Early April 1862 saw past events working themselves out and portents of things to come along the road to emancipation.
A portent came on April 3, when the Gen. David Hunter wrote Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton from his headquarters in Hilton Head, S.C. Hunter, recently installed as commander of the Department of the South, had been given the unenviable task of solidifying and expanding the Union toe holds in coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida with minimal personnel and supplies. Although his activities were essential to the northern naval blockade of the South, Hunter got the short stick in competing for resources with high-profile Union commanders, such George McClellan, who was that spring voraciously diverted soldiers and supplies for his Peninsula campaign against the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.
Hunter, who had served under John C. Frémont in Missouri, when Frémont had attempted on his own authority to free slaves of the disloyal owners there, saw the solution to his manpower problem in the thousands of slaves within his lines. Not only could they be used as laborers to support white Union troops, but also David Hunter concluded soon after his arrival that they could be trained to fight as soldiers. He delicately broached this idea in his letter to Secretary Stanton, stating “I most earnestly request that 50,000 muskets, with all the necessary accouterments, and 200 rounds for each piece, may be sent to me at once, with authority to arm such loyal men as I can find in the country, whenever, in my opinion, they can be used advantageously against the enemy.“
The highly intelligent Stanton could not have failed to understand what David Hunter was implying (since there were few if any loyal whites in the Sea Islands region in April 1862), but he chose to ignore the request since the Lincoln administration still rejected the idea of armed black men in the federal army (although it had accepted blacks in the Navy the previous fall). A desperate and impatient Hunter would start recruiting African Americans on his own authority the following month, in what was the first serious attempt to organize black men for army service in the Civil War (but that is a story for another time).
While the idea of armed black service remained controversial, increasingly Union Army leaders accepted the value of slaves otherwise to the Union war effort, judging that generally giving slaves refuge was smarter than trying to curry favor with their owners by returning them. Congress, of course, had enacted a new article of war the previous month making it a cashierable offense for army officers to return escaped slaves to their owners. Yet it remained uncertain if army commanders would enforce the new article of war or try to get around it by seeking altogether to exclude slaves from their lines (as other Union commanders had tried). A sign that the army generally was going along with Congress is a letter from an aide of Gen. Abner Doubleday, then commanding a blocking force protecting Washington, D.C., during the Peninsula campaign, dated April 6, 1862. Doubleday’s aide wrote the commander of a New York regiment:
Sir I am directed by Gen’l Doubleday to say in answer to your letter of the 2d inst. that all negroes coming into the lines of any of the camps or Forts under his command, are to be treated as persons and not as chattels.
Under no circumstances has the commander of a Fort or camp the power of surrendering persons claimed as fugitive slaves as this cannot be done without determining their character The additional article of war recently passed by Congress positively prohibits this.
The question has been asked whether it would not be better to exclude negroes altogether from the lines. The General is of opinion that they bring much valuable information which cannot be obtained from any other source. They are acquainted with all the roads, paths fords and other natural features of the country and they make excellent guides They also Know and frequently, have exposed the haunts of secession spies and traitors and the existance of reble organization. They will not therefore be exclude. The General also directs me to say that civil process cannot be served directly in the camps or Forts of his command without full authority obtained from the commanding officer for that purpose. I am very respectfully your obt Servt.
So Doubleday believed on pragmatic and legal grounds that it was generally a good idea not to return escaped slaves, but left the New York colonel with wiggle room to do so under his personal authority if the slave owner carried a court order. No doubt this exception was allowed because of the presence of some Unionist slaveholders in Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia who still had standing to claim their slaves and access to courts to obtain civil enforcement orders.
Yet the day was rapidly approaching when even loyal slaveholders would not have the law on their side. Congress, in early April 1862, was on the verge of ending slavery in Washington, D.C. Even before that, the body threw its support behind President Lincoln’s message the previous month, requesting Congressional support for those states that enacted gradual compensated emancipation. On April 10, Congress provided Lincoln with the joint resolution he asked for, which stated:
Be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the United States ought to coöperate with any State which may adopt gradual abolishment of slavery, giving to such State pecuniary aid, to be used by such State in its discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences, public and private, produced by such change of system.
Of course, it remained to be seen if the loyal slave states would take up Lincoln and Congress on this offer of assistance, but Lincoln’s request and Congress’ acceptance of that request both were potent signals of the growing determination of national leaders by Spring 1862 to end slavery in the United States. More actions to further that goal would soon be forthcoming.