General Hunter cites the lack of a “fugitive master law”

In early June 1862, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution asking for information regarding a regiment of former slaves organized and armed by General David Hunter, commanding the Department of the South at Port Royal, South Carolina.  In the first week of July, Hunter’s response, forwarded through the Secretary of War, made the rounds in Washington.

A bit of background is in order.  After the fall of Fort Pulaski in April, Hunter pushed the idea of emancipation by the force of arms – first with an order freeing any slaves then on Cockspur Island (where Fort Pulaski was located).  Later, on May 9, Hunter extended that to include any slaves in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.  This put President Abraham Lincoln in a difficult position.  Lincoln had to overrule Hunter’s order and disavow any knowledge.  This, of course, while keeping on the good side of abolitionists.  So Lincoln re-issued his call for compensated, and gradual, abolition.

But Hunter continued to push the envelope.  After the May 9 proclamation, Hunter ordered the recruitment of a regiment from the fugitive slaves within the Federal lines.  Of course, this move was entirely unsanctioned.  So the congressmen asked:

  • Was General Hunter indeed organizing a regiment of “fugitive slaves”?
  • What authority authorized the regiment?
  • Did the War Department furnish equipment, clothing, arms, etc. for this regiment?

So Hunter responded as a good general is required.

To the first question, therefore, I reply that no regiment of “fugitive slaves” has been or is being organized in this department. There is, 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 placer themselves in a position to go in full and effective pursuit of their fugacious and traitorous proprietors.

Hunter certainly missed his true calling!  He might fit in well on some political campaign staffs today.

To the second question, he proceeded to throw his predecessor under the bus… or would it be carriage in 1862?

To the second question I have the honor to answer that the instructions given to Brig. Gen. T. W. Sherman by the Hon. Simon Cameron, late Secretary of War, and turned over to me by succession for my guidance, do distinctly authorize me to employ all loyal persons offering their services in defense of the Union, and for the suppression of this rebellion, in any manner I might see fit, or that the circumstances might call for.

Hunter was referring to an October 14, 1861 authorization to use “contrabands” or fugitive slaves in non-combat support roles.  But Hunter continued with elaboration:

There is no restriction as to the character or color of the persons to be employed or the nature of the employment, whether civil or military, in which their services should be used. I conclude, therefore, that I have been authorized to enlist “fugitive slaves” as soldiers, could any such be found in this department. No such characters, however, 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…. 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.

You have admit, the war to “return fugitive masters to their servants” might have sold better in some quarters.

To the third interrogatory it is my painful duty to reply that I never have received any specific authority for issues of clothing, uniforms, arms, equipments, &c., to the troops in question. My general instructions from Mr. Cameron to employ them in any manner I might find necessary, and the military exigencies of the department and the country being my only, but, in my judgment, sufficient, justification. Neither have I had any specific authority for supplying these persons with shovels, spades, and pickaxes, when employing them as laborers, nor with boats and oars when using them as lighter-men…. To me it seemed that liberty to employ men in any particular capacity implied with it liberty also to supply them with the necessary tools, and acting upon this faith I have clothed, equipped, and armed the only loyal regiment yet raised in South Carolina.

So there you have it.  Good thing Hunter didn’t need any extra lawyers.

Hunter further justified his actions noting he could easily add several more regiments (and later events would prove him right), describing the soldiers as “sober, docile, attentive, and enthusiastic, displaying great natural capacities for acquiring the duties of the soldier.”  He further noted the British had used similarly raised regiments in the West Indies.  But what Hunter left out was his “recruitment” practices bordered on impressment.

Concluding, Hunter lost no chance to jab at the Lincoln administration, and from a distance one of his peers.

I would say it is my hope, there appearing no possibility of other re-enforcements, owing to the exigencies of the campaign in the Peninsula, to have organized by the end of next fall and to be able to present to the Government from 48,000 to 50,000 of these hardy and devoted soldiers.

Regardless, Hunter had to disband this early colored troops regiment.  While Hunter was not the greatest field commander, he was looking towards the future.  But his numbers were low.  By war’s end over 175,000 US Colored Troops served in arms for the Union cause.

Hunter’s reply appears as an inclosure to the War Department’s official response to the Speaker of the House, dated July 2, 1862, and appearing in the Official Records, Series III, Volume 2, Serial 123, pages 196-8.