Cameron Tries to Arm the Slaves, Lincoln Rejects

December 2, 1861 (Monday)

The question over what to do with escaped slaves had already been answered. The Confiscation Act declared that any slaves working for the Confederate government could be kept by the Union government as contraband of war. This, however, was proving to be a slippery slope.

Prior to the expedition to Port Royal, General Thomas Sherman asked the Assistant Secretary of War what to do with the many former slaves that might enter Union lines.

The Assistant Secretary responded that he was to employ any and all blacks that came to him. Sherman was also given permission to employ them in military companies. Before the reply could be sent, however, President Lincoln added a note, saying that this was “not to mean a general arming of them for military service.”

Naturally, if former slaves were employed by the Union Army, they must be protected. Possibly, it could follow, that they must also be allowed to protect themselves.

With that in mind, Secretary of War Simon Cameron had endorsed the idea of arming freed slaves, believing that it could be an essential weapon. He argued this position in cabinet meetings and dinner parties, alike. Finally, however, he made it official.

Every December, each department submitted an annual report to the President. They were often widely published in newspapers across the country. In writing his report, Cameron, with the help of Edwin Stanton, the Attorney General under Buchanan, made it clear that the slaves were to be armed.1

“It is clearly a right of the Government to arm slaves when it may become necessary,” read a controversial line, probably added by Stanton, from the report. Cameron introduced the idea with a retelling of the Confiscation Act, but quickly moved beyond it. The Confiscation Act was fairly vague concerning the legal status of the freed slaves.

Cameron wrote that whatever their status, “they cannot be held by the Government as slaves.” He reasoned that they must be used “in the most effective manner that will tend most speedily to suppress the insurrection and restore the authority of the Government.”

The Secretary reasoned that if it was found that the slaves were “capable of bearing arms and performing military service, it is the right, and may of war, become the duty, of the Government to arm and equip them, and employ their services against the rebels, under proper military regulation, discipline, and command.”2

As Lincoln was preparing his own speech to Congress, he was looking through the reports of each of his departments. A Government printer had given the President a copy of Cameron’s report, noting that he should probably read it immediately. Lincoln was astonished to learn that it had already been bound and sent out to be published in the papers. As Lincoln read to its closing paragraphs, however, he exclaimed, “This will not do! General Cameron must take no such responsibility. That is a question that belongs exclusively to me.”3

Lincoln grabbed a pencil and crossed out the offending paragraph. The copies sent to the press were recalled and replaced with an edited version. The controversial stand was replaced with the wishy-washy phrase “their labor may be useful to us.”4

Interestingly enough, the report submitted by Naval Secretary Gideon Welles also provided a place for fugitive slaves. Welles made an allowance that they “should be cared for and employed in some useful manner, and might be enlisted to serve on our public vessels or in our Navy-yards, receiving wages tor their labor.”5

Cameron did not fail to point this out, but Lincoln allowed Welles to publish his report unchanged. The reason was simple. The Union Army, overseen by Cameron’s War Department, occupied the Rebels states. The Navy, overseen by Welles’ Department, did not. If blacks were armed in such volatile states as Missouri, Kansas and Western Virginia, it might turn the balance of power over to the Confederacy.6

As Lincoln prepared his own speech to Congress, which would be delivered the next day, he took all this into account.


Lincoln Declares Martial Law in Missouri

Missouri was in a “state of insurrection,” according to General Henry Halleck, commander of the Department of Missouri. A state of martial law had existed in St. Louis since the command of General Fremont, but Halleck wanted it to be completely sanctioned by President Lincoln. If Lincoln could not sanction it, he wished to be relieved of his command.

General: As an insurrection exists in the United States and is in arms in the State of Missouri, you are hereby authorized and empowered to suspend the writ of habeas corpus within the limits of the military division under your command, and to exercise martial law as you find it necessary, in your discretion, to secure the public safety and the authority of the United States.

In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed, at Washington, this second day of December, A. D. 1861.7

Lincoln then affixed his own full signature to the document, something he only did on important dispatches. Secretary of State William Seward also signed it. Unlike those who wielded power before him, General Halleck would wait several weeks before issuing the decree.8

  1. Team of Rivals by Dorris Kearns Goodwin, 2005. []
  2. As printed in Abraham Lincoln: a History Vol. 5 by John George Nicolay and John Hay, 1914. []
  3. Six months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, Hurd and Houghton, 1866. []
  4. Abraham Lincoln: a History Vol. 5 by John George Nicolay and John Hay, 1914. []
  5. New York Times, December 4, 1861. []
  6. Team of Rivals by Dorris Kearns Goodwin, 2005. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p401. []
  8. Grant Rises in the West; The First Year, 1861-1862 by Kenneth P. Williams, Bison Books, 1997. []
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Cameron Tries to Arm the Slaves, Lincoln Rejects by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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