If Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, had thought they had cowed Gen. David Hunter by countermanding his order of emancipation in Spring 1862 for the Department of the South, they were sorely mistaken. Even before Hunter tried to free the slaves in his command, on his own initiative he took the unprecedented step of recruiting black men into the Union Army. In early May 1862 he began raising a regiment of contraband slaves. On May 8, 1862 (the day before he issued his emancipation order for the Department of the South), wrote his subordinate, Brig. Gen. Issac I. Stevens:
I am authorized by the War Department to form the negroes into “squads, companies, or otherwise,” as I may deem most beneficial to the public service. I have concluded to enlist two regiments to be officered from the most intelligent and energetic of our non-commissioned officers; men who will go
into it with all their hearts.
Hunter’s actions were consistent with his abolitionist tendencies and his belief that since his superiors in Washington, D.C., neglected the Department of the South he was justified taking extraordinary steps to bolster the strength of his isolated command. Hunter had asked the War Department in late April 1862 for authority to recruit African Americans as soldiers, but when he received no answer, he went ahead with the idea on his own authority. As with his emancipation order, however, David Hunter overreached. Just as Stanton and Lincoln were not ready for immediate emancipation in late Spring 1862 they were not ready to recruit blacks as Union soldiers.
But it took longer in the case of Hunter’s black soldiers for the Lincoln administration to respond. Lincoln and his cabinet was busy enough in Spring 1862 with McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign to capture Richmond, and what little attention could be spared the Department of the South went to countermanding Hunter’s emancipation order and responding to the public furor over it in the North and especially in the loyal slave states. While David Hunter did not try to keep his recruitment activities of African Americans a secret, he also did not go out of his way to let his superiors in Washington know what he was doing. Soon enough though word of Hunter’s new initiative spread, especially because of his recruiting methods. Instead of simply seeking volunteers among the male African-American population in Union-controlled areas of the Department of South, the general gave orders that all black men of military age, who appeared capable of service, be impressed by Union recruiters. In other words, he instituted an informal draft. This brought Hunter into conflict with Treasury agents caring for plantations abandoned by their owners, who needed black laborers to keep them functioning. These men complained to their immediate superior, Edward L. Pierce, overseeing Treasury Department interests in Hunter’s command, who then proceeded to complain to the general. On May 11, 1862, Pierce wrote Hunter, informing him that the Treasury Department had expended large sums of money to keep in production the plantations under his care and that money would be wasted if he lost his most productive workers. Not only that, but Pierce also feared that the fragile alliance of federal authorities with the African Americans in the Sea Islands would be undone if they were impressed for military service. He wrote to the general:
As the persons are to be taken to Hilton Head, and without their consent, I assume (though I trust under a misapprehension) that they are to be organized for military purposes without their consent. I deplore the probable effects of this on their minds. They are ignorant, suspicious, and sensitive. They have not acquired such confidence in us; they have no so far recovered the manhood which two centuries of bondage have rooted out; they do not as yet so realize that they have a country to fight for, as to make this, in my judgment, a safe way of dealing with them. I have been struck, and so have other associated with me been struck, with their indisposition to become soldiers. This indisposition will pass away, but only time and a growing confidence in us will remove it. I fear also that an enforced enlistment will give color to their masters’ assurance that we were going to take them to Cuba. For these and other reasons, which I have not time to give, I deplore the order which summarily calls these people to Hilton Head, there to be enrolled and enlisted. Even if they are to return, they would be excited by the trip; the families left behind would be in disorder, and all would be in suspense as to what would come next.
The day following his letter to Hunter, Pierce wrote his boss in Washington, D.C., Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, alerting him to the general’s action and the problems they were causing. Nonetheless, Lincoln administration did not act until Hunter’s recruitment of African Americans came to the attention of Congress. On June 9, 1862, the House of Representative passed a resolution, written by Kentucky Congressman Charles A. Wyckliffe, demanding information from War Department on Hunter’s activities, especially:
. . . if General Hunter of the Department of South Carolina has organized a regiment of South Carolina volunteers for the defense of the Union composed of black men (fugitive slaves). . . . Was he authorized by the Department to organize and muster into the Army of the United
States as soldiers the fugitive or captive slaves?
To this inquiry, Edwin M. Stanton feigned ignorance that David Hunter was recruiting African Americans into the Union Army (Chase had advised him of it on May 27), and disavowed that the general had received any authority from the Lincoln administration to do so. Not surprisingly, the Secretary of War then hastened to write Hunter for clarification. David Hunter’s reply, dated June 23, 1862, was a model of proud defiance in defending his actions. He wrote Stanton:
. . . no regiment of fugitive slaves has been or is being organized in this department. There is, however, a fine regiment of persons whose late masters are fugitive rebels — men who everywhere fly before the appearance of the national flag, leaving their servants behind them to shift as best they can for themselves. So far, indeed, are the loyal persons composing the regiment from seeking to avoid the presence of their late owners, that they are now, one and all, working with remarkable industry to place themselves in a position to join in full and effective pursuit of their fugacious and traitorous proprietors.
Hunter further justified his actions by a creative interpretation of the instructions given his predecessor, Thomas W. Sherman, by Stanton’s predecessor, Simon Cameron. The general stated:
. . . the instructions given to Brig.-Gen T. W. Sherman by the Hon. Simon Cameron, late Secretary of War, turned over to me by succession for my guidance, do distinctly authorize me to employ all loyal persons offering their service in defence of the Union and for the suppression of this rebellion in any manner I may see fit, or that circumstances may call for. There is no restriction as to the character or color of the persons to be employed or the nature of the employment, whether civil or military, in which their services may be used. I conclude, therefore, that I have been authorized to enlist fugitive slaves as soldiers could any such be found in this department.
Interestingly, unlike the case of his emancipation order, Lincoln and Stanton did not seek to reverse David Hunter’s initiative to recruit black men as soldiers. But neither did they retroactively sanction it and refused to feed, cloth, or pay Hunter’s black regiment. Despite legislation from Congress in Summer 1862 authorizing the recruitment of African Americans as soldiers, the Lincoln administration still declined to recognize the regiment, and the general was forced to disband it except for one company under Captain Charles Towbridge, which he managed to keep in service. This company would later, after Hunter left, form the nucleus of the 1st South Carolina Infantry, later redesignated the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry. So while David Hunter was unsuccessful in getting his black regiment accepted into federal service, his efforts were not wasted, as they pressed the issue of recruiting African Americans into the Union Army and eased the path for other black units that would soon follow.
Sources: 1) http://www.drbronsontours.com/bronsongeneraldavidhuntersorderestablishingthefirstblackregiment.html; 2) http://www.drbronsontours.com/bronsonportroyalexperimentcorrespondence2345onimpressmentoffreedmenfor1stsouthcarolina.html; 3) http://www.drbronsontours.com/bronsongeneraldavidhuntercongressionalinquiryintohuntersregiment.html; 4) http://faculty.assumption.edu/aas/manuscripts/hunter.html.