Cabinet Discusses Fort Pillow Massacre

May 6, 1864

Cabinet meets to discuss President Lincoln’s request for their opinions on retaliation for Fort Pillow massacre of black soldiers. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles writes: “At the Cabinet-meeting each of the members read his opinion. There had, I think, been some concert between Seward and Stanton and probably Chase; that is, they had talked on the subject, although there was not coincidence of views on all respects. Although I was dissatisfied with my own, it was as well as well as most others.”

Between Mr. Bates and Mr. Blair a suggestion came out that met my views better than anything that had previously been offered. It is that the President should by proclamation declare the officers who had command at the massacre outlaws, and require any of our officers who may capture them, to detain them in custody and not exchange them, but hold them to punishment. The thought was not very distinctly enunciated. In a conversation that followed the reading of our papers, I expressed myself favorable to this new suggestion, which relieved the subject of much of the difficulty. It avoids communication with the Rebel authorities. Takes the matter in our own hands. We get rid of the barbarity of retaliation.

Stanton fell in with my suggestion, so far as to propose that, should Forrest, or Chalmers, or any officer conspicuous in this butchery be captured, he should be turned over for trial for the murders at Fort Pillow. I sat beside Chase and mentioned to him some of the advantages of this course, and he said it made a favorable impression. I urged him to say so, for it appeared to me that the President and Seward did not appreciate it.

We get no tidings from the front. There is an impression that we are on the eve of a great battle and that it may already have commenced.

Historian Bruce Tap wrote in Over Lincoln’s Shoulder: “Although a variety of opinions was expressed, two general viewpoints emerged. Seward, Stanton, Chase, and Secretary of the Interior John P. Usher favored man-for-man retaliation. They suggested that rebel officers, in an equal number to the Union casualties at Fort Pillow, be set aside pending a response from Confederate authorities. If the Fort Pillow massacre was not officially disavowed with explicit guarantees that repetitions would not occur in the future, then the souther officers would be punished. Stanton, armed with additional evidence as a result of his own War Department investigation, seemed the most adamant. Bates, Blair, and Welles opposed man-for-man retaliation, noting that it would not be effective, nor was there a precedent for it….Before Lincoln acted, however, the treatment of prisoners of war emerged as a complicating factor, and the committee once again occupied center stage.”

President Lincoln meets at War Department next door with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, whom he asks to travel to the Virginia front to report on the position of General Ulysses S. Grant.

Published in: on May 6, 2014 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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