Category Archives: Slavery

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:

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 Field Orders No. 15; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 406;; 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;’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;’s Special Field Orders No. 15

The Thirteenth Amendment: Debate Begins

January 9, 1865 – The U.S. House of Representatives opened debate on a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery that had been defeated last year.

The abolition amendment had passed the Senate in 1864 but failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to pass the House. In his December message to Congress, President Abraham Lincoln declared that since the newly elected Congress made passage of the amendment “only a question of time,” the current lame-duck Congress should revisit it. This would demonstrate northern solidarity against the Confederacy and show that the border states would no longer side with the South on the slavery issue.

Rep. J.M. Ashley of Ohio | Image Credit:

Republican Congressman James M. Ashley of Ohio reintroduced the amendment on the House floor in early January, announcing, “Mr. Speaker, if slavery is wrong and criminal, as the great body of enlightened Christian men admit, it is certainly our duty to abolish it, if we have the power.” Republicans generally supported the amendment, especially the Radicals who sought more punitive measures against the South. Most Democrats opposed the measure, and a contentious debate took place throughout the month.

Democrats warned their fellow party members there would be political fallout if they supported the amendment. However, a significant change occurred when Moses F. Odell of New York announced he would change his previous “no” vote to “yes,” declaring, “The South by rebellion has absolved the Democratic Party at the north from all obligation to stand up longer for the defense of its ‘cornerstone.’”

The New York Times reported that Odell gave “a convincing argument in favor of this measure, and an able appeal to the Democratic party to throw aside all partisan feeling and sustain it, thereby setting at rest forever the subject which has caused so much agitation and excitement in our national counsels.” Lincoln rewarded Odell with the lucrative political job of New York navy agent.

Other Democrats remained opposed. Robert Mallory of Kentucky said that “the Constitution does not authorize an amendment to be made by which any State or citizen shall be divested of acquired rights of property or of established political franchises.” Unionist John A. Kasson of Iowa countered, “you will never, never, have reliable peace in this country that that institution exists, the perpetual occasion of moral, intellectual, and physical warfare.”

Democrat Samuel S. Cox of Ohio declared, “Whatever it may be termed, I am opposed to compounding powers in the Federal Government.” This amendment “sought to consolidate the powers of the States, and tended toward monarchy and despotism… it would tend to disturb the balance of power between the States, and destroy our peculiar representative system.”

Charles Eldridge of Wisconsin warned that “the adoption of the amendment would afford the rebel leaders another topic to arouse the lukewarm, raise additional armies and prolong the war.” This measure would best be “made in time of calmness, in a fraternal spirit and with kindness, with a view to the establishment of the peace of the Union in all its parts.”

Another Democrat agreed:

“When the sky shall again be clear over our heads, a peaceful sun illuminating the land, and our great household of states all at home in harmony once more, then will be the time to consider what changes, if any, this generation desire to make in the work of Washington, Madison, and the revered sages of our antiquity.”

Fernando Wood of New York opposed the amendment on racial grounds:

“The Almighty has fixed the distinction of the races; the Almighty has made the black man inferior, and, sir, by no legislation, by no partisan success, by no revolution, by no military power, can you wipe out this distinction. You may make the black man free, but when you have done that what have you done?”

Unionist Austin King, a Missouri slaveholder, declared support for the amendment:

“Slavery had been the cause of disturbance for the last thirty years, and if it must perish, slaveholders could not, complain, as they had been the architects of their own ruin. Slavery has been the means by which the Southern leaders have wheeled into the line of insurrection, and for this reason, it has lost the support and sympathy it once possessed. Slavery had been a constant source of irritation, and in order to secure the blessings of peace, the great question of its further continuance should be submitted to the people for their decision.”

Another Missouri congressman and former slaveholder, James Rollins, declared:

“I am no longer the owner of a slave, and I thank God for it. If the giving up of my slaves without complaint shall be a contribution upon my part, to promote the public good, to uphold the Constitution of the United States, to restore peace and preserve this Union, if I had owned a thousand slaves, they would most cheerfully have been given up. I say with all my heart, let them go; but let them not go without a sense of feeling and a proper regard on my part for the future of themselves and their offspring… the peculiar friends of slavery have controlled the government for much the greater part of the time since its establishment, and but for their own wickedness and folly might have saved the institution, and had their full share in its management for many years to come… we can never have an entire peace as long as the institution of slavery remains as one of the recognized institutions in this country.”

John McBride of Oregon said, “Slavery, too long pursuing its criminal practices, demanded sentence and execution, without benefit of clergy.” Republican (and future President) James A. Garfield announced, “Mr. Speaker, we shall never know why slavery dies so hard in this Republic and in this Hall, till we know why sin outlives disaster, and Satan is immortal…” Radical leader Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania argued that slavery was “the worst institution upon earth, one which is a disgrace to man and would be an annoyance to the infernal spirits.” He added:

“We have suffered for slavery more than all the plagues of Egypt. More than the first born of every household has been taken. We still harden our hearts, and refuse to let the people go. The scourge still continues, nor do I expect it to cease until we obey the behests of the Father of men. We are about to ascertain the national will by an amendment to the Constitution. If the gentlemen opposite will yield to the voice of God and humanity and vote for it, I verily believe the sword of the destroying angel will be stayed, and this people be reunited. If we still harden our hearts, and blood must still flow, may the ghosts of the slaughtered victims sit heavily upon the souls of those who cause it.”

Debate continued throughout the month, leading to the final vote on the last day of January.



Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 211-13;; 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

Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 Message to Congress

December 6, 1864 – The Thirty-eighth U.S. Congress received President Abraham Lincoln’s annual message. With the Confederacy on the verge of defeat, the message focused mainly on winning the war and restoring the southern states to the Union.

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

This was the most optimistic message of Lincoln’s presidency. After summarizing foreign relations, Lincoln reported that captured southern ports such as Norfolk, Fernandina, and Pensacola had been opened for Federal commerce. He hoped that foreign merchants would use these ports to trade with the U.S. and stop blockade-running. Lincoln also indirectly referred to the recent Confederate plots against the U.S. originating from Canada, warning that if such attacks continued, the U.S. would have to consider building up naval force on the Great Lakes.

Referring to recent laws encouraging immigration, Lincoln wrote, “I regard our immigrants as one of the principal replenishing streams which are appointed by Providence to repair the ravages of internal war and its wastes of national strength and health.” He stressed that the government “neither needs nor designs to impose involuntary military service upon those who come from other lands to cast their lot in our country.”

Lincoln announced that the national debt stood at $1.74 billion as of July 1, and higher taxes were needed to pay for this. The president happily stated that the new national banking system was taking hold, “and it is hoped that very soon there will be… no banks… not authorized by Congress and no bank-note circulation not secured by the Government.”

The Navy Department report showed that there were 671 vessels with 4,610 guns either operating or under construction, with 51,000 officers and men in the U.S. navy. These men had captured 324 vessels in 1864, or 1,379 since the war began. Lincoln asked Congress to consider appropriating funds to establish a new navy yard to better accommodate the immense construction and repair of all the naval craft.

The message included summaries of each executive department, as well as Lincoln’s satisfaction with construction on the transcontinental railroad and telegraph lines. He noted Nevada’s recent statehood, “and thus our excellent system is firmly established in the mountains, which once seemed a barren and uninhabitable waste between the Atlantic States and those which have grown up on the coast of the Pacific Ocean.”

Recent discoveries of gold and silver in the west had sparked a wave of settlers heading that way to strike it rich. Such precious metals went a long way in helping fund the war effort. Since such westward expansion would necessarily encroach upon Native American land, Lincoln asked Congress to review the system governing U.S.-Native relations.

Lincoln reported on the administration of pensions to “invalid soldiers and sailors of the Republic and to the widows, orphans, and dependent mothers of those who have fallen in battle or died of disease contracted or of wounds received in the service.”

The president then turned to the war. He wrote, “Since the last annual message all the important lines and positions then occupied by our forces have been maintained and our arms have steadily advanced, thus liberating the regions left in rear, so that Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and parts of other States have again produced reasonably fair crops.”

Lincoln stated, “The most remarkable feature in the military operations of the year is General Sherman’s attempted march of 300 miles directly through the insurgent region. It tends to show a great increase of our relative strength that our General in Chief should feel able to confront and hold in check every active force of the enemy, and yet to detach a well-appointed large army to move on such an expedition.”

The message included a satisfactory assessment of the new, Unionist state governments in Arkansas and Louisiana. Lincoln noted that Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee would soon have Unionist governments as well, but “Maryland presents the example of complete success” for having recently adopted a new state constitution abolishing slavery.

Lincoln requested that Congress reconsider passing the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery; earlier in the year the amendment passed in the Senate but failed in the House of Representatives. He acknowledged that he was asking the same members of Congress to vote on the same issue again, but last month’s elections showed “almost certainly that the next Congress will pass the measure if this does not.” If slavery was to be abolished, “may we not agree that the sooner the better?” Such a bipartisan move might further demoralize the Confederacy.

Lincoln stated, “The most reliable indication of public purpose in this country is derived through our popular elections.” He claimed that his reelection and the election of predominantly Unionist candidates throughout the North showed that “the purpose of the people within the loyal States to maintain the integrity of the Union was never more firm nor more nearly unanimous than now… In affording the people the fair opportunity of showing one to another and to the world this firmness and unanimity of purpose, the election has been of vast value to the national cause.”

That being said, the message indicated that the North was now stronger than ever, not only in unity against the Confederacy, but also in men and material:

“The important fact remains demonstrated that we have more men now than we had when the war began; that we are not exhausted nor in process of exhaustion; that we are gaining strength and may if need be maintain the contest indefinitely. This as to men. Material resources are now more complete and abundant than ever.”

Referring to peace efforts earlier this year that fell through, Lincoln concluded “that no attempt at negotiation with the insurgent leader could result in any good. He would accept nothing short of severance of the Union, precisely what we will not and can not give… He does not attempt to deceive us… He can not voluntarily reaccept the Union; we can not voluntarily yield it.”

Lincoln stated that some southerners had accepted his policy of amnesty in the year since he had unveiled it, but he warned that “the time may come, probably will come, when public duty shall demand that it be closed and that in lieu more rigorous measures than heretofore shall be adopted.” Regardless of whether this happened, “I retract nothing heretofore said as to slavery,” and Lincoln reiterated his pledge to do nothing to amend his Emancipation Proclamation or return to slavery “any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation or by any of the acts of Congress.”

The message concluded, “In stating a single condition of peace I mean simply to say that the war will cease on the part of the Government whenever it shall have ceased on the part of those who began it.” Thus, Lincoln reiterated his demand for the Confederacy’s unconditional surrender, or else the war would continue.



Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 208;; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 498-99; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 529; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 686-87; Lincoln 1864 Annual Message (; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 606-07; 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. 816, 838, 843; 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), Q464

Jefferson Davis’s 1864 Message to Congress

November 7, 1864 – The second session of the Second Confederate Congress assembled and received President Jefferson Davis’s optimistic annual message.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit:

Throughout the war, Davis had emphasized the need to defend territory. But after sacrificing several armies while still losing territory, Davis now reversed course. He explained that the loss of Atlanta and the Shenandoah Valley gave the military more flexibility by freeing it from having to defend cities or regions:

“The truth so patent to us must, ere long, be forced upon the reluctant Northern mind. There are no vital points on the preservation of which the continued existence of the Confederacy depends. There is no military success of the enemy which can accomplish its destruction. Not the fall of Richmond, nor Wilmington, nor Charleston, nor Savannah, nor Mobile, nor all combined, can save the enemy from the constant and exhaustive drain of blood and treasure which must continue until he shall discover that no peace is attainable unless based on the recognition of our indefeasible rights.”

The message did not mention the U.S. presidential elections scheduled for the next day; Davis avoided making any statement that could push northerners to vote for Abraham Lincoln. Regarding the economy, Davis called the financial outlook “far from discouraging.” He asked Congress for measures to increase military recruitment, including waiving some exemptions from the Conscription Act.

Davis also requested legislation allowing the government to buy 40,000 slaves from slaveholders and use them for military labor for the rest of the war. This would replace the current law allowing the military to impress slaves into service without compensation for limited time periods. As the military would then be expected to teach slaves “in the manner of encamping, marching, and parking trains,” the “length of service adds greatly to the value of the negro’s labor.”

After “service faithfully rendered,” Davis recommended that the slaves be rewarded with freedom. However, since slavery was a state issue, each state would have to decide for itself on that. Davis argued that such a grant by the states “would doubtless be more readily accorded as a reward for past faithful service, and a double motive for zealous discharge of duty would thus be offered to those employed by the Government, their freedom, and the gratification of the local attachment which is so marked a characteristic of the negro, and forms so powerful an incentive to his action.”

Davis was not prepared to accept slaves as combat soldiers, stating, “Until our white population shall prove insufficient for the armies we require, and can afford to keep in the field; to employ as a soldier the negro who has been merely trained to labor, and as a laborer the white man, accustomed from his youth to the use of firearms, would scarcely be deemed wise or advantageous by any.” However, “Should the alternative ever be presented of subjugation or the employment of the slave as a soldier, there seems no reason to doubt what should then be our decision.”

Suggesting that slaves could become free citizens in exchange for military service marked what Davis called “a radical modification in the theory of the law.” An editorial in the Richmond Whig countered that trading service for freedom wrongly assumed “that the condition of freedom is so much better for the slave than servitude, that it may be bestowed upon him as a reward.” If implemented, it would be “a repudiation of the opinion held by the whole South… that servitude is a divinely appointed condition for the highest good of the slave.”

In conclusion, Davis stated that he was willing to negotiate with the North regarding peace, but only if the North recognized southern independence and not “our unconditional submission and degradation… This is the true path to peace; let us tread it with confidence in the assured result.”


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 484; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 63-64; 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 13076-96; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 518; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 593-94; 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. 833-34; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 334

From Cyrus Lewis, 1st Missouri Engineers

Letter from Cyrus H. Lewis of the 1st Missouri Engineers to his parents.

Head Qrts. 1st Regt. Engrs.

Mo. Vols.

Atlanta, Ga.

Nov. 3, 1864


After a strong time of anxious waiting, I have again received from your hand a welcome letter bringing the pleasing intelligence of your good health and well being. Ah! If there is anything that will afford consolation and comfort to worn and wearied soldiers, it’s the reading of communications from parents and loved ones at home. It inspires the soldiers with more confidence and energy to press onward toward the grand ultimatum of this awful but magnificent warfare.

Union Flag | Image Credit:

Union Flag | Image Credit:

Awful, I say, because of the great destruction of life, and the deep mourning of the land. Magnificent because it is accomplishing the abolition of (that foul stain) human slavery and planting and cultivating in its stead the principals of true radical reform. Hence the great and paramount object the people should have in view is supporting the present administration and carrying to the presidential chair the very man who had presided over the government during the last four years of trial and warfare and who has always been found at the helm guiding and directing the great ship of our country.

The present issue is one of the greatest and most important in the history of our country or that the land has ever known. Here is life or death to our republican form of government and free institutions. If McClellan is elected, we will have peace but it will be upon the recognition of the damnable rotten Confederacy of the south. If such should be the case, I and a thousand would spend the rest of our days in fighting against it.

We have lived, prospered and been protected under a free government, and we wish to preserve the same for the welfare and happiness of our posterity. The welfare of millions yet unborn is dependent upon us, and thus far we are responsible for their welfare. It behooves us then to do all in our power to sustain the government. It is to be one on the 8th day of this month.

Father, I want no greater consolation than to know that you are going to support the government. If I have the privilege of voting, I am going to cast my vote for Lincoln and Johnson and for the people. I have read and studied the Chicago Platform, and I pronounce it treason of the darkest hue. They call it democracy and are holding it up to the people as democracy and are trying to make the people think it’s right by crying peace, peace, and talking about free speech, but when Mr. Murphy of Maryland opposed the nomination of McClellan at Chicago, they hissed him down and cried put him out, put him out. But since he could not say all that he wished to until he had knocked down two or three of his fellow democrats, I think it is a fair demonstration of their democracy.

It is like a thief feigning to be a clergyman or a wolf in lamb’s clothing. It seems that they have taken upon themselves the responsibility of damning to all eternity the black abolitionists and have gone so far as to pronounce the federal soldiers hessians and hirelings right in their face and, yes, of the militia at Chicago, and there was no resistance made. If it has come to such a test that militia will give consent to such views and proceedings by remaining silent, then it is high time that we were waking up to a quicker and keener sense of the duties involving upon as American citizens and soldiers for the maintenance of government and its laws, but perhaps I have already written too much upon this subject. Though it is one that I am deeply interested in, I will drop it, feeling that the hand of kind providence is lifted in behalf of our country.

We are now fitted out for a campaign of fifty days but we have no knowledge of our destination. We ill no doubt be entirely cut off from communicating with our friends for a time. Therefore you must not think it strange if you don’t hear from me for some time…

Yours In Truth,





Source: Tapert, Annette (ed.), The Brothers’ War: Civil War Letters to Their Loved Ones from the Blue and Gray (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), p. 223-225

The Radical Republican Convention

May 31, 1864 – Radicals and other disgruntled Republicans held a convention in Cleveland to nominate a candidate to defeat President Abraham Lincoln’s bid for reelection.

Maj Gen John C. Fremont | Image Credit:

Many Republicans were dissatisfied with Lincoln’s performance, particularly his “lenient” plan to bring the southern states back into the Union. Some had proposed replacing Lincoln with Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, but Chase had been discredited by the Pomeroy Circular. When Major General John C. Fremont, who had long quarreled with Lincoln before resigning in 1862, expressed interest in running against him, his backers quickly organized an assembly at Chapin Hill a week before the Republican National Convention took place.

This Radical convention sought to protest the “imbecile and vacillating policy of the present Administration in the conduct of the war.” Organizers expected thousands to attend, but only about 400 actually showed. Of these, only 158 were delegates, many of whom held no significant political influence. They were mostly abolitionists and German immigrants loyal to Fremont (especially in Missouri), but some Democrats attended in an attempt to form a new “Radical Democratic” alliance against Lincoln.

Many Radicals who learned that the convention would be stacked with Fremont supporters refused to attend. Republicans and Democrats who pushed for Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to oppose Lincoln also stayed away. Even Horace Greeley, the influential editor of the New York Tribune who called for this convention in the first place, withdrew his support.

The most prominent name associated with the convention was abolitionist Wendell Phillips, and even he did not attend. Instead he submitted a written statement calling the Lincoln administration “a civil and military failure, and its avowed policy ruinous to the North in every point of view…”

Phillips condemned Lincoln’s reconstruction plan because it “makes the freedom of the negro a sham, and perpetuates slavery under a softer name,” and he concluded, “If Mr. Lincoln is re-elected I do not expect to see the Union reconstructed in my day, unless on terms more disastrous to liberty than even disunion would be.”

Delegates adopted a platform that advocated:

  • A constitutional amendment to permanently abolish slavery and “secure to all men absolute equality before the law”
  • Granting black men the right to vote
  • Congress, not the president, administering reconstruction
  • Seizing the land of Confederates by military force and redistributing it to Federal soldiers, former slaves, or anyone else the Radicals deemed worthy
  • Abolishing the Electoral College and electing the president by popular vote
  • Limiting the president to one term
  • Barring the president from violating civil liberties, including suspending the writ of habeas corpus

Fremont was nominated by acclamation. The delegates expected him to run a strong race, just as he did as the first ever Republican presidential candidate in 1856. As a nod to the small Democratic constituency in attendance, Democratic Brigadier General John Cochrane was nominated vice president. Fremont agreed to run in the naïve hope that Radicals and Democrats could form a broad enough coalition to beat Lincoln in November.

In his acceptance statement, Fremont declared that he represented “a view to prevent the misfortune of (Lincoln’s) reelection,” which “would be fatal to the country.” He condemned Lincoln’s mismanagement of the war. However, he ignored the party’s pledge to uphold social and political equality, and he openly opposed the Radical plan to redistribute confiscated land.

A pundit called this disappointing convention “a most magnificent fizzle” that only featured “disappointed contractors, sorehead governors, and Copperheads.” Noting the delegates’ lack of political clout, the pro-Lincoln New York Times called the assembly “a congregation of malcontents… representing no constituencies, and controlling no votes.” Most Radicals renounced this party for its alliance with Democrats and ultimately acknowledged that the best way to advance their agenda was to back Lincoln.

When Lincoln was told that only 400 people attended this assembly, he thumbed through a Bible until he came upon 1 Samuel 22:2 and read, “And every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them: and there were with him about 400 men.”



Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 172; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10517, 10691-713; 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 7910-31; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 447; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 624; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 511-12; 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. 715-16; Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael, A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 342; 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), Q264

Cleburne Proposes Black Recruitment

January 2, 1864 – Major General Patrick R. Cleburne, one of the best division commanders in the Confederate Army of Tennessee, wrote an extraordinary letter proposing that the Confederacy induct slaves into the military.

Gen P.R. Cleburne | Image Credit:

Cleburne was one of the most respected officers in the Confederate army, having earned the nickname “Stonewall Jackson of the West.” In a paper he presented to his fellow officers, Cleburne declared that the Confederacy could very well lose the war. He argued that this was due to the growing manpower shortage in the armies, dwindling supplies and resources, and “the fact that slavery, from being one of our chief sources of strength at the commencement of the war, has now become, in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness.”

According to Cleburne, the Confederacy could only rely on its own population for manpower, while the North could pull from its “own motley population,” emancipated and confiscated slaves, and “Europeans whose hearts are fired into a crusade against us by fictitious pictures of the atrocities of slavery.”

Furthermore, the growing “prejudice against slavery” had given the Federals the moral advantage in the contest, encouraged valuable slave labor to not only leave the South but to fight against it, and compelled European nations to refuse to recognize Confederate independence. Consequently, Confederates now faced “the loss of all we now hold most sacred–slaves and all other personal property, lands, homesteads, liberty, justice, safety, pride, manhood.”

Cleburne argued that retaining the institution of slavery for labor purposes had become pointless because slaves could now flee their masters in search of freedom, or be confiscated by Federal occupation forces at any time. This made slaves “comparatively valueless to us for labor, but of great and increasing worth to the enemy for information.”

President Jefferson Davis had recently signed a bill into law limiting the number of exemptions to the Conscription Act in the hopes of drafting more able-bodied white men into the military. But Cleburne argued that this would only bring in those who did not want to serve, otherwise they would have already volunteered. Instead, Cleburne recommended:

“Adequately to meet the causes which are now threatening ruin to our country, we propose, in addition to a modification of the President’s plans, that we retain in service for the war all troops now in service, and that we immediately commence training a large reserve of the most courageous of our slaves, and further that we guarantee freedom with a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war.”

Since Great Britain and France were reluctant to recognize a slave-owning nation, this would mean that “the sympathy and interests of these and other nations will accord with our own, and we may expect from them both moral support and material aid.” If both North and South embraced emancipation, the North would immediately become the aggressor in the conflict, looked upon as seeking to subjugate the South. This would be “a complete change of front in our favor of the sympathies of the world.”

For northerners joining the Federal army to free the slaves, “that source of recruiting will be dried up.” Also, “it will leave the enemy’s negro army no motive to fight for, and will exhaust the source from which it has been recruited.” Cleburne then declared:

“The idea that it is their special mission to war against slavery has held growing sway over the Northern people for many years, and has at length riped into an armed and bloody crusade against it. This baleful superstition has so far supplied them with a courage and constancy not their own. It is the most powerful and honestly entertained plank in their war platform. Knock this away and what is left? A blood ambition for more territory…. Mankind may fancy it a great duty to destroy slavery, but what interest can mankind have in upholding this remainder of the Northern war platform?”

Guessing that the Federal “negro army” would “desert over to us,” Cleburne wrote:

“The immediate effect of the emancipation and enrollment of negroes on the military strength of the South would be: To enable us to have armies numerically superior to those of the North, and a reserve of any size we might think necessary; to enable us to take the offensive, move forward, and forage on the enemy.”

To Cleburne, emancipation “would remove forever all selfish taint from our cause and place independence above every question of property. The very magnitude of the sacrifice itself, such as no nation has ever voluntarily made before, would appall our enemies… and fill our hearts with a pride and singleness of purpose which would clothe us with new strength in battle.”

Only the Confederacy could “change the race from a dreaded weakness to a (source) of strength. We can do this more effectually than the North can now do, for we can give the Negro not only his own freedom, but that of his wife and child, and can secure it to him in his old home.” To do this, “we must immediately make his marriage and parental relations sacred in the eyes of the law and forbid their sale.” Cleburne wrote:

“If, then, we touch the institution at all, we would do best to make the most of it, and by emancipating the whole race upon reasonable terms, and within such reasonable time as will prepare both races for the change, secure to ourselves all the advantages, and to our enemies all the disadvantages that can arise, both at home and abroad, from such a sacrifice.”

Cleburne finally concluded:

“It is said slaves will not work after they are freed. We think necessity and a wise legislation will compel them to labor for a living. It is said that slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties. It may be imperfect, but in all human probability it would give us our independence. No objection ought to outweigh it which is not weightier than independence.”

The proposal had been endorsed by 12 of Cleburne’s brigade and regimental commanders. The idea of slave emancipation was not new; it had been debated in the southern press for over a year. In one example, the Jackson Mississippian editorialized:

“Let not slavery prove a barrier to our independence. Although slavery is one of the principles that we started to fight for… if it proves an insurmountable obstacle to the achievement of our liberty and separate nationality, away with it!”

However, this was the first time that a high-ranking Confederate military officer had proposed such a thing. While most southerners viewed slavery and independence as one in the same, Cleburne’s letter asserted that one may have to be sacrificed for the other.

Confederate officers outside Cleburne’s division expressed shock and outrage at such an idea, which they unanimously rejected. One officer called it a “monstrous proposition… revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride, and Southern honor.” A corps commander said that it was “at war with my social, moral, and political principles.” Another general maintained that “we are not whipped, & cannot be whipped. Our situation requires resort to no such remedy… Its propositions contravene the principles upon which we fight.” General Howell Cobb argued:

“I think that the proposition to make soldiers of the slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers. The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

Major General William H.T. Walker was so offended that he considered Cleburne’s letter treasonous and secretly forwarded it to President Davis. The president read the document and issued a statement:

“Deeming it to be injurious to the public service that such a subject should be mooted, or even known to be entertained by persons possessed of the confidence and respect of the people, I have concluded that the best policy under the circumstances will be to avoid all publicity, and the Secretary of War has therefore written to General (Joseph E.) Johnston (commanding the Army of Tennessee) requesting him to convey to those concerned my desire that it should be kept private. If it be kept out of the public journals its ill effect will be much lessened.”

Cleburne’s letter did not resurface until the Official Records of the war were being compiled a generation later. Some claimed that the letter cost Cleburne any chance of future promotion. However, the idea would come up again later in the year, and this time Davis would not be so quick to dismiss it.



Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 27;; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 953-54; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 15758-15768; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 387; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 39; 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. 832-33; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 253