Category Archives: Emancipation

“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.)

Emancipation: The lasting legacy of Sherman’s March

Often when historians offer a “wrap-up” of Sherman’s March to the Sea, there is focus, for good reasons, on this letter to President Abraham Lincoln:


It is the numbers – 150 guns and 25,000 bales of cotton – which often get some play as representative of the damage to the Confederate war effort.  Facts are, however, both numbers are incorrect.   The number of guns captured at Savannah alone was upwards of 160 (a total of over 200 captured in the campaign).  The am0unt of cotton captured reached 38,000 bales.  Not mentioned in the message, but often brought up in relation to the campaign, are the over 200 miles of railroad destroyed and an estimated $100 million in damage (in 1864 dollars).

These numbers are stark figures easily illustrating how Sherman’s campaign did much to topple the Confederacy (not the whole way, of course, as that would come in 1865, but the “teetering” was made acute).   And while I do not downplay the damage done, truth is that most of it was recoverable.  Within weeks, the railroad were running, somewhat.  Telegraph lines between Mobile and Richmond were working.  The cotton lost was value on the docks, and not cash in hand.  So another year’s crop could resolve the shortfall.  Perhaps the only items not “recuperated” were the cannons, as the Confederacy’s ability to manufacture such was limited.  Indeed, Georgia rebuilt… and faster than we often give credit.

However, there is something that changed forever in the wake of Sherman’s March.  If you study the Civil War, you should be acquainted with this map (and if not, shame on you!):

Looking specifically at Georgia, consider the general route of the march in relation to the density of slave populations:


Notice how the line of march (and I’ve included Liberty and McIntosh Counties here as those were affected for weeks after the fall of Savannah) crosses some of the counties with the densest slave populations.  In 1860, Georgia had over 460,000 slaves, constituting 44% of the state’s population.  Sherman estimated some 20,000 escaped slaves joined his column by the time it reached Savannah. That figure does not count those who, heeding Sherman’s advice, stayed at home.

There were, as mentioned, some problems with the followers.  And certainly such brought to the fore attitudes of some officers, as we consider events at Ebenezer Creek and other crossing points.  But on whole, the burden created by those following the columns was accepted by those in command – often utilized to the favor of military operations.  The pioneer corps formed from the freed blacks should be credited as an important force enabling the Federals to cross the low-country swamps with relative ease.   And the escaped slaves turned expert guides where the maps were lacking.

And let us also not steer away from Sherman’s personal opinion about the free slaves and in general their race.  But no matter how pointed that was, Sherman was an instrument of policy and complied with orders.  The excess animals from the march were turned over to Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton for use in the contraband camps setup on the barrier islands.  The “mule” in the “Forty acres and a mule” often came from those herds.  We can debate the failures of that program at another time.  But for the moment consider that any limited success of the project was also a function of Sherman’s march.

Sherman’s march, regardless of what its leader may or may not have desired, brought emancipation to a large swath of Georgia.  That, unlike the material damage brought by the Federals, could not be rolled back.  It is, I contend, the real lasting legacy of the march.

“No man should be a neutral in this great emergency”: What to do with discharged contrabands?

By mid-1864, a large population of former slaves, or contrabands to use the term applied at the time, existed at several places in the southern states behind Federal lines.  In particular the Department of the South had significant contraband “cities” around Port Royal Sound.  On one hand, these represented propaganda points for the north – freed slaves to evidence the results of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Major-General David Hunter had drawn upon these contraband camps for labor (employed labor, to be exact) and to fill the ranks of USCT regiments.  At the same time, every contraband in these camps represented on less laborer available to the Confederates in the department – and as witnessed by so many pleas, the Confederate commanders were short on labor of every category.

On the other hand, the contraband, or freedmen, camps were also a mixed blessing to the Federals.  These communities existed on marginal lands, in the middle of an active combat zone, and barely suitable for subsistence farming.  The populations depended heavily upon the military for support and protection.  The threat of re-capture and return to bondage lingered above these communities.  Yet, while no exact figures might support this supposition, all indications were the communities “pulled their weight” and then some, providing soldiers for the USCT regiments, a labor pool, and various supports for the Federals in theater.  Without the contraband community, the efforts of Hunter, Gillmore, and Foster would have been much more difficult.

In regard to the freedmen enlisted in the service, the Federals faced another, perhaps more administrative issue on the surface:  What to do with the men when their terms had expired?  For white regiments, this was simply a procedural matter.  The men transited to a muster-out point and were released to go home.  But for those recruited from contraband camps, that “home” was something that existed as a notional place.  There had been no “home” before the war in the proper sense of the word.  Now “home,” if at all, was a temporary shelter near some Federal garrison.

For the USCT, this was less so an issue, given the standard enlistment terms at that time.  But for the Navy, who’d brought contrabands on board for service afloat practically since the start of the war, this did present a growing concern.  On July 13, 1864, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren too the time to press this concern to Major-General John Foster:

Sir: It often occurs that contrabands and others, enlisted in the naval service, desire to be discharged here when their terms have expired–that is, they desire to remain ashore, which is your jurisdiction, and this can only be done by your permission. While declining, therefore, to interfere with your authority, permit me to observe that it seems very objectionable to permit a population to grow up here of persons from whom there is no guarantee that they may not in some way become useful to the enemy, it being their interest to stand well with both sides. And I hope, therefore, that the practice will only be allowed on condition of such residents rendering military service. No man should be neutral in this great emergency.

Dahlgren’s suggestion, which would grant some claim for those having served in uniform, is a far cry from “forty acres and a mule.”  But in part a foothold for that notion.  And that notion is matched to service, in this case, suggesting a benefit beyond a pension.  This is framed, in the context of a civil war and the need to reconstruct (lower-case “r” there, please note) a loyal state in the aftermath.

Keep in mind, these are the words of a military commander – and not a politician.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 172-3.)