One my favorite Civil War letter writers is William Tecumseh Sherman. He wrote with a forthrightness and candor that I find refreshing. And one my favorite Sherman letters was written on August 24, 1862. The recipient was Thomas Hunton, a former West Point classmate of Sherman, who by 1862 was an attorney in New Orleans and a slaveholder. A native of Kentucky, Hunton was by then a long-time resident of the Crescent City and had sided with the Confederacy in the war, but sought his old friend’s help in recovering slaves that apparently had escaped upriver, possibly to Memphis, where Sherman was at the time in command of the Army of the Tennessee’s 5th Division and Union military governor of the city. So having spent considerable time in the South before the Civil War, where he had proved sympathetic to slaveholders, and with many southern friends, it makes sense that a desperate Hunton would reach out to his old classmate.
Sherman was certainly willing to reaffirm his friendship with Thomas Hunton. He wrote:
I freely admit that when you recall the times when we were schoolfellows, when we were younger than now, you touch me on a tender point, and cause me to deeply regret that even you should style yourself a Rebel. I cannot believe that Tom Hunton the Companion of Gaither, Rankin, and Irvin and many others long since dead, and of Halleck. Ord, Stevens and others still living can of his own free will admit the anarchical principle of secession or be vain enough to suppose the present Politicions Can frame a Government better than that of Washington Hamilton & Jefferson.
But Sherman with his candor then admitted:
We are Enemies, still private friends. In the one Capacity I will do you all the harm I can, yet on the other if here. you may have as of old my last Cent, my last shirt and pants, You ask of me your negroes. and I will immediately ascertain if they be under my Military Control and I will moreover see that they are one and all told what is true of all– Boys if you want to go to your master, Go– You are free to choose, You must now think for yourselves. Your Master has seceded from his Parent Government and you have seceded from him–both wrong by law–but bothe exercising an undoubted natural Right to rebel, If your boys want to go, I will enable them to go, but I wont advise, persuade or force them.
So if Thomas Hunton thought he might rely on his old friendship with “Cump” Sherman to get back his slaves he was mistaken. Although the General then admitted essentially no sympathy for the slaves, neither did he have much regard for rebel slaveholders, even if they were an old friend.
Then Sherman let Hunton have between the eyes with the heart of his justification for not returning any slave of a disloyal owner. It was similar to the argument that Ben Butler had made outside Fortress Monroe in May 1861 to Confederate Major John Baytop Cary. To whit, that once a slaveholder shifted his loyal from the Union to the Confederacy, they could no longer expect the United States to protect their slave property rights. Sherman explained:
The Constitution of the United States is your only legal title to slavery. You have another title, that of posession & Force, but in Law & Logic your title to your Boys lay in the Constitution of the United States. You may say you are for the Constitution of the United States, as it was– You know it is unchanged, not a word not a syllable and I can lay my hand on that Constitution and swear to it without one twang. But your party have made another and have another in force How can you say that you would have the old, when you have a new By the new if sucessful you inherit the Right of Slavery, but the new is not law till your Revolution is successful. Therefore we who contend for the old existing Law, Contend that you by your own act take away Your own title to all property save what is restricted by our constitution, your slaves included. You know I don’t want your slaves; but to bring you to reason I think as a Military Man I have a Right and it is good policy to make you all feel that you are but men–that you have all the wants & dependencies of other men, and must eat, be clad &c to which end you must have property & labor, and that by Rebelling you risk both, Even without the Confiscation Act, by the simple laws of War we ought to take your effective slaves. I don’t say to free them, but to use their labor & deprive you of it.
So if Thomas Hunton had not been yet acquainted with the concept of “contraband of war,” his old friend forthrightly described it to him as was the style of William Tecumseh Sherman. What a friend. What an education.