Washington, March 31, 1863.
Maj. Gen. U.S. Grant
Commanding Department of the Tennessee, near Vicksburg:
GENERAL: It is the policy of the Government to withdraw from the enemy as much productive labor as possible. So long as the rebels retain and employ their slaves in producing grains, &c., they can employ all the whites in the field…
Again, it is the policy of the Government to use the negroes of the South, as far as practicable, as a military force, for the defense of forts, depots, &c. If the experience of General Banks near New Orleans should be satisfactory, a much larger force will be organized during the coming summer…
It has been reported to the Secretary of War that many of the officers of your command not only discourage the negroes from coming under our protections, but by ill-treatment force them to return to their masters. This is not only bad policy in itself, but is directly opposed to the policy adopted by the Government. Whatever may be the individual opinion on an officer in regard to the wisdom of measures adopted and announced by the Government, it is the duty of every one to cheerfully and honestly endeavor to carry out the measures so adopted…
It is expected that you will use your official and personal influence to remove prejudices on this subject, and to fully and thoroughly carry out the policy now adopted and ordered by the Government. That policy is to withdrawn from the use of the enemy all the slaves you can, and to employ those so withdrawn to the best possible advantage against the enemy.
The character of the war has very much changed within the last year. There is now no possible hope of reconciliations 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…
This is the phase which the rebellion has now assumed. We must take this as they are. The Government, looking at the subject in all its aspects, has adopted a policy, and we must cheerfully and faithfully carry out that policy.
I write you this unofficial letter simply as a personal friend as and a matter of friendly advice. From my position here, where I can survey the entire field, perhaps I may be better able to understand the tone of public opinion and the intentions of the Government than you can from merely consulting the officers of your own army.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
General Halleck to General Grant, March 31, 1863.
In February 1863, Union General Ulysses S. Grant had issued orders, instructing escaped slaves to not come to the camps near Vicksburg. Why? A practical reason. He felt that his army couldn’t guarentee safety or transportation for these newly freedmen. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had proclaimed freedom for all slaves in Confederate-held land, the promise created logistical challenges from a general’s perspective.
Hearing about Grant’s order, General Henry Halleck – General-in-Chief of Union forces – wrote to the western commander “as a friend,” reminding him of the government’s official stance on emancipation and informing him of his duty to carry out the directives, regardless of personal feelings or military difficulties.
Grant’s response? They say actions speak louder than words…
In April 1863, when Union General Lorenzo Thomas arrived in the Mississippi Valley to recruit black soldiers, Grant issued orders to his commanders, instructing them to encourage former slaves to seek refuge with the Union army, particularly the men who could be recruited to serve as soldiers. Grant’s influence helped to push the door of freedom open a little more for men, women, and children to escape slavery’s bonds and become part of the Union war effort.
Emancipation – Policy & Weapon
In Halleck’s letter, he outlined practical details about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. By 1863, freedom was both a policy and a weapon for the Union. The proclamation – signed on January 1, 1863 – announced freedom for slaves within the Confederacy and an opportunity for black men to formally enlist in the United States armed forces.
Additionally, as Halleck pointed out, slavery allowed the South to produce agricultural crops (read: food for the Confederate army since cotton wasn’t much use because of the blockade). Slavery allowed white Southern men to be with the Confederate armies, not at home, growing the food. End slavery and either the food supply would end or be limited or white men would have to come home to work the farms.
Thus, while abolition of slavery through the war had strong moral and ethical foundations, it also had practical opportunity:
- Created hardship for the South – socially, economically, militarily
- The hardships further weakened the Confederacy
- Freedmen enlisted into the Union Armies – adding more manpower
- Emancipation gave the Union a “righteous cause” which had already boosted its influence in Europe
The beginning of 1863 marked a turning point in the Union war effort and meaning. The idea of “Union” remained strong and prominent in the reasons for the North’s war effort, but it had been joined by emancipation, too. And it wasn’t just in words or on parchment. Examples, like Halleck’s letter to Grant, show that – for a variety of reasons – Union commands would be required to enforce and encourage freedom.
Indeed, the “character of the war” had “changed.” The North knew it. The South knew it. The slaves and freedmen knew it. And 1863, truly becomes a defining year of the conflict and in American History.