March 31, 1863 (Tuesday)
Word had reached Washington that certain officers within General Grant’s Army of the Tennessee were averse to arming the escaped and freed slaves daily coming into Union lines. “It has been reported to the Secretary of War,” wrote General-in-Chief Henry Halleck on this date in an unofficial letter to Grant, “that many of the officers of your command not only discourage the negroes from coming under our protection, but by ill-treatment force them to return to their masters.”
The treatment, it seems, was so bad that slavery and bondage were seen as favorable to this new, so-called freedom. In Halleck’s mind, this had to end.
“Whatever may be the individual opinion of an officer in regard to the wisdom of measures adopted and announced by the Government,” he continued, “it is the duty of every one to cheerfully and honestly endeavor to carry out the measures so adopted.”
Of course, the “measure adopted” weren’t purely for the spreading of egalitarianism across the South. “It is the policy of the Government to withdraw from the enemy as much productive labor as possible,” he explained. “So long as the rebels retain and employ their slaves in producing grains, &c., they can employ all the whites in the field. Every slave withdrawn from the enemy is equivalent to a white man put hors de combat.
But it wasn’t enough to simply snatch up the Confederacy’s slaves, requiring their former position to be filled by a Southern white man, and thus taking a white man out of the Rebel army. The purpose was for “the Government to use the negroes of the South, as far as practicable, as a military force, for the defense of forts, depots, &c.”
While keeping a former slave within Union lines would keep the slave from aiding the Confederacy, putting the former slave in a Union uniform and having him do behind-the-scenes garrison duty, would enable the Union army to put another white man in the front lines.
Looking ahead, Halleck envisioned a larger force made up entirely of freed slaves: “If the experience of General Banks near New Orleans should be satisfactory, a much larger force will be organized during the coming summer; and if they can be used to hold points on the Mississippi during the sickly season, it will afford much relief to our armies.”
Addressing the typical prejudices of the Army, that the black man was only worthy of being a laborer, teamster or a cook, Halleck retorted that it was “the opinion of many who have examined the question without passion or prejudice, that they can also be used as a military force.”
Reflecting back over the past two years of conflict, Halleck admitted “there is now no possible hope of reconciliation with the rebels. The Union party in the South is virtually destroyed. There can be no peace but that which is forced by the sword. We must conquer the rebels or be conquered by them. The North must conquer the slave oligarchy or become slaves themselves — the manufacturers mere “hewers of wood and drawers of water” to Southern aristocrats.”
And so the stakes were high. If the North lost the war, it would, in Halleck’s estimation anyway, neuter the states that stayed true to the Union. The Southern elite would return to their old ways of getting pretty much everything they wanted, while the Northern laborers would toil away in despair.
The letter would take some time to reach Grant, but when it did, he paid it only a brief acknowledgment. On April 21, Grant would add what amounted to a postscript tacked on the end of a report about the action before Vicksburg. “At least three of my army corps commanders take hold of the new policy of arming the negroes and using them against the enemy with a will,” related Grant. “They, at least, are so much of soldiers as to feel themselves under obligation to carry out a policy which they would not inaugurate in the same good faith and with the same zeal as if it was of their own choosing. You may rely on me carrying out any policy ordered by proper authority to the best of my ability.”
And that was that.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 3, p157-158; Part 1, p31. [↩]