Lincoln Declares Hunter’s Emancipation Proclamation “Altogether Void”

May 19, 1862 (Monday)

General David Hunter

General David Hunter’s emancipation of slaves wasn’t going as well as he had hoped. On May 9th, without orders or the authority to do so, he had declaired all the slaves in his Department of the South (Florida, Georgia and South Carolina), as free, hoping that they would join the Union army. After quickly realizing that years of servitude didn’t automatically make one jubilant to up and join the army, he set about drafting them against their will.

In some cases, Union soldiers took the slaves from the field, not even allowing them to return home to gather their belongings. Some slaves naturally ran away, hiding in the woods, while Union soldiers chased them down and impressed them into the ranks. Most were afraid that they were being rounded up to be shipped to Cuba to be put up on the auction block, as their now-former masters had told them would happen when the Yankees arrived.

Hunter quickly came to another realization: Newly-freed slaves wanted to enjoy their freedom. Soon, he allowed any who didn’t want to join the army to return home (wherever that was).

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase

Meanwhile, President Lincoln knew nothing of Hunter’s actions for a week. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase was probably the first person in the administration to hear about it. Edward L. Pierce, the treasury official in Hunter’s department had written to Chase protesting the emancipation. Since Hunter was from the army, Chase passed the letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who did nothing about it.

The press, however, was a different story. They picked up on the emancipation part of it (basically ignoring the idea of blacks being in the army) and came out flatly against Hunter. With the papers making a typical circus of it, both Chase and Stanton, as well as the rest of the Cabinet and the President himself, had to take some stand on it.1

Secretary Chase, who had basically ignored the situation, realized that he actually supported Hunter. On the 16th, he wrote to Lincoln, telling him that is was “of the highest importance … that this Order not be revoked. It has been made as a military measure, to meet a military exigency….”2

Lincoln’s response, a day later, foreshadowed the final outcome: “No commanding general shall do such a thing, upon my responsibility, without consulting me.”3

Abraham Lincoln, painting by George Peter Alexander Healy (1869).

With the spring campaigns getting underway and looking as if they’d be stretching well into summer, Secretary Stanton was getting worried about recruiting. He telegraphed the governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew, asking him to raise, arm and equip three or four infantry regiments. Andrew doubted that the boys of New England who hadn’t already signed up could be enticed to join. That is, “But, if the President will sustain General Hunter, recognize all men, even black men, as legally capable of that loyalty the blacks are waiting to manifest, and let them fight, with God and human nature on their side, the roads will swarm if need be with multitudes whom New England would pour out to obey your call.”4

Despite the calls from Secretary Chase and Governor Andrew, on this date, Lincoln officially and very publicly declared Hunter’s proclamation null and void.

Lincoln first tried to distance himself and the administration from General Hunter. Neither he, nor the government, had any “knowledge, information, or belief of an intention on the part of General Hunter to issue such a proclamation” He added that no military officer had the authority “to make proclamations declaring the slaves of any State free.”

After declaring Hunter’s proclamation “altogether void,” he reiterated that if the decision to free the slaves was ever on the table, it would not be left “to the decision of commanders in the field,” but to the President alone.

Not so fast!

He also mentioned the proposal of compensation for any state that adopted a gradual emancipation of slavery. Turning to this campaign, while leaving Hunter’s behind, Lincoln continued. “The change it contemplates would come gently as the dews of heaven,” he eloquently argued with an eye towards the South, “not rending or wrecking anything. Will you not embrace it?”5

Apart from Lincoln’s statement declaring the proclamation void, Hunter never received any word from either Lincoln or Stanton concerning this affair. Throughout, and long after, the war, Hunter was sure that though Lincoln repudiated it, he only did so due to political pressure. “I believe he rejoined in my action,” wrote a confident Hunter.6

  1. Lincoln’s Abolitionist General: The Biography of David Hunter by Edward A. Miller, University of South Carolina Press, 1997. []
  2. Chase to Lincoln, May 16, 1862, from The Salmon P. Chase Papers edited by John Niven, Kent State University Press, 1998. []
  3. Lincoln to Chase, May 17, 1862, from Abraham Lincoln: The Complete Works, Vol. 1 edited by John Hay, Century, 1920. []
  4. Andrew to Stanton, May 19, 1862, from The Life of John A. Andrew: Governor of Massachusetts, 1861-1865, Volume 2 by Henry Greenleaf Pearson, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1904. []
  5. Official Records, Series 3, Vol. 2, p42-43. []
  6. Lincoln’s Abolitionist General: The Biography of David Hunter by Edward A. Miller, University of South Carolina Press, 1997. []
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Lincoln Declares Hunter’s Emancipation Proclamation “Altogether Void” by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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