Lincoln Slavery Letter! "the freed-men in Gen. Grant’s Department", also Mentions "U.S. Supreme Court", a Stunning ALS
1p ALS inscribed overall and signed by 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) as "A. Lincoln" at lower right. Written in Washington, D.C. on July 22, 1863, just two weeks after the decisive Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. Addressed to Freedmen's Inquiry Commissioner Robert Dale Owen (1801-1877). On cream bifold stationery printed with "Executive Mansion, Washington, 186--" letterhead. The remaining pages are blank with the last page affixed to a cream board. Each page of the ALS measures 5" x 8. Very handsomely framed together with a portrait of Lincoln to an overall size of 16" x 19.75". Light soiling; a minor paper clip impression at top; else, in near fine condition.
Not published in Basler. The letter, in full: "This will introduce to you and Mr McKay, Mr John Eaton Jr. the gentleman of whom we spoke yesterday, as having had charge of the freed-men in Gen. Grant’s Department. He comes to me highly recommended by Gen. Grant, as you know, & also by Judge Swayne of the U.S. Supreme Court. He takes with him, as suggested yesterday, his report, from which, as then said, I shall be glad to have a comprehensive abstract."
On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln had issued a warning to the Confederacy: if the 11 states in open rebellion did not rejoin the Union within the next 100 days, the United States government would manumit all enslaved persons within its territories. On January 1, 1863, the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, liberating approximately 3.5 million slaves throughout Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and Florida. In the Proclamation, Lincoln also urged new freedmen to join the Union war effort: "And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United Sates to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service."
Military and government officials soon realized that freedmen needed assistance transitioning from bondage to freedom. Agents were dispatched to report on current conditions, and their findings informed future policies. General Ulysses S. Grant appointed Chaplain John Eaton Jr. of the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry to serve as general superintendent of freedmen in the Department of the Tennessee after November 1862. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton created the Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission to evaluate how freedmen were faring.
Eaton compiled a 57 page report on the status of the freedmen in Grant’s Department in February 1863, after reaching out to subordinates throughout the Mississippi River Valley. Eaton proudly acknowledged the freedmen's tremendous contribution to the military. He lobbied for local supervision of contractual labor arrangements, and recommended providing educational and religious instruction to recently freed slaves.
According to Eaton, the report showed "very clearly the results of the abuses heaped upon American slaves, their present social, intellectual and moral condition, their skill at labor, their aptitudes, and suggest inferences of the utmost consequence, in reference to their Management.” Military supervision of their transition from slavery to freedom would be necessary to meet “every exigency arising in the affairs of these freed people, whether physical, social or educational, so far as is possible and is accordant with the genius of our free institutions, and the spirit of American Christian civilization.”
In March 1863, a larger-scale investigation than Eaton's was launched by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who had tasked Robert Dale Owen, of Indiana, Col. James McKaye, of New York, and Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe of Massachusetts to “inquire into and ascertain the actual (physical, mental, and moral) condition of such persons of African descent, as by the Acts of Congress, or the President’s proclamation have been emancipated.” The Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, as it was called, was tasked “to report such a system of measures as will...enable them to support and defend themselves as freedmen, and to elevate them in the scale of human beings. Also in what way they may be most usefully employed in the service of the Government of the United States for the suppression of the rebellion.” The commissioners traveled throughout the South interviewing former slaves and Union field commanders.
On June 11, 1863, Grant wrote to President Lincoln forwarding Eaton’s report: “Finding that negroes were coming into our lines in great numbers, I determined to appoint a General Superintendent over the whole subject….Mr. Eatons labors in his undertaking have been unremitting and skillful...That he has been of very great service to the blacks in having them provided for when otherwise they would have been neglected, and to the Government in finding employment for the negro…the accompanying report will show.”
In turn, on June 30, 1863, the Commission issued its 13,000-word preliminary report to Secretary of War Stanton, featuring sections on “Negroes as Refugees,” “Negroes as Military Laborers,” and “Negroes as Soldiers.” The commissioners admitted their work was not yet sufficient to suggest “a definite system for the ultimate solution of one of the gravest social problems ever presented to a Government,” but recognized that the Federal government would play a major role. They also observed that Lincoln “would probably be surprised to learn with what reverence, bordering on superstition, he is regarded by these poor people.”
Eaton wrote to Lincoln on July 18, 1863 from the National Hotel in Washington, D.C. “In view of the increasing demand for some general provision for these freedmen—about 30,000 being now under my supervision—it was deemed expedient by Genl Grant that I should take this statement to you & be at hand to give any further information you might require. Should you wish it, I could, perhaps save your time by selecting & reading to you such parts of the statement as bear most directly upon the general action proposed.”
Three days later, Eaton met Lincoln: “Armed with the letter from General Grant and with my report, I presented myself at the White House. There was no delay, no obstructive formality. The messenger took my letter at once to the President and promptly ushered me into Mr. Lincoln’s apartment. My call was so timed that the multitude of visitors as well as the clerks—‘the boys,’ as Mr. Lincoln called them—were gone for the day, and the President was sitting by his office desk alone. His cordial manner put me at once at my ease. There was not the slightest affectation, nor assumption of superiority. We talked with the utmost freedom, but I found myself subjected to the keenest investigation that it has ever been my experience to undergo.” Eaton left his report, returning the next morning. Lincoln, clearly satisfied, next sent Eaton, armed with this letter, to meet with the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission.
Eaton, as directed by Lincoln, went to New York and reported to the Commission as it was beginning to prepare its own final report. Eaton recalled, “after carefully considering the facts… and questioning me personally, they concluded that our experience in the Valley was a very valuable contribution to solving the problem of how the freedmen should be treated.” In response to Lincoln’s request in our letter to Owen, on August 5, 1863, Owen sent the President a 29 page abstract of Eaton’s report. On August 27, 1863, Eaton wrote from Vicksburg to Robert Dale Owen, telling him he had read the Commission’s preliminary report in the New York Evening Post “with great satisfaction.” He gave a pamphlet copy to Generals Grant and George Thomas “as we came down on the boat together from Memphis,” and they declared it to be “very sensible and useful.” Eaton asked Owen for a half dozen more copies. He also reported that the numbers of refugee freedmen had increased, their sufferings “have been great,” and deaths among them had been “numerous.” Some of his assistant superintendents had also died, and others were sick. Nevertheless, Eaton remained hopeful and was committed to “try what can be done.” In September 1863, the Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission asked Eaton for an update. Eaton responded from Vicksburg, although “just now we are so overwhelmed with organization and the first works necessary to save health and life.” He promised to answer as soon as possible.
On March 1, 1864, a bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives for the establishment within the War Department of a bureau for the control of freedmen’s affairs. The Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission’s final report, issued just over ten weeks later, which Secretary Stanton submitted to Congress, also supported the creation of such a bureau. When referred to the Senate, Charles Sumner as the chair of the Committee on Slavery and Freedom altered the bill to place the proposed bureau in the Treasury Department. As a conference committee tried to bridge the differences between the House and Senate in early 1865, John Eaton again traveled to Washington. After the Senate did not accept a compromise version making the bureau independent and reporting directly to the president, another conference committee debated it again. In the end Congress pass An Act to establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees near the end of the session, and Lincoln signed it into law on March 3, 1865.
On May 15, 1864, the Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission issued its 50,000-word final report to Secretary of War Stanton. Arranged in three chapters on “Slavery,” “Emancipation,” and “The Future in the United States of the African Race,” the commission summarized their findings. Supplementary reports offered detailed observations from the lower Mississippi River Valley and of freedmen living in Canada West. They recommended to: “Offer the freedmen temporary aid and counsel until they become a little accustomed to their new sphere of life; secure to them, by law, their just rights of person and property; relieve them, by a fair and equal administration of justice, from the depressing influence of disgraceful prejudice; above all, guard them against the virtual restoration of slavery in any form, under any pretext, and then let them take care of themselves.”
On August 12, 1864, Lincoln gave Eaton two missions. First, to report to Secretary of War Stanton on the freedmen in the Mississippi River Valley. Second, to visit his old commander General Grant at City Point, Virginia, to learn what Grant thought of efforts to nominate him for the Presidency. The Republicans had already re-nominated Lincoln as the candidate of the “National Union Party” with Andrew Johnson as his new running mate, while the Democrats had nominated General George B. McClellan. Some pressed for Grant as a compromise candidate to save the Union. When Eaton asked Grant if supporters could convince him to become a candidate, Grant’s response was emphatic, “They can’t do it! They can’t compel me to do it!” When Eaton reported this to Lincoln a few days later, “the President fairly glowed with satisfaction.”
During his visit to Washington in early 1865, Eaton again met with President Lincoln several times. On January 16, 1865, Lincoln gave Eaton a pass to General Grant’s headquarters in Virginia. In February, Eaton drafted an order summarizing Lincoln’s verbal instructions: “Col. Eaton, You will continue your supervision of the Freedmen over the same territory and on the same principles as in the past, make such improvements as experience may suggest, until legislation shall require some further change.” Lincoln signed it and dated it February 10, 1865. Robert Dale Owen's abstract of Eaton's report makes for fascinating reading, and illustrates the true condition of black freedmen in the South during the waning days of the Civil War. In his own words: “Should the knowledge of the Proclamation continue to increase and general destitution prevail in the rebellious districts, what may we not expect?"
John Eaton Jr. (1829-1906), the subject of this letter, was born in New Hampshire and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1854. He studied at Andover Theological Seminary and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1862. In August 1861, he entered the Civil War as a chaplain for the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. In 1862, Ulysses S. Grant asked Eaton to supervise freedmen at all posts from Cairo, Illinois to Natchez, Mississippi and Fort Smith, Arkansas. On October 10, 1863, Eaton received a commission as colonel of the 63rd U.S. Colored Infantry, which served in various garrison posts in Mississippi. Grant appointed Eaton as Superintendent of Negro Affairs for the Department of the Tennessee, where Eaton supervised the creation of 74 schools for African Americans. He worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau from March to December 1865, then edited a Memphis newspaper before serving as Tennessee’s state superintendent of schools from 1867 to 1869. In 1870, President Grant appointed him as U.S. Commissioner of Education, a position he held until 1886. He later served as president of colleges in Ohio, Alaska, and Utah.
Robert Dale Owen, the recipient of this letter, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and immigrated when his father, Robert Owen, established the socialistic utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana in 1825. A Democrat, Owen served in Indiana and then in the U.S. House of Representatives (1843-1847), where he sponsored the bill that established the Smithsonian Institution. He was a delegate to the 1850 Indiana Constitutional Convention. During the Civil War, he served as a member of the Ordnance Commission and the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission. In 1862, he published open letters to Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, urging them to support emancipation. In 1863, Owen wrote a pamphlet entitled Emancipation Is Peace, recognizing it as a means to end the war. In 1864, he published a report entitled The Wrong of Slavery, the Right of Emancipation, and the Future of the African Race, in which he advocated governmental assistance to the freedmen.
James M. McKaye (1805-1888) was born in New York and attended a military academy in Connecticut, where he also taught mathematics. Returning to Buffalo, he opened his own military academy. During the Patriot War of 1837-1838, McKaye commanded the Buffalo City Guards militia. He joined Millard Fillmore's law office before opening his own law practice. Becoming active in new businesses, he helped create and manage the American Express Company, Wells Fargo & Company, and the American Telegraph Company, of which he was president until it merged with Western Union. In June 1862, he published a pamphlet entitled Of the Birth and Death of Nations: A Thought for the Crisis, which advocated abolition. McKaye served as a member of the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission. In 1864, McKaye issued a supplementary report to Secretary of War Stanton entitled The Mastership and Its Fruits: The Emancipated Slave Face to Face with His Old Master, in which he called for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery and urged Congress to guarantee the freedmen’s civil and voting rights.
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