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Chapter 25.

  • Negro soldiers
  • -- Fort Pillow -- retaliation -- draft -- Northern Democrats-Governor Seymour's attitude- -- draft Riots in New York -- Vallandigham -- Lincoln on his authority to suspend writ of Habeas corpus -- Knights of the Golden Circle -- Jacob Thompson in Canada
    On the subject of negro soldiers, as on many other topics, the period of active rebellion and civil war had wrought a profound change in public opinion. From the foundation of the government to the Rebellion, the horrible nightmare of a possible slave insurrection had brooded over the entire South. This feeling naturally had a sympathetic reflection in the North, and at first produced an instinctive shrinking from any thought of placing arms in the hands of the blacks whom the chances of war had given practical or legal freedom. During the year 1862, a few sporadic efforts were made by zealous individuals, under apparently favoring conditions, to begin the formation of colored regiments. The eccentric Senator Lane tried it in Kansas, or, rather, along the Missouri border, without success. General Hunter made an experiment in South Carolina, but found the freedmen too unwilling to enlist, and the white officers too prejudiced to instruct them. General Butler, at New Orleans, infused his wonted energy into a similar attempt, with somewhat better results. He found that before the capture of the city, Governor Moore of Louisiana had [349] begun the organization of a regiment of free colored men for local defense. Butler resuscitated this organization, for which he thus had the advantage of Confederate example and precedent, and against which the accusation of arming slaves could not be urged. Early in September, Butler reported, with his usual biting sarcasm:

    I shall also have within ten days a regiment, one thousand strong, of native guards (colored), the darkest of whom will be about the complexion of the late Mr. Webster.

    All these efforts were made under implied, rather than expressed provisions of law, and encountered more or less embarrassment in obtaining pay and supplies, because they were not distinctly recognized in the army regulations. This could not well be done so long as the President considered the policy premature. His spirit of caution in this regard was set forth by the Secretary of War in a letter of instruction dated July 3,1 862:

    He is of opinion,

    wrote Mr. Stanton, “that under the laws of Congress, they [the former slaves] cannot be sent back to their masters; that in common humanity they must not be permitted to suffer for want of food, shelter, or other necessaries of life; that to this end they should be provided for by the quartermaster's and commissary's departments, and that those who are capable of labor should be set to work and paid reasonable wages. In directing this to be done, the President does not mean, at present, to settle any general rule in respect to slaves or slavery, but simply to provide for the particular case under the circumstances in which it is now presented.”

    All this was changed by the final proclamation of emancipation, which authoritatively announced that [350] persons of suitable condition, whom it declared free, would be received into the armed service of the United States. During the next few months, the President wrote several personal letters to General Dix, commanding at Fortress Monroe; to Andrew Johnson, military governor of Tennessee; to General Banks, commanding at New Orleans; and to General Hunter, in the Department of the South, urging their attention to promoting the new policy; and, what was yet more to the purpose, a bureau was created in the War Department having special charge of the duty, and the adjutant-general of the army was personally sent to the Union camps on the Mississippi River to superintend the recruitment and enlistment of the negroes, where, with the hearty cooperation of General Grant and other Union commanders, he met most encouraging and gratifying success.

    The Confederate authorities made a great outcry over the new departure. They could not fail to see the immense effect it was destined to have in the severe military struggle, and their prejudice of generations greatly intensified the gloomy apprehensions they no doubt honestly felt. Yet even allowing for this, the exaggerated language in which they described it became absolutely ludicrous. The Confederate War Department early declared Generals Hunter and Phelps to be outlaws, because they were drilling and organizing slaves; and the sensational proclamation issued by Jefferson Davis on December 23, 1862, ordered that Butler and his commissioned officers, “robbers and criminals deserving death, . . . be, whenever captured, reserved for execution.”

    Mr. Lincoln's final emancipation proclamation excited them to a still higher frenzy. The Confederate Senate talked of raising the black flag; Jefferson Davis's message stigmatized it as “the most execrable [351] measure recorded in the history of guilty man” ; and a joint resolution of the Confederate Congress prescribed that white officers of negro Union soldiers “shall, if captured, be put to death, or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the court.” The general orders of some subordinate Confederate commanders repeated or rivaled such denunciations and threats.

    Fortunately, the records of the war are not stained with either excesses by the colored troops or even a single instance of such proclaimed barbarity upon white Union officers; and the visitation of vengeance upon negro soldiers is confined, so far as known, to the single instance of the massacre at Fort Pillow. In that deplorable affair, the Confederate commander reported, by telegraph, that in thirty minutes he stormed a fort manned by seven hundred, and captured the entire garrison, killing five hundred and taking one hundred prisoners, while he sustained a loss of only twenty killed and sixty wounded. It is unnecessary to explain that the bulk of the slain were colored soldiers. Making due allowance for the heat of battle, history can considerately veil closer scrutiny into the realities wrapped in the exaggerated boast of such a victory.

    The Fort Pillow incident, which occurred in the spring of 1864, brought upon President Lincoln the very serious question of enforcing an order of retaliation which had been issued on July 30, 1863, as an answer to the Confederate joint resolution of May I. Mr. Lincoln's freedom from every trace of passion was as. conspicuous in this as in all his official acts. In a little address at Baltimore, while referring to the rumor of the massacre which had just been received, Mr. Lincoln said:

    We do not to-day know that a colored soldier, or white officer commanding colored soldiers, has been [352] massacred by the rebels when made a prisoner. We fear it, believe it, I may say, but we do not know it. To take the life of one of their prisoners on the assumption that they murder ours, when it is short of certainty that they do murder ours, might be too serious, too cruel, a mistake.

    When more authentic information arrived, the matter was very earnestly debated by the assembled cabinet; but the discussion only served to bring out in stronger light the inherent dangers of either course. In this nice balancing of weighty reasons, two influences decided the course of the government against retaliation. One was that General Grant was about to begin his memorable campaign against Richmond, and that it would be most impolitic to preface a great battle by the tragic spectacle of a military punishment, however justifiable. The second was the tender-hearted humanity of the ever merciful President. Frederick Douglass has related the answer Mr. Lincoln made to him in a conversation nearly a year earlier:

    I shall never forget the benignant expression of his face, the tearful look of his eye, and the quiver in his voice when he deprecated a resort to retaliatory measures. ‘Once begun,’ said he, ‘I do not know where such a measure would stop.’ He said he could not take men out and kill them in cold blood for what was done by others. If he could get hold of the persons who were guilty of killing the colored prisoners in cold blood, the case would be different, but he could not kill the innocent for the guilty.

    Amid the sanguinary reports and crowding events that held public attention for a year, from the Wilderness to Appomattox, the Fort Pillow affair was forgotten, not only by the cabinet, but by the country.

    The related subjects of emancipation and negro soldiers [353] would doubtless have been discussed with much more passion and friction, had not public thought been largely occupied during the year 1863 by the enactment of the conscription law and the enforcement of the draft. In the hard stress of politics and war during the years 1861 and 1862, the popular enthusiasm with which the free States responded to the President's call to put down the rebellion by force of arms had become measurably exhausted. The heavy military reverses which attended the failure of McClellan's campaign against Richmond, Pope's defeat at the second Bull Run, McClellan's neglect to follow up the drawn battle of Antietam with energetic operations, the gradual change of early Western victories to a cessation of all effort to open the Mississippi, and the scattering of the Western forces to the spiritless routine of repairing and guarding long railroad lines, all operated together practically to stop volunteering and enlistment by the end of 1862.

    Thus far, the patriotic record was a glorious one. Almost one hundred thousand three months militia had shouldered muskets to redress the fall of Fort Sumter; over half a million three years volunteers promptly enlisted to form the first national army under the laws of Congress passed in August, 1861; nearly half a million more volunteers came forward under the tender of the governors of free States and the President's call of July, 1862, to repair the failure of McClellan's Peninsula campaign. Several minor calls for shorter terms of enlistment, aggregating more than forty thousand, are here omitted for brevity's sake. Had the Western victories continued, had the Mississippi been opened, had the Army of the Potomac been more fortunate, volunteering would doubtless have continued at quite or nearly the same rate. But with success delayed, [354] with campaigns thwarted, with public sentiment despondent, armies ceased to fill. An emergency call for three hundred thousand nine months men, issued on August 4, 1862, produced a total of only eighty-six thousand eight hundred and sixty; and an attempt to supply these in some of the States by a draft under State laws demonstrated that mere local statutes and machinery for that form of military recruitment were defective and totally inadequate.

    With the beginning of the third year of the war, more energetic measures to fill the armies were seen to be necessary; and after very hot and acrimonious debate for about a month, Congress, on March 3, 1863, passed a national conscription law, under which all male citizens between the ages of twenty and forty-five were enrolled to constitute the national forces, and the President was authorized to call them into service by draft as occasion might require. The law authorized the appointment of a provost-marshal-general, and under him a provost-marshal, a commissioner, and a surgeon, to constitute a board of enrollment in each congressional district; who, with necessary deputies, were required to carry out the law by national authority, under the supervision of the provost-marshal-general.

    For more than a year past, the Democratic leaders in the Northern States had assumed an attitude of violent partizanship against the administration, their hostility taking mainly the form of stubborn opposition to the antislavery enactments of Congress and the emancipation measures of the President. They charged with loud denunciation that he was converting the maintenance of the Union into a war for abolition, and with this and other clamors had gained considerable successes in the autumn congressional elections of [355] 1862, though not enough to break the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. General Mc-Clellan was a Democrat, and, since his removal from command, they proclaimed him a martyr to this policy, and were grooming him to be their coming presidential candidate.

    The passage of the conscription law afforded them a new pretext to assail the administration; and Democratic members of both Houses of Congress denounced it with extravagant partizan bitterness as a violation of the Constitution, and subversive of popular liberty. In the mouths of vindictive cross-roads demagogues, and in the columns of irresponsible newspapers that supply the political reading among the more reckless elements of city populations, the extravagant language of Democratic leaders degenerated in many instances into unrestrained abuse and accusation. Yet, considering that this was the first conscription law ever enacted in the United States, considering the multitude of questions and difficulties attending its application, considering that the necessity of its enforcement was, in the nature of things, unwelcome to the friends of the government, and, as naturally, excited all the enmity and cunning of its foes to impede, thwart, and evade it, the law was carried out with a remarkably small proportion of delay, obstruction, or resulting violence.

    Among a considerable number of individual violations of the act, in which prompt punishment prevented a repetition, only two prominent incidents arose which had what may be called a national significance. In the State of New York the partial political reaction of 1862 had caused the election of Horatio Seymour, a Democrat, as governor. A man of high character and great ability, he, nevertheless, permitted his partizan [356] feeling to warp and color his executive functions to a dangerous extent. The spirit of his antagonism is shown in a phrase of his fourth-of-July oration:

    The Democratic organization look upon this administration as hostile to their rights and liberties; they look upon their opponents as men who would do them wrong in regard to their most sacred franchises.

    Believing-perhaps honestly — the conscription law to be unconstitutional, he endeavored, by protest, argument, and administrative non-compliance, to impede its execution on the plea of first demanding a Supreme Court decision as to its legality. To this President Lincoln replied:

    I cannot consent to suspend the draft in New York, as you request, because, among other reasons, time is too important. . . . I do not object to abide a decision of the United States Supreme Court, or of the judges thereof, on the constitutionality of the draft law. In fact, I should be willing to facilitate the obtaining of it; but I cannot consent to lose the time while it is being obtained. We are contending with an enemy who, as I understand, drives every able-bodied man he can reach into his ranks, very much as a butcher drives bullocks into a slaughter-pen. No time is wasted, no argument is used. This produces an army which will soon turn upon our now victorious soldiers already in the field, if they shall not be sustained by recruits as they should be.

    Notwithstanding Governor Seymour's neglect to give the enrolling officers any cooperation, preparations for the draft went on in New York city without prospect of serious disturbance, except the incendiary language of low newspapers and handbills. But scarcely had the wheel begun to turn, and the drawing commenced, on July 13, when a sudden riot broke out. [357] First demolishing the enrolling-office, the crowd next attacked an adjoining block of stores, which they plundered and set on fire, refusing to let the firemen put out the flames. From this point the excitement and disorder spread over the city, which for three days was at many points subjected to the uncontrolled fury of the mob. Loud threats to destroy the New York Tribune office, which the inmates as vigorously prepared to defend, were made. The most savage brutality was wreaked upon colored people. The fine building of the colored Orphan Asylum, where several hundred children barely found means of escape, was plundered and set on fire. It was notable that foreigners of recent importation were the principal leaders and actors in this lawlessness in which two million dollars worth of property was destroyed, and several hundred persons lost their lives.

    The disturbance came to an end on the night of the fourth day, when a small detachment of soldiers met a body of rioters, and firing into them, killed thirteen, and wounded eighteen more. Governor Seymour gave but little help in the disorder, and left a stain on the record of his courage by addressing a portion of the mob as “my friends.” The opportune arrival of national troops restored, and thereafter maintained, quiet and safety.

    Some temporary disturbance occurred in Boston, but was promptly put down, and loud appeals came from Philadelphia and Chicago to stop the draft. The final effect of the conscription law was not so much to obtain recruits for the service, as to stimulate local effort throughout the country to promote volunteering, whereby the number drafted was either greatly lessened or, in many localities, entirely avoided by filling the State quotas. [358]

    The military arrest of Clement L. Vallandigham, a Democratic member of Congress from Ohio, for incendiary language denouncing the draft, also grew to an important incident. Arrested and tried under the orders of General Burnside, a military commission found him guilty of having violated General Order No. 38, by “declaring disloyal sentiments and-opinions with the object and purpose of weakening the power of the government in its efforts to suppress an unlawful rebellion” ; and sentenced him to military confinement during the war. Judge Leavitt of the United States Circuit Court denied a writ of habeas corpus in the case. President Lincoln regretted the arrest, but felt it imprudent to annul the action of the general and the military tribunal. Conforming to a clause of Burnside's order, he modified the sentence by sending Vallandigham south beyond the Union military lines. The affair created a great sensation, and, in a spirit of party protest, the Ohio Democrats unanimously nominated Vallandigham for governor. Vallandigham went to Richmond, held a conference with the Confederate authorities, and, by way of Bermuda, went to Canada, from whence he issued a political address. The Democrats of both Ohio and New York took up the political and legal discussion with great heat, and sent imposing committees to present long addresses to the President on the affair.

    Mr. Lincoln made long written replies to both addresses, of which only so much needs quoting here as concisely states his interpretation of his authority to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus:

    You ask, in substance, whether I really claim that I may override all the guaranteed rights of individuals, on the plea of conserving the public safety-when I may choose to say the public safety requires it. This [359] question, divested of the phraseology calculated to represent me as struggling for an arbitrary personal prerogative, is either simply a question who shall decide, or an affirmation that nobody shall decide, what the public safety does require in cases of rebellion or invasion. The Constitution contemplates the question as likely to occur for decision, but it does not expressly declare who is to decide it. By necessary implication, when rebellion or invasion comes, the decision is to be made from time to time; and I think the man whom, for the time, the people have, under the Constitution, made the commander-in-chief of their army and navy, is the man who holds the power and bears the responsibility of making it. If he uses the power justly, the same people will probably justify him; if he abuses it, he is in their hands, to be dealt with by all the modes they have reserved to themselves in the Constitution.

    Forcible and convincing as was this legal analysis, a single sympathetic phrase of the President's reply had a much greater popular effect:

    Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces desert?

    The term so accurately described the character of Vallandigham, and the pointed query so touched the hearts of the Union people throughout the land whose favorite “soldier boys” had volunteered to fill the Union armies, that it rendered powerless the crafty criticism of party diatribes. The response of the people of Ohio was emphatic. At the October election Vallandigham was defeated by more than one hundred thousand majority.

    In sustaining the arrest of Vallandigham, President Lincoln had acted not only within his constitutional, but also strictly within his legal, authority. In the preceding [360] March, Congress had passed an act legalizing all orders of this character made by the President at any time during the rebellion, and accorded him full indemnity for all searches, seizures, and arrests or imprisonments made under his orders. The act also provided:

    That, during the present rebellion, the President of the United States, whenever in his judgment the public safety may require it, is authorized to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in any case, throughout the United States or any part thereof.

    About the middle of September, Mr. Lincoln's proclamation formally put the law in force, to obviate any hindering or delaying the prompt execution of the draft law.

    Though Vallandigham and the Democrats of his type were unable to prevent or even delay the draft, they yet managed to enlist the sympathies and secure the adhesion of many uneducated and unthinking men by means of secret societies, known as “Knights of the Golden Circle,” “The order of American Knights,” “Order of the Star,” “Sons of liberty,” and by other equally high-sounding names, which they adopted and discarded in turn, as one after the other was discovered and brought into undesired prominence. The titles and grips and passwords of these secret military organizations, the turgid eloquence of their meetings, and the clandestine drill of their oath-bound members, doubtless exercised quite as much fascination on such followers as their unlawful object of aiding and abetting the Southern cause. The number of men thus enlisted in the work of inducing desertion among Union soldiers, fomenting resistance to the draft, furnishing the Confederates with arms, and conspiring to establish a Northwestern Confederacy in full accord with the South, which formed the ultimate dream of their [361] leaders, is hard to determine. Vallandigham, the real head of the movement, claimed five hundred thousand, and Judge Holt, in an official report, adopted that as being somewhere near the truth, though others counted them at a full million, The government, cognizant of their existence, and able to produce abundant evidence against the ring-leaders whenever it chose to do so, wisely paid little heed to these dark-lantern proceedings, though, as was perhaps natural, military officers commanding the departments in which they were most numerous were inclined to look upon them more seriously; and Governor Morton of Indiana was much disquieted by their work in his State.

    Mr. Lincoln's attitude toward them was one of good-humored contempt. “Nothing can make me believe that one hundred thousand Indiana Democrats are disloyal,” he said; and maintained that there was more folly than crime in their acts. Indeed, though prolific enough of oaths and treasonable utterances, these organizations were singularly lacking in energy and initiative. Most of the attempts made against the public peace in the free States and along the northern border came, not from resident conspirators, but from Southern emissaries and their Canadian sympathizers; and even these rarely rose above the level of ordinary arson and highway robbery.

    Jacob Thompson, who had been Secretary of the Interior under President Buchanan, was the principal agent of the Confederate government in Canada, where he carried on operations as remarkable for their impracticability as for their malignity. One plan during the summer of 1864 contemplated nothing less than seizing and holding the three great States of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, with the aid of disloyal Democrats, [362] whereupon it was supposed Missouri and Kentucky would quickly join them and make an end of the war.

    Becoming convinced, when this project fell through, that nothing could be expected from Northern Democrats, he placed his reliance on Canadian sympathizers, and turned his attention to liberating the Confederate prisoners confined on Johnson's Island in Sandusky Bay and at Camp Douglas near Chicago. But both these elaborate schemes, which embraced such magnificent details as capturing the war steamer Michigan on Lake Erie, came to nought. Nor did the plans to burn St. Louis and New York, and to destroy steamboats on the Mississippi River, to which he also gave his sanction, succeed much better. A very few men were tried and punished for these and similar crimes, despite the voluble protest of the Confederate government; but the injuries he and his agents were able to inflict, like the acts of the Knights of the Golden Circle on the American side of the border, amounted merely to a petty annoyance, and never reached the dignity of real menace to the government.

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