Lincoln Rebukes David Hunter

On May 9, 1862, Gen. David Hunter, in command of Union forces in coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, on his own authority freed the slaves in those states. Hunter’s action was meant to bolster his position by encouraging pro-Union sentiment among the slaves, and to put pressure on President Abraham Lincoln to embrace immediate, uncompensated emancipation, instead of the gradual, compensated emancipation the President had advocated back in March.

Lincoln was not cowed. Ten days later, on May 19, 1862, he issued a proclamation countermanding Hunter’s emancipation. It read:

Whereas there appears in the public prints, what purports to be a proclamation, of Major General Hunter, in the words and figures following, to wit:

Head Quarters Department of the South, 
Hilton Head, S.C.  May 9, 1862.

General Orders No 11.–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, Florida and South Carolina–heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.

(Official)  David Hunter, 
Major General Commanding.

Ed. W. Smith,
   Acting Assistant Adjutant General.

And whereas the same is producing some excitement, and misunderstanding; therefore

I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, proclaim and declare, that the government of the United States, had no knowledge, information, or belief, of an intention on the part of General Hunter to issue such a proclamation; nor has it yet, any authentic information that the document is genuine–  And further, that neither General Hunter, nor any other commander, or person, has been authorized by the Government of the United States, to make proclamations declaring the slaves of any State free; and that the supposed proclamation, now in question, whether genuine or false, is altogether void, so far as respects such declaration.

I further make known that whether it be competent for me, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, to declare the slaves of any State or States, free, and whether at any time, in any case, it shall have become a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the government, to exercise such supposed power, are questions which, under my responsibility, I reserve to myself, and which I cannot feel justified in leaving to the decision of commanders in the field.  These are totally different questions from those of police regulations in armies and camps.

On the sixth day of March last, by a special message, I recommended to Congress the adoption of a joint resolution to be substantially as follows:

Resolved, That the United States ought to co-operate with any State which may adopt a 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.

The resolution, in the language above quoted, was adopted by large majorities in both branches of Congress, and now stands an authentic, definite, and solemn proposal of the nation to the States and people most immediately interested in the subject matter.  To the people of those States I now earnestly appeal–  I do not argue, I beseech you to make the arguments for yourselves–  You can not if you would, be blind to the signs of the times–  I beg of you a calm and enlarged consideration of them, ranging, if it may be, far above personal and partizan politics.  This proposal makes common cause for a common object, casting no reproaches upon any–  It acts not the pharisee.  The change it contemplates would come gently as the dews of heaven, not rending or wrecking anything.  Will you not embrace it?  So much good has not been done, by one effort, in all past time, as, in the providence of God, it is now your high privilege to do.  May the vast future not have to lament that you have neglected it.

It is not surprising that Lincoln countermanded Hunter’s emancipation order. He had taken the same action the previous September, when Gen. John C. Frémont had tried to free Missouri’s slaves of disloyal owners on his own authority. As commander-in-chief, Lincoln could not allow himself to be defied by general officers, which would threaten the principle of civilian control of the military.

Yet things were different with David Hunter in May 1862 than with John C. Frémont in September 1861. By Spring 1862, Lincoln was committed to emancipation. He merely disagreed with Hunter on the means.  It is worth noting that in the last paragraph of his May 19 declaration, President Lincoln urged (begged really) the southern states to embrace his proposal for gradual, compensated emancipation, subtlety intimating at the end that his support for this idea was not open-ended. Clearly, Abraham Lincoln realized that his friend, David Hunter, might be right about the means by which emancipation might have to occur, even if Lincoln was not quite ready to embrace the idea of immediate, uncompensated emancipation. But the time was fast approaching.


About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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3 Responses to Lincoln Rebukes David Hunter

  1. General Hunter was removed on September 5, 1862. He was officially replaced by General O M Mitchel on September 17, 1862. Unfortunately for Mitchel he died on October 27, 1862. After General Brannan served as a temporary replacement General Hunter was reassigned to the command of the Department on January 20, 1863 and lasted until June 12, 1863. I think that he was brought back because of the critical nature of the 1st and 2nd South Carolina troops (33rd and 34th USCT). Brannan was no fan of African American soldiers. General Hunter was an extremely complicated man and Lincoln’s first pick as a political general. See more on Hunter at

    • Thanks for the correction — I’ve revised my post – but I actually used your profile on Hunter as a source and it isn’t as detailed about Hunter and when he was in command of the Department of the South as your comment.

  2. The wonders of the web is that it’s hard to write a book on it. The Department of the South information is on But the most interesting story on the termination of General Hunter can be found on where the message about General Hunter’s termination and the formation of the 1st South Carolina was entrusted to Rev. Mansfield and Robert Smalls who were in D.C. visiting the President and other officials (see section entitled :”1st South Carolina.”)

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