Honored Fallen Comrade
- Aug 20, 2008
June 22, 2012, 9:30 pm
By DANIEL W. CROFTS
The Arago, a mail steamer, was scheduled to head north at dawn from the Union outpost on South Carolina's Sea Islands. Any letters that missed the outgoing ship's departure would wait for another 10 days. So it was that Maj. Gen. David Hunter stayed up all night on June 22, 1862, amid a violent thunderstorm, writing incessantly, assisted by his young aide, Maj. Charles Graham Halpine. Hunter, a West Pointer from the class of 1822, commanded "The Department of the South" - in Halpine's words the "tortuous and broken sea-coast of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida" that had proven vulnerable to Union naval probes.
The general had the virility and vigor of a much younger man, Halpine later wrote; his rugged physique, military bearing, and "perfect horsemanship" bespoke a proud, domineering temperament. Hunter's adrenaline rush was fueled by Kentucky Congressman Charles Wickliffe, a prominent former governor and long-time political insider who had noticed reports that Hunter was raising a regiment of fugitive slaves. Like other border-state Unionists, Wickliffe wanted to restore the old Union as it was, slavery included. He contemplated a white man's war, with blacks excluded from the Union Army. If Hunter was arming slaves to fight, he would be endangering slavery and racial hierarchy. Wickliffe demanded an investigation.
It was an opportunity Hunter relished, and was now rushing to make his case and mail it before the ship departed. "The fool, that old fool has just given me the very chance I was growing sick for," Hunter exclaimed to his aide. "The War Department has refused to notice my black regiment; but now, in reply to this resolution, I can lay the matter before the country, and force the authorities either to adopt my negroes or to disband them."
One of the few "avowed anti-slavery officers in the army," Hunter had caused a huge commotion only a month before when he had announced unilaterally that all rebel-owned slaves under his jurisdiction were to be "forever free." Abraham Lincoln, who knew and liked Hunter, had sternly countermanded him; the president insisted that "commanders in the field" could not make such decisions.
Hunter's efforts to organize a black regiment plainly constituted another challenge to narrowly defined Union war aims. But he denied, tongue in cheek, that he had enlisted any fugitive slaves. Instead he had encountered "loyal slaves everywhere remaining on their plantations to welcome us, aid us, and supply us with food, labor, and information." It was, rather, "Fugitive Rebels" who had fled the Sea Islands, "leaving their servants behind them to shift as best they can for themselves."
"In the absence of any 'Fugitive Master Law,'" Hunter deadpanned, "the deserted Slaves would be wholly without remedy, had not the crime of Treason given them the right to pursue those persons of whose protection they have been thus suddenly bereft." Hunter noted that he had been ordered to "employ all loyal persons offering their services in defence of the Union and for suppression of this Rebellion," with "no restriction as to the character or color of the persons to be employed." Pursuant to those instructions, he had "clothed, equipped and armed the only loyal regiment yet raised in South Carolina." His men were "attentive and enthusiastic"; they had "great natural capacities" and were eager to "take the field and be led into action."
Hunter's bold initiative was slightly ahead of its time, but not by much. As his communiqué made its way north, the war overstepped all previous bounds. Union Gen. George B. McClellan's long-anticipated campaign against Richmond failed ignominiously during the last week of June. The "Seven Days" - a series of battles around the Southern capital that killed more soldiers than any previous encounters in the war - concluded with the Union Army immobilized along the banks of the James River, incapable of further offensive action. All hope vanished that the war might end soon, or that the old Union might somehow be restored intact.
Meanwhile a rising tide of Northern opinion demanded that Union war aims be broadened to include emancipation, and that black soldiers be enlisted for the fight ahead. On July 2, the most outspoken radical Republican in Congress, Pennsylvania's Thaddeus Stevens, revealed that Hunter had responded to Wickliffe's query. As the clerk started to read Hunter's saucy explanation of how he had enlisted "loyal negroes" to pursue "fugitive rebels," House members broke into boisterous applause, accompanied by "universal peals of laughter." One Republican moved that an extra 10,000 copies of Hunter's letter be printed; another upped the figure to 100,000. Even many Northern Democrats shared in the "merriment." Hunter's audacious humor momentarily relieved the gloom that had engulfed the Capitol after the Seven Days.
But Kentucky's pro-Union slaveholders were appalled by the unexpected flurry. Congressman Robert Mallory "never witnessed a scene more deeply mortifying." Hunter's letter contained "sentiments calculated to shock humanity." Charles Wickliffe indignantly condemned Hunter's "deliberate insult." It should "call down the condemnation of all Christendom," the Kentucky legislator raged. Hunter's "mad and impolitic scheme of emancipation" had no legal basis; the "Abolition General" proposed to replay "John Brown's raid" by sanctioning "murder, conflagration, and rapine." Wickliffe faulted Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who "should have returned General Hunter's letter, with an order removing him from his position." The war could be successfully waged only by "preserving the Constitution as it is and restoring the Union as it was."
Stevens eagerly counterattacked. It was "the duty of this Government to follow out the policy which has been inaugurated by the gallant and sagacious soldier who now commands our army in South Carolina," the sharp-tongued radical insisted; "you will never put down secession until you take that course." The pestilential "fogs and damps of the southern summer nights" continued to sicken and kill Northern soldiers. They alone could not "conquer the South." They needed help from "acclimated soldiers, men whose peculiar constitutions will bear the climate."
Stevens, like Hunter, wanted to send the Army into the black belts of the Deep South, and ask the slaves "to come from their masters, to take the weapons which we furnish, and to join us in this war of freedom against traitors and rebels."
A week later, Lincoln privately concluded that he must broaden Union war aims by attacking slavery. But he was constrained from saying so until September, when the Union army repelled the Confederate invasion of Maryland at the ferocious battle of Antietam. The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, dated Sept. 22, 1862, warned that those still in rebellion at the end of the year would forfeit their slaves.
The watershed moment arrived on Jan. 1, 1863, when Lincoln - using Hunter's original words - reiterated that rebel-held slaves would be "forever free." The president also invited those who had been "held as slaves" to participate in "the armed services of the United States." For the duration of the war, Lincoln steadfastly defended emancipation on grounds that the enlistment of black soldiers constituted "the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion."
Lincoln's change of policy came too late to save the First South Carolina Volunteers.
Hunter "strove mightily to obtain recognition and pay for them, but to no avail." In truth, some of the obstacles Hunter confronted were of his own making. Those enjoying their first reprieve from a lifetime of slavery had scant motive to enlist as unpaid soldiers, and Hunter's heavy-handed conscription methods had made matters worse. Before long, however, the regiment was reconstituted under the leadership of Massachusetts abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and hundreds more black regiments were raised between 1863 and 1865.
Emancipation thus became an official Union war aim, but former slaves failed to secure citizen rights. To make a long story short, the North won the war and attempted to frame a color-blind Constitution, but the white South won the peace and imposed a new form of quasi-slavery.
Hunter envisioned a different result. He wanted former slaves to have voting rights and he wanted to disfranchise "every white man in the least degree prominent on the rebel side." In his view the Confederate South had fought for "the liberty to do wrong" - "liberty to keep four millions of your fellow-beings in ignorance and degradation; - liberty to separate parents and children, husband and wife, brother and sister; - liberty to steal the products of their labor, exacted with many a cruel lash and bitter tear, - liberty to seduce their wives and daughters, and to sell your own children into bondage." The old warrior could not have been happy at the ultimate outcome.
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Sources: Congressional Globe, 37th Congress, Second Session, July 2 and 5, 1862; Edward A. Miller Jr., "Lincoln's Abolitionist General: The Biography of David Hunter"; Ira Berlin, Barbara J. Fields, Steven F. Miller, Joseph P. Reidy and Leslie S. Rowland, eds., "Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom and the Civil War"; Pvt. Miles O'Reilly (Charles Graham Halpine), "Baked Meats of the Funeral: A Collection of Essays, Poems, Speeches, Histories and Banquets"; Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "Army Life in a Black Regiment"; Willie Lee Rose, "Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment"; Mark Grimsley, "The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865."
Daniel W. Crofts is a professor at the College of New Jersey and author of "A Secession Crisis Enigma: William Henry Hurlbert and 'The Diary of a Public Man.'"