General Hunter Frees the Slaves and Drafts Them into the Army

May 9, 1862 (Friday)

General David Hunter

General David Hunter, nearing sixty, had spent most of his life in the military. Though a West Point graduate of the Class of 1822, he saw little action. Through the Mexican War and the Indian Wars, Hunter was mostly confined behind a desk. A Republican, Hunter struck up a friendship with Abraham Lincoln in late 1860 and accompanied the President-Elect from Illinois to Washington, DC.

Following the Battle of Bull Run, which gave Hunter his first taste of battle, he was sent to Missouri as a military advisor to General John C. Fremont. After Fremont was removed, Hunter was given the Department of Kansas, which mostly involved fighting Indians. He did everything in his power to get out of Kansas, imploring the War Department and even Lincoln himself to give him another position.

When the Department of Kansas was folded into the Department of the Mississippi, under General Henry Halleck, Hunter was left out in the cold. Since his commission predated Halleck’s, he was technically the senior officer. And so, the new Department of the South was created and Hunter was ordered to command it.1

Hunter's Headquarters at Hilton Head, SC.

This new department consisted of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. As most of the coastline south of Charleston had been abandoned by Confederate forces, Hunter’s force consisted mostly of expeditionary troops dependent upon the Navy. Less than two weeks after his arrival, he commanded the reduction of Fort Pulaski and established his headquarters at Hilton Head.

With most of the white plantation owners gone, the slave population was left to their apparent freedom. This new realization made them less than happy to work as laborers for the Union Army. Hunter’s predecessor, General Thomas Sherman, was mystified over what to do with the 9,000 former slaves that fled into Union lines. Hunter inherited this problem.2

South Carolina plantation slaves.

Along the Southern coastline, the Navy had also been dealing with the newly-freed slaves. Unlike the Army, the Navy was allowed to enlist them into service at ten dollars and one meal per day. Some former slaves took advantage of it, but it did nothing to help the women, children and elderly. Eventually, several island colonies were established, but even those couldn’t keep up with the influx of over 12,000 escaped slaves.3

The newly-appointed General Hunter was, in his mind, up to the task. Two days after Fort Pulaski fell, he issued his first emancipation proclamation, freeing all slaves in and around the fort. Hunter also believed that he was grossly outnumbered; that many tens of thousands of Rebels were gathering to toss his small band out of the South.

Slaves from South Carolina.

He had written several times to Washington, asking for reinforcements, but no replies were made. And so, in early May, he began to take matters into his own hands. If Washington refused to give him troops, he would have to raise his own. Since the only people in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida sympathetic to the Union were black, then so be it.4

On this date, General David Hunter released his General Orders No. 11. “Slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible,” asserted Hunter. “The persons in these States — Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina— heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.”5

This wasn’t a simple emancipation, however. Hunter knew exactly what he was doing. Three days before releasing the proclamation, he wrote to the Treasury Agent in charge of contrabands. Hunter told him him that he desired “to organize in squads and companies, and perhaps into a regiment, a portion of the negroes that have escaped bondage and have come into our lines.” Hunter intended “to have them paid, fed, and clothed, as well as drilled, in the same manner with our other troops.” He also assured the Treasury Agent that he was authorized by the War Department to raise these regiments.

General Isaac Stevens as the first Governor of the Territory of Washington.

Two days later, Hunter wrote to General Isaac Stevens, commanding at Port Royal, looking for officers to staff the new regiment. “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.”6

Hunter was grossly stretching, if not completely disobeying, Lincoln’s orders. What he was referring to was the order given to General Thomas Sherman allowing him to organize freed slaves into “squads, companies, or otherwise.” Before it was sent, Lincoln read the order and attached his own amendment: “This, however, not to mean a general arming of them for military service.”7

Three days had passed since Hunter issued the call for black troops on May 6. Prior to abandoning their plantations, many slave owners convinced their slaves that the Union soldiers would load them onto boats and ship them to Cuba to be sold. This lack of trust, combined with the taste of freedom, kept many from volunteering.8

Not wishing to let either Washington or even the freedom he gave to the slaves stand in the way of reinforcements, Hunter ordered his six district commanders “to send immediately to these headquarters, under a guard, all the able-bodied negroes capable of bearing arms within the limits of their several commands.”9

On this date, General David Hunter became the first person to not only emancipate all slaves under his jurisdiction, but also the first Union officer to institute a draft, conscripting free people into the army. It would take nearly a week for the news to reach President Lincoln.10

  1. Biographical information from the Encyclopedia of the American Civil War edited by David S. & Jeanne T. Heidler, WW Northon & Co., 2000. Though out of print, this nearly 3,000 page tome is essential. []
  2. Lincoln’s Abolitionist General: The Biography of David Hunter by Edward A. Miller, University of South Carolina Press, 1997. []
  3. Success Is All That Was Expected; The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War by Robert M. Browning, Jr, Potomac Books, 2002. []
  4. Lincoln’s Abolitionist General: The Biography of David Hunter by Edward A. Miller, University of South Carolina Press, 1997. []
  5. The Rebellion Record, Vol 5 edited by Frank Moore, 1863. []
  6. Official Records, Series 3, Vol. 2, p29-30. []
  7. Abraham Lincoln: a History by John George Nicolay and John Hay, 1914. []
  8. Lincoln’s Abolitionist General: The Biography of David Hunter by Edward A. Miller, University of South Carolina Press, 1997. []
  9. Official Records, Series 3, Vol. 2, p31. []
  10. Both Generals Butler and Fremont had issued similar orders, but they only freed slaves of owners who support the Confederacy. []
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General Hunter Frees the Slaves and Drafts Them into the Army by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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