One of the nagging questions confronting Americans in Spring 1862 was the slaves’ fate. Although the end of slavery was then by no means certain, with slaves having fled into Union lines for about a year, national leaders finally were seriously debating their future. Abolitionist Republicans were pushing for a new confiscation law in Congress that would formally free the slaves of rebel owners subject to the First Confiscation Act (August 1861). They would succeed in passing this law in July 1862, but in May 1862 the ultimate fate of the bill remained uncertain. President Lincoln was still pushing his March 1862 plan for voluntary, gradual, and compensated emancipation, and did not believe popular opinion in the country was ready for the bill put forward by the radicals in his own party. Lincoln, and many members of Congress, also doubted Congress, in the wake of 1857’s Dred Scott decision, had the constitutional authority to free slaves outside the District of Columbia (which they had just done).
One argument made in favor of freeing the slaves in Spring 1862 was military necessity. To wit, that to save the Union would require the slaves’ assistance and the best way to insure their help while denying it to the Confederates would be to reward the slaves with freedom. This reasoning would sway President Lincoln over the summer, resulting in the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September, but in May 1862, Lincoln was still trying (unsuccessfully) to get loyal slaveholders in the Border states to accept gradual compensated emancipation.
In the Union army, the military necessity argument was gaining support, as the value of slaves to the Confederate cause became clear, as well as the human costs of the war, which at that point in a military sense fell almost exclusively on whites. Given the horrid carnage, even racists could support the military necessity argument, since black bodies could stop bullets just as well as white ones.
But for at least one Union commander in Spring 1862, the military necessity argument seemed particularly compelling. The officer in question was Maj. Gen. David Hunter, in charge of the isolated Department of the South, with the responsibility of maintaining the Union Army’s tenuous toehold in coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, which was essential to maintaining the northern blockade of southern Atlantic ports. The War Department, in Hunter’s opinion, treated his command as a backwater. He pleaded with Secretary of War Stanton in a letter dated April 3, 1862 for more troops and supplies, expressing a thinly disguised desire to organize local African Americans for service as soldiers.
But Hunter’s intentions went beyond merely recruiting black men into the Union Army. Like his former superior, John C. Frémont, the previous August, he decided to try to end slavery in his command on his own authority. The first sign of his intention came only days after his letter to Stanton. On April 11, 1862, Gen. Hunter’s forces captured Fort Pulaski, guarding the entrance to the harbor of Savannah, Georgia. Two days later, David Hunter issued General Order No. 7, freeing the slaves taken in the operation to capture the fort. The order read:
All persons of color lately held to involuntary service by enemies of the United States in Fort Pulaski and on Cockspur Island, Georgia are hereby confiscated and declared free, in conformity with law, and shall hereafter receive the fruits of their own labor. Such of said persons of color as are able-bodied and may be required shall be employed in the quartermaster’s department at the rates heretofore established by Brig. T. W. Sherman.
With no apparent reaction from President Lincoln or the War Department to this ambiguous order, Gen. Hunter, on May 9, 1862, boldly emancipated all slaves in his command. The relevant document, General Order No. 11, left no uncertainty about its intent. It read:
The three States of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina, comprising the Military Department of the South, having deliberately declared themselves no longer under the protection of the United States of America, and having taken up arms against the said United States, it becomes a military necessity to declare them under martial law. This was accordingly done on the 25th day of April, 1862. Slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible. The persons in these three States—Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida—heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.
As with Gen. Frémont nine months earlier, David Hunter had brazenly challenged the authority of his commander-in-chief. Hunter was aware of John Frémont’s fate, losing his command, as he had served as Frémont’s interim replacement. So why did Hunter challenge Lincoln anyways? First, as previously indicated, he was in dire need of soldiers and laborers. While not cut off from the outside world, he was in a precarious position distant from reinforcement and resupply, which often did not arrive in any case. Second, the political climate was quite different from September 1861, when Frémont had defied Lincoln. Since that time support in the North for emancipation had increased tremendously and even the President supported the idea as long as he could coax loyal slaveholders to agree. Hunter must have decided the time was ripe to prod Lincoln to take the next logical step toward immediate and uncompensated emancipation because the success of the Union cause required it, especially in isolated commands such as his, where the only local allies were the slaves. Third, David Hunter also must have reckoned he could stand up to Lincoln because they were friends instead of rivals as had been the case with Frémont. Hunter had been an early supporter of Lincoln’s presidential aspirations and had rode the train with him from Springfield to Washington, D.C. for the inauguration. Indeed, Hunter owed his rapid rise to major general during the first year of the war as much to his close political connection with the President as to his West Point education. No doubt, David Hunter believed he was doing Abraham Lincoln a favor by forcing him toward a policy that would help win the war and preserve the Union. Like many other men, he had misjudged and underestimated Lincoln. But that is a story for another time.