“The future of the race is a matter of serious moment”: Foster suggests conscription to fill USCT ranks

On February 2, 1865, Major-General John Foster, commanding the Department of the South, sent this letter to Major-General Henry W. Halleck, Army Chief of Staff in Washington:

Headquarters Department of the South,
Hilton Head, S.C., February 2, 1865.

Maj. Gen. H. W. Halleck,  U.S. Army,
Chief of Staff, U. S. Armies:

General: The experience of the past few weeks has shown that volunteering among the colored men in this department is very slow and may not for a long time furnish the number so much needed for garrison and other duties. These men, just freed from long servitude, are, of necessity, ignorant and improvident. Their idea of liberty is exemption alike from work and care. The streets of Savannah are full of them, lying in the sun and waiting for bread without labor. Needing their services as soldiers, I respectfully ask that the Department will fix a quota for the States of South Carolina and Georgia, and allow me to fill it by conscripting the able-bodied young colored men, under such restrictions and exemptions as may be deemed most wise by the Department. Such as are imposed by the existing U.S. conscription law might be designated with an order that one-half or one-third of the number liable should be drafted. I have consulted with colored pastors on this subject and they agree with me in advising the proposed course. The future of the race is a matter of serious moment. Education is necessary to make freedom truly beneficial. The training of the army will do more to educate these men than any other scheme which can be devised; it will make them self-reliant and will develop their manhood. The camp is to-day the school-house of this race; it may be that in the future the soldierly training of these people will be their protection against local injustice, while the habits of care and economy so learned will make them self-supporting.

Alike, therefore, upon military and humane grounds, I ask the careful attention of the Department to the suggestions of this letter, and am, general,

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
J. G. Foster,
Major-General, Commanding.

Let me offer this letter “as is” without a lot of context for now.  Just for the reader’s consideration.  I would point out that Foster’s suggestion of conscription follows in line with a similar practice followed by Major-General David Hunter in the spring of 1863.  That is to say, the conscription was as much a means to organize an unaffiliated population that was living within Federal lines.

What do you make of it?

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, page 210.)

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