President Contemplates Action on Fort Pillow Massacre

May 17, 1864

The Cabinet meets and awaits more concrete news from the war fronts. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles writes: “A painful suspense in military operations. It is a necessary suspense, but the intense anxiety is oppressive, and almost unfits the mind for mental activity. We know it cannot be long before one or more bloody battles will take place in which not only many dear friends will be slaughtered but probably the Civil War will be decided as to its continuance or termination.”

President Lincoln writes Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton a draft response to the Fort Pillow Massacre: “Please notify the insurgents, through the proper military channels and forms, that the government of the United States has satisfactory proof of the massacre, by insurgent forces, at Fort-Pillow, on the 12th. and 13th days of April last, of fully white and colored officers and soldiers of the United States, after the latter had ceased resistance, and asked quarter of the former.

That with reference to said massacre, the government of the United States had assigned and set apart by name insurgent officers, therefore, and up to that time, held by said government as prisoners of war.

That, as blood can not restore blood, and government should not act for revenge, any assurance, as nearly perfect as the case admits, given on or before the first day of July next, that there shall be no similar massacre, nor any officer or soldier of the United States, whether white or colored, now held, or hereafter captured by the insurgents, shall be treated other than according to the laws of war, will insure the replacing of said       insurgent officers in the simple condition of prisoners of war.

That the insurgents having refused to exchange, or to give any account or explanation in regard to colored soldiers of the United State captured by them, a number of insurgent prisoners equal to the number of such colored soldiers supposed to have been captured by said insurgents will, from time to time, be assigned and set aside, with reference to such captured colored soldiers; but that if no satisfactory attention shall be given to this notice, by said insurgents, on or before the first day of July next, it will be assumed by the government of the United States, that said captured colored troops shall have been murdered, or subjected to Slavery, and that said government will, upon said assumption, take such action as may then appear expedient and just.

Presumably this communication to Stanton was never signed or delivered. Historian Bruce Tap wrote in Over Lincoln’s Shoulder: “The course taken by the administration suggest that Lincoln initially bowed to public opinion. Stanton, on his own authority, immediately ordered rations to Confederate prisoners reduced by 20 percent; however, he was persuaded by Ethan Allen Hitchcock, commissioner of prisoner exchange, to refrain from harsher measures. With respect to Fort Pillow, after considering the various opinions of his cabinet officers, the president gave Stanton a clear directive on May 17. Stanton was to notify rebel authorities ‘through proper military channels’ that the U.S. government had adequate proof of the atrocities committed at Fort Pillow.   ‘That with reference to said massacre,’ Lincoln continued, ‘the government of the United States has assigned and set apart by name insurgent officers theretofore, and up to that time, held by said government as prisoners of war.’ Lincoln then demanded a specific guarantee from the Confederacy, to be received no later than July 1, that no such massacre would again occur and that all U.S. soldiers would be treated as bona fide prisoners of war. If these conditions were met, there would be no retaliation….”

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles writes in his diary about one of the favorite topics for complaint – Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase and the Treasury Department: “Met Governor Morrill this evening, who at once spoke of the misconduct of the Treasury agents. We frankly discussed the subject. he is on the Committee of Commerce and has a right to know the facts, which I gave him. The whole proceeding is a disgrace and wickedness. I agree with Governor M. that the Secretary of the Treasury has enough to do attend to the finances without going into the cotton trade. But Chase is very ambitious and very fond of power. He has, moreover, the fault of most of our politicians, who believe that the patronage of office, or bestowment of public favors, is a source of popularity. It is the reverse, as he will learn.

Published in: on May 17, 2014 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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