledged that freedom would most likely be granted to all who served, and therefore Davis ultimately approved the measure. In granting his endorsement, Davis took the opportunity to criticize Congress for taking so long to act on this matter. Davis then wrote to Lee:

“I am in receipt of your favor in regard to the bill for putting negroes in the army. The bill was received from the Congress to-day and was immediately signed. I shall be pleased to receive such suggestions from you as will aid me in carrying out the law, and I trust you will endeavor in every available mode to give promptitude to the requisite action.”

It remained unknown whether slaveholders would be willing to send their slaves into combat. It was also unknown whether slaves would be willing combatants. According to an article in a black newspaper:

“Secret associations were at once organized in Richmond, which rapidly spread throughout Virginia… it was decided with great unanimity, and finally ratified by all the auxiliary associations everywhere, that black men should promptly respond to the call of the Rebel chiefs, whenever it should be made, for them to take up arms… if they were placed in front as soon as the battle began the Negroes were to raise a shout about Abraham Lincoln and the Union, and, satisfied there would be plenty of supports from the Federal force, they were to turn like uncaged tigers upon the rebel hordes. Should they be placed in the rear, it was also understood, that as soon as firing began, they were to charge furiously upon the chivalry, which would place them between two fires; which would disastrously defeat the army of Lee, if not accomplish its entire annihilation.”

Within a week, a new battalion of white hospital convalescents and black hospital orderlies marched to Richmond’s Capitol Square to the strains of “Dixie” and began drilling. Confederate officials did not intend for these troops to see combat, but only to encourage other slaves to join the cause. However, as Davis noted, Congress had waited too long to enact the measure for it to help the Confederate war effort, as few slaves joined the Confederate armies before the war ended. A further measure authorizing the recruitment of teenagers and the elderly also accomplished little.

—–

References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 208; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 545-46; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 18003-23; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 563, 565; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 648-50; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 836-37; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 473; Robertson, Jr., James I., Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 35; SonOfTheSouth.net; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition, 2012), Q165; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 363

The Freedmen’s Bureau

March 3, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law establishing the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, which became known as the Freedmen’s Bureau.

By this time, it was clear that both the war and slavery would soon end, and a government program would be needed to help transition slaves to freedom. The bill creating such a program was based on the findings of the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, which had been formed by the War Department in 1863.

The bill’s passage had been delayed by debate over whether the program belonged under the War or Treasury Department. The Radical Republicans who dominated Congress wanted the Bureau under the Treasury Department because it was headed by their close ally, Salmon P. Chase. But after Chase resigned last June, the Radicals agreed to place it under the War Department. Major General Oliver O. Howard, currently commanding the Army of the Tennessee under William T. Sherman, later became head of the new agency.

The Freedmen’s Bureau consolidated the efforts of many local organizations in becoming the first social welfare agency in U.S. history. Bureau agents were authorized to take “control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen from rebel States.” This included providing temporary food, clothing, and shelter to over four million former slaves with no jobs, money, homes, or education. To avoid accusations of granting preferential treatment to blacks, the Bureau offered aid to poor southern whites as well (but few accepted). Bureau agents also adjudicated disputes between blacks and whites since blacks could not testify against whites in most American courts.

A Freedmen’s Bureau School | Image Credit: LatinAmericanStudies.org

Agents were empowered to seize some 800,000 acres of “abandoned” or confiscated land in the Confederacy, border states, the District of Columbia, and the Indian Territory. From this land, former slaves would “be assigned not more than forty acres” to rent for three years, after which time they could buy the land if desired, with “such title thereto as the United States can convey.” This caused a constitutional problem because Congress had no power to grant bills of attainder, while the president had powers to pardon former Confederates and return their property.

Radicals strongly supported the confiscation and redistribution of Confederate property as punishment for secession. Radical Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the Bureau law’s sponsor, sought to make the agency a permanent cabinet post, but Congress instead gave it a one-year term, starting at war’s end.

Southern whites resented Bureau agents because many acted for political rather than humanitarian purposes. Since most agents were Republicans, they worked to ensure that freed slaves also became Republicans in a region where white Democrats comprised the majority of property owners and taxpayers. Even some free blacks expressed concern about such unprecedented Federal control over life, liberty, and property; civil rights leader Frederick Douglass feared that government aid could “serve to keep up the very prejudices, which it is so desirable to banish” by granting blacks special treatment over whites.

Despite criticisms, the Bureau issued some 150,000 rations per day throughout the summer. It also helped set up thousands of elementary, industrial, and technical schools during its existence. But as for the Federal promise of “forty acres and a mule” to each freed slave family, only about 3,500 blacks in South Carolina and Georgia actually benefited from the redistribution.

—–

References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 541-42; DiLorenzo, Thomas J., The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003), p. 209; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 290; Ferrell, Claudine, Reconstruction: Greenwood Guides to Historic Events 1500-1900 (Greenwood, 2003), p. 8; Foner, Eric, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), p. 68; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 561; FreedmensBureau.com; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 265; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 646-47; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 842; Murphy, Richard W., The Nation Reunited: War’s Aftermath (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 28; Napolitano, Andrew P., Dred Scott’s Revenge: A Legal History of Race and Freedom in America (Kindle Edition), p. 108

The Thirteenth Amendment: Ratification Begins

February 23, 1865 – Minnesota became the 15th state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution permanently abolishing slavery.

Celebrating the end of slavery | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

On February 1, the day after Congress passed this new amendment, President Abraham Lincoln signed a joint congressional resolution submitting the proposed measure to the state legislatures for ratification. Since the amendment had already been approved by two-thirds of both chambers of Congress, Lincoln’s signature was merely a symbolic gesture.

On the same day, Lincoln’s home state of Illinois became the first state to ratify the amendment. Illinois had also recently repealed its laws forbidding blacks from entering the state which, according to Harper’s Weekly

“… were as much a part of the code of slavery as any slave law of Arkansas or Mississippi… all colored persons (in Illinois) were presumed to be slaves unless they could prove themselves to be free… they were held to be guilty until they proved their innocence: thus directly reversing the first humane maxim of the common law. By another act, if any negro or mulatto came into the State and staid ten days, he was to be fined fifty dollars, and sold indefinitely to pay the fine.”

That evening, Lincoln addressed a crowd celebrating passage of the amendment at the White House. He said, “The occasion was one of congratulation to the country and to the whole world. But there is a task yet before us–to go forward and consummate by the votes of the states that which Congress so nobly began.”

Lincoln praised members of Congress for approving the measure, which he called “the fitting if not indispensable adjunct to the consummation of the great game we are playing.” He said that courts could have ruled his Emancipation Proclamation unconstitutional, “But this amendment is a King’s cure for all the evils. It winds the whole thing up.”

Throughout February, state legislatures debated and voted on whether to approve the amendment. By month’s end, in addition to Illinois the following states approved: Rhode Island, Michigan, New York, West Virginia, Maine, Kansas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Nevada, and Minnesota. Also approving were the Unionist legislatures of Missouri, Maryland, and Louisiana.

The “Restored Government of Virginia,” led by Francis H. Pierpont and having authority only in regions of Virginia under Federal military occupation, voted to ratify the amendment. The state of Virginia still had a popularly elected government loyal to the Confederacy, but U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward deemed Pierpont’s regime legitimate enough to count its ratification towards the three-fourths majority needed to add the amendment to the Constitution. Of the non-Confederate states, only Delaware and Kentucky rejected the amendment.

This measure could not become law without support from at least a minority of southern states. The Lincoln administration expected to restore these states to the Union, and a condition of their restoration would be to approve the amendment, giving it an excellent chance of becoming law. When the Thirteenth Amendment was finally ratified in December, slavery in America was abolished forever.

—–

References

Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 15664-74; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 686-90; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 631-43; SonOfTheSouth.net: Black Laws in Illinois

Black Confederate Soldiers

February 20, 1865 – The Confederate House of Representatives approved a measure allowing for the recruitment of slaves into the military.

The “Negro Soldier Law” passed after long, intense debate by the slim margin of 40 to 37. Approving such a bill would have been virtually unthinkable a year ago, but now the Confederacy was on the verge of defeat, and desperation pushed the measure through.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

John Forsyth, editor of the Mobile Register and Advertiser, had been urging the enactment of such a law for nearly a year and a half. He had recently written an editorial calling on President Jefferson Davis and Congress to impose “a permanent levy or draft of a certain proportion of the slave population.” According to Forsyth, since the “stragglers, skulkers and absentees” would never return to the Confederate ranks, and since the Federals now had “marshaled 200,000 of our slaves against us,” the time had come to draw from this large manpower reserve in the South.

Davis assured Forsyth that his article was “a substantial expression of my own views on the subject. It is now becoming daily more evident to all reflecting persons that we are reduced to choosing whether the negroes shall fight for or against us, and that all arguments as to the positive advantages or disadvantages of employing them are beside the question, which is simply one of relative advantage between having their fighting element in our ranks or in those of our enemy.”

However, many influential southerners were still vehemently opposed to such a move. The fire-eating Charleston Mercury declared: “The freemen of the Confederate States must work out their own redemption, or they must be the slaves of their own slaves.” Robert Toombs proclaimed: “The day that the army of Virginia allows a negro regiment to enter their lines as soldiers they will be degraded, ruined, and disgraced.” And Howell Cobb stated:

“The moment you resort to negro soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you. You can’t keep white and black soldiers together and you can’t trust Negroes by themselves. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

But many of the white soldiers who supposedly would not fight beside blacks had been urging their government to allow blacks into the ranks. The 56th Virginia submitted a petition stating that “slavery is the normal condition of the negro…as indispensable to (his) prosperity and happiness… as is liberty to the whites,” but even so, “if the public exigencies require that any number of our male slaves be enlisted in the military service in order to (maintain) our Government, we are willing to make concessions to their false and unenlightened notions of the blessings of liberty.”

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

In the end, General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee helped tipped the scales in favor of passage, as Lee had long supported slave recruitment and believed that blacks could serve as soldiers just as well as whites. Lee had privately written that “we should employ them without delay at the risk which may be produced upon our social institutions.” He then issued a public statement on the 18th, declaring that such a measure was “not only expedient but necessary. The negroes, under proper circumstances, will make efficient soldiers. I think we could at least do as well with them as the enemy… Those who are employed should be freed. It would be neither just nor wise… to require them to serve as slaves.”

The anti-administration Richmond Examiner questioned whether Lee was “a ‘good Southerner’; that is, whether he is thoroughly satisfied of the justice and beneficence of negro slavery.” However, it reluctantly acknowledged that “the country will not venture to deny to General Lee… anything he may ask for.”

The House bill did not specifically mandate that slaves who fought for the Confederacy would be freed, but it was generally understood that freedom would be given for service. Proponents of this bill asserted that it would encourage slaves to return to their southern homes after serving rather than go north to take homes and jobs assigned by Federal authorities. Moreover, offering slaves a chance for freedom could negate the Federals’ image as liberators among the world powers, and possibly even open a path to foreign recognition for the Confederacy.

Slaveholders comprised most of the bill’s opponents. They argued that slave recruitment could lead to universal abolition, thus forever ending their traditional way of life which they believed was entwined with the Confederate cause itself. However, considering that less than 250,000 people owned slaves, this “way of life” only existed for a very small minority of southerners. Other opponents doubted the loyalty and ability of slaves as soldiers.

Most southerners acknowledged that slavery was on the path to extinction, regardless of whether the Confederacy gained independence or not. Once this bill passed the House, it went to the Senate, where it failed by one vote. Senate President Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia (one of the Confederate envoys at the Hampton Roads conference) led the opposition, arguing:

“If we are right in passing this measure, we are wrong in denying to the old (U.S.) government the right to interfere with slavery and to emancipate the slaves. If we offer the slaves their freedom as a boon, we confess that we were insincere and hypocritical in saying slavery was the best state for the negroes themselves.”

Despite the Senate’s rejection, this bill would be reconsidered in March, when Confederates were becoming even more desperate.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 555-57; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 641-42; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 834-36; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 471-72

Compensated Emancipation and the Hampton Roads Fallout

February 10, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln unveiled a new plan for slave emancipation, and members of Congress demanded to know what happened at Hampton Roads.

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: histmag.org

After returning from the Hampton Roads conference, Lincoln met with his cabinet and presented a scheme to compensate slaveholders if their state governments voted to return to the Union and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. Slaveholders in the loyal border states would also be compensated if they voluntarily freed their slaves. Lincoln proposed that Congress appropriate “four hundred millions of dollars,” payable in 6-percent Federal bonds, and distribute them to each participating state according to its slave population in the 1860 census.

Half the subsidy would be paid if “all resistance to the national authority shall be abandoned and cease” by April 1. The other half would be paid if the states ratified the amendment by July 1. Once these conditions were met, Lincoln would declare the war ended and the “armies… reduced to a basis of peace.” He would pardon political dissidents, restore confiscated property (except slaves), and urge Congress to be liberal “upon all points not lying within executive control.”

This was a more detailed version of a compensated emancipation plan that Lincoln had suggested to the Confederate envoys during the Hampton Roads conference in exchange for peace. He asked his cabinet ministers for their advice, and to his surprise, they unanimously opposed this proposal.

Interior Secretary John Usher feared that the Radical Republicans in Congress “would make it the occasion of a violent assault on the president” for offering such leniency toward the South. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton argued that such a plan was wasteful and unnecessary since the slaves had already been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Treasury Secretary William P. Fessenden asserted “that the only way to effectually end the war was by force of arms, and that until the war was thus ended no proposition to pay money would come from us.”

Lincoln countered that he was presenting this plan “as a measure of strict and simple economy.” The monetary figure equated to continuing the war for another 200 days, and he desperately wanted it to end. He said:

“How long has this war lasted, and how long do you suppose it will still last? We cannot hope that it will end in less than a hundred days. We are now spending three millions a day, and that will equal the full amount I propose to pay, to say nothing of the lives lost and property destroyed.”

When this did not move the cabinet members, Lincoln sighed, “You are all against me.” On the back of his written proposal, Lincoln wrote under the date of 5 Feb 1865: “Today these papers, which explain themselves, were drawn up and submitted to the Cabinet and unanimously disapproved by them.” Lincoln signed his name and filed it away. He never raised the issue of compensated emancipation again. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles later wrote that “the earnest desire of the President to conciliate and effect peace was manifest, but there may be such a thing as so overdoing as to cause a distrust or adverse feeling.”

In reality, the Radicals seeking to punish the Confederacy would have never approved Lincoln’s plan. Many of them had already condemned Lincoln for even meeting with the Confederate envoys at Hampton Roads. Thaddeus Stevens, the leading Radical in the House of Representatives, strongly criticized the president for negotiating with “rebels,” and he led the majority in approving a resolution demanding that Lincoln submit a formal report on what had been discussed. House Speaker Schuyler Colfax assured Lincoln that such a report “cannot fail to increase the confidence of the American people in you.”

At the same time, Charles Sumner, the leading Radical in the Senate, introduced a resolution asking for “any information in his (Lincoln’s) possession concerning recent conversations or communications with certain rebels.” A heated debate ensued in which conservative Republicans, Lincoln’s firmest allies, accused Radicals and Democrats of conspiring to infringe on the president’s constitutional power to negotiate treaties. The Radicals angrily denied such charges, but the resolution passed nonetheless.

Lincoln complied with Congress by submitting a formal report (actually written by Secretary of State William H. Seward) on the 10th. Correspondent and Lincoln friend Noah Brooks reported from the congressional gallery: “The reading began in absolute silence. Looking over the hall, one might say that the hundreds seated or standing within the limits of the great room had been suddenly turned to stone.”

Many congressmen who had been skeptical of Lincoln slowly realized that he had stood firm in his commitment to restore the Union and end slavery. Brooks reported:

“When the reading was over, and the name of the writer at the end of the communication was read by the clerk with a certain grandiloquence, there was an instant and irrepressible storm of applause, begun by the members on the floor, and taken up by the people in the gallery. It was instantaneous, involuntary, and irrepressible, and the Speaker only perfunctorily attempted to quell it. It was like a burst of refreshing rain after a long and heartbreaking drought.”

A Democrat spoke for the small minority who urged Congress to support an armistice, declaring, “I am in favor of appealing from guns and bayonets and artillery to reason, to sense, to Christianity, and to civilization.” Stevens responded by quoting Jefferson Davis: “Sooner than we should be united again, I would be willing to yield up everything I have on earth; and if it were possible, I would yield up my life a thousand times rather than succumb.” He continued:

“And yet a man calling himself a patriot and an American rises upon this floor and sends forth to the country a denunciation of the President of the United States for not entering into negotiations with men holding these doctrines and entertaining these views. I will apply no epithets to such a man; I do not know that I could use any which would be sufficiently merited.”

Thus, the war would continue until the Confederacy surrendered unconditionally.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11949-60; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 16241-70; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 550; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 692-93, 695-96; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 634-35, 637; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition, 2012), Q165

The Thirteenth Amendment: The Vote

January 31, 1865 – The U.S. House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment permanently abolishing slavery in America.

The Lincoln administration, led by Secretary of State William H. Seward, lobbied various Democrats thought to be willing to support the abolition amendment. These congressmen were promised prized government jobs and favors in exchange for their votes. The effort seemed to be paying off, but then rumors of peace talks threatened to kill the amendment.

Lincoln had dispatched Seward to Fort Monroe a few hours before the vote was scheduled to begin, confident that House Republicans had enough votes to get the necessary two-thirds majority. But Democrats who had voiced support for the measure hesitated now that peace talks might end the war. They feared that a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery could offend the Confederate envoys and break up the talks, and the war would go on indefinitely.

Congressman James M. Ashley, the amendment’s sponsor, wrote a frantic note to Lincoln as voting time neared: “The report is in circulation in the House that peace Commissioners are on their way or are in the city, and is being used against us. If it is true, I fear we shall lose the bill. Please authorize me to contradict it, if not true.” Lincoln responded, “So far as I know, there are no peace commissioners in the city, or likely to be in it.” Lincoln was correct in that no commissioners were in Washington, but he conveniently failed to acknowledge that they were within Federal lines.

In the end, the two-thirds majority needed to start the ratification process was secured, as the vote was 119 in favor and 56 opposed. Of the 80 House Democrats, 16 voted in favor (14 of whom would not be in the new Congress later that year and thus did not risk their reelection chances), and eight abstained, thus allowing the bill to pass. A swing of just five votes could have killed the amendment.

The speaker announced, “The constitutional majority of two-thirds having voted in the affirmative, the joint resolution is passed.” The Congressional Globe reported that upon this announcement, “The members of the Republican side of the House instantly sprang to their feet, and, regardless of parliamentary rules, applauded with cheers and clapping of hands. The example was followed by male spectators in the galleries, who waved their hats and cheered long and loud, while the ladies… rose in their seats and waved their handkerchiefs…”

The House of Representatives upon passage of the Thirteenth Amendment | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. IX, No. 425, 18 Feb 1865

Another person reported that there was “an uncontrollable outburst of enthusiasm.” A Republican congressman wrote, “Members joined in the shouting and kept it up for some minutes. Some embraced one another, others wept like children. I have felt, ever since the vote, as if I were in a new country.” Those celebrating in the House gallery included several black men and women who had not been allowed in the House chamber until last year. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered a 100-gun salute fired to commemorate the amendment’s passage, and the House adjourned for the rest of the day “in honor of this immortal and sublime event.”

This was the second version of the “Thirteenth” Amendment to the Constitution. The first version had passed in March 1861 and prohibited the Federal government from interfering with slavery where it already existed. This failed ratification because the southern states had already seceded. Ironically, the southern secession prompted northern politicians to place even greater restrictions on slavery until finally abolishing it altogether. This became the first constitutional amendment to place restrictions on individuals rather than the government.

This new amendment satisfied Lincoln, who feared that his Emancipation Proclamation would be overturned by the courts after the war because it was admittedly just a wartime measure with no real legal basis. State legislatures soon began debating and voting on the amendment’s ratification, which would make Lincoln’s proclamation permanent.

—–

References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 211-13; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 512-13; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 15635-45; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 606-07, 620-23, 630; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 686-90; McGinty, Brian, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 752-53; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 839

Special Field Orders Number 15

January 16, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman issued directives for Federal troops to seize abandoned land along the Atlantic coast and redistribute it to newly freed slaves.

Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: collaborationnation.wikispaces.com

As Sherman’s armies conducted their march from Atlanta to Savannah, they were inundated by thousands of slaves fleeing from nearby plantations. Sherman had complained that his men should not be responsible for taking care of these refugees because they impeded his military progress. Sherman wrote to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “The South deserves all she has got for her injustice to the negro, but that is no reason why we should go to the other extreme.”

Sherman’s troops routinely mistreated the refugees, and in Washington rumors spread that Sherman “manifested an almost criminal dislike to the Negro.” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton headed south, ostensibly for health reasons, but really to discuss the matter with Sherman. (President Abraham Lincoln also asked Stanton to urge Sherman to hurry and launch a new campaign, explaining that “time, now that the enemy is wavering, is more important than ever before. Being on the downhill, and somewhat confused, keep him going.”)

Stanton met with Sherman and a delegation of black preachers who testified that the general was a “friend and a gentleman.” The delegation’s spokesman said, “We have confidence in General Sherman, and think that what concerns us could not be in better hands.” When Stanton asked how best to transition from slavery to freedom, he said, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn in and till it by our labor… We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it, and make it our own.”

The preachers stated that recruiting black men for the army did not actually grow the army as much as it allowed white men to let the blacks take their place. The leader also opined that if the Confederates recruited blacks into their armies, “I think they would fight as long as they were before the ‘bayonet’, and just as soon as they could get away they would desert, in my opinion.”

Sherman later wrote that Stanton was skeptical about his handling of fugitive slaves, “but luckily the negroes themselves convinced him that he was in error, and that they understood their own interests far better than did the men in Washington, who tried to make political capital out of this negro question.”

After Stanton left, Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15, which authorized the redistribution of confiscated land to former slaves. The land included a strip of coastline from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida, Georgia’s Sea Islands, and the mainland 30 miles in from the coast. Approved by both Stanton and Lincoln, this was the most radical military order of the war.

The order served two military purposes:

  1. It gave the refugees their own land so they would no longer rely on Sherman’s army for protection and subsistence
  2. It encouraged freed slaves to join the Federal army as soldiers so they could fight to maintain their new liberty

The order also served two political purposes:

  1. It offered Washington politicians a solution to the problem of what to do with the millions of new free southern laborers
  2. It blunted the perception in Washington that Sherman and his armies were callous toward blacks

Each slave family was to receive “a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground.” This order became the basis for the slogan “forty acres and a mule,” or the notion that Federal authorities should forcibly seize land from southern planters and redistribute it to former slaves. Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, a Massachusetts abolitionist who had previously overseen black recruitment into the army, was assigned to enforce Sherman’s order.

Under this directive, some 40,000 former slaves and black refugees temporarily received “possessory title” of land until Congress “shall regulate the title.” Once on their land, “the blacks may remain in their chosen or accustomed vocations” and “no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves, subject only to the United States military authority, and the acts of Congress.”

Like Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, this measure was imposed based on the executive’s supposed “war powers.” Sherman also issued a proclamation regarding the treatment of former slaves:

“By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the negro is free, and must be dealt with as such. He cannot be subjected to conscription, or forced military service, save by the written orders of the highest military authority of the department, under such regulations as the President or Congress may prescribe. Domestic servants, blacksmiths, carpenters, and other mechanics, will be free to select their own work and residence, but the young and able-bodied negroes must be encouraged to enlist as soldiers in the service of the United States, to contribute their share toward maintaining their own freedom, and securing their rights as citizens of the United States.”

Later this year, President Andrew Johnson revoked Special Field Orders No. 15, citing the constitutional ban on confiscating private property without due process.

—–

References

BlackPast.org-Special Field Orders No. 15; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 406; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 15336-46, 15684-704; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 540-41, 544; GeorgiaEncyclopedia.org-Sherman’s Field Order No. 15; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 237; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 619; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 683; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 841; Wikipedia.org-Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15