The Secretary of War gave permission to General Sherman in October of 1861 to "employ all loyal persons offering their services for the defense of the Union." Congress and public sentiment favored arming fugitive slaves, however, President Lincoln and many in the North were against it. By opposing the enlistment of fugitive slaves who outnumbered the rebels, more Union Troops fell victim to disease and injury. Lincoln even threatened to resign over the issue. General J. Watts De Peyster, Senator Charles Sumner, Senator Henry Wilson, and Governor Yates of Illinois were among those most vocal about arming slaves. See A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, page 86.
|David Hunter |
English: Library of Congress Civil War Collection
Source=Originally from [http://en.wikipedia.org en.wikipedia]; description page is/was [http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Image%3ADavid_Hunter.jpg here]. |Date=2005-04-30 )
Sherman did not agree with the growing sentiment, but when General David Hunter, nicknamed "Black Dave," relieved him on March 31, 1862, he boldly began to arm African Americans. The Government previously had the help of fugitive slave labor, they just did not arm them. Hunter was the first to do so, and he garnered no support from the Government. He was also condemned by the Northern press.
On June 9, 1862, C. A. Wycliff of the House from Kentucky sent a letter to the Secretary of War, Edward M. Stanton, calling into question Hunter's actions and demanding to know whether he had armed fugitive slaves, given them clothing, arms, uniforms, etc. and who had authorized him to do so. Hunter wrote a bold letter in response to Wycliff:
In the first place, General Hunter informed the Secretary of War that no regiment of "fugitive slaves" had been organized in his Department. He said that there was, " 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 this 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 go in full and effective pursuit of their fugacious and traitorous proprietors."
General Hunter then explained that the instructions issued by the Hon. Simon Cameron, late Secretary of War, to Brigadier - general Thomas W. Sherman, were turned over to him for his instruction and guidance; that the instructions authorized him " to employ all loyal persons offering their services in defense of the Union and the suppression of this Rebellion."
There was "no restriction as to the character or color of the persons to be employed," continued General Hunter," or the nature of the employment, whether civil or military, in which their services should be used." He thought the instructions warranted his enlistment of Negroes as well as whites, so that they were loyal; and that he was equally empowered "to enlist 'fugitive slaves' as soldiers, could any such be found" in the Department of the South. "No such characters, however," he continued, "have yet appeared within view of our most advanced pickets, the loyal slaves everywhere remaining on their plantations to welcome us, aid us, and supply us with food, labor, and information.
It is the masters who have in every instance been the 'fugitives,' running away from loyal slaves as well as loyal soldiers, and whom we have only partially been able to see—chiefly their heads over ramparts, or, rifle in hand, dodging behind trees—in the extreme distance. In the absence of any 'fugitive-master law,' the deserted slaves would be wholly without remedy, had not the crime of treason given them the right to pursue, capture, and bring back those persons of whose protection they have been thus suddenly bereft." The closing paragraph of General Hunter's admirable letter was the most concise statement on the question of making the Negro a soldier uttered during the war. It is splendid:
Every slave who enlisted under Hunter was given his freedom papers. Here is a copy of a "free paper:""I must say, in vindication of my own conduct, that had it not been for the many other diversified and imperative claims on my time and attention, a much more satisfactory result might have been hoped for; and that in place of only one, as at present, at least five or six well drilled, brave, and thoroughly acclimated regiments should by this time have been added to the loyal forces of the Union. The experiment of arming the blacks, so far as I have made it, has been a complete and even marvelous success. They are sober, docile, attentive, and enthusiastic; displaying great natural capacities for acquiring the duties of the soldier. They are eager, beyond all things, to take the field and be led into action; and it is the unanimous opinion of the officers who have had charge of them, that, in the peculiarities of this climate and country, they will prove invaluable auxiliaries—fully equal to the similar regiments so long and successfully used by the British authorities in the West India islands." See A history of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, pages 92-94.
"Headquarters Department of the South, "Port Royal, South Carolina, August 1,1862. "The bearer, Prince Rivers, a sergeant in First Regiment South Carolina Volunteers, lately claimed as a slave, having been employed in hostility to the United States, is hereby, agreeably to the law of the 6th August, 1861, declared free forever. His wife and children are also free. D. Hunter,"Major-general Commanding."
Hunter's Regiment was disbanded and Hunter resigned. His regiment was reorganized as the The First South Carolina Volunteers. Prince Rivers served in this regiment. Thomas Wentworth Higginson mentions him.
Prince Rivers, who became color−sergeant and provost−sergeant in the First South Carolina Volunteers, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, its colonel, writes: “There is not a white officer in this regiment who has more administrative ability, or more absolute authority over the men; they do not love him, but his mere presence has controlling power over them. He writes well enough to prepare for me a daily report of his duties in the camp; if his education reached a higher point, I see no reason why he should not command the Army of the Potomac.
He is jet−black, or rather, I should say, wine−black; his complexion, like that of others of my darkest men, having a sort of rich, clear depth, without a trace of sootiness, and to my eye very handsome. His features are tolerably regular, and full of command, and his figure superior to that of any of our white officers, being six feet high, perfectly proportioned, and of apparently inexhaustible strength and activity. His gait is like a panther's; I never saw such a tread. No anti−slavery novel has described a man of such marked ability. He makes Toussaint perfectly intelligible; and if there should ever be a black monarchy in South Carolina, he will be its king.
( Thomas Wentworth Higginson's Army Life in a Black Regiment, pp. 57, 58., & Letters From Port Royal by Elizabeth Ware Pearson)
Other officers shared the same sentiment as Hunter. General J. W. Phelps, West Point graduate from Vermont sought to raise regiments in Louisiana, but met with opposition. We will feature the formation of the First Regiment Louisiana Native Guards in an upcoming post.