Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.

As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own, and his children's liberty.

Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap; let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and Let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

While ever a state of feeling, such as this, shall universally, or even, very generally prevail throughout the nation, vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom.

- Abraham Lincoln, January 27, 1838
  Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Looking back at Lincoln: On May 3, 1864

On this day in 1864, Lincoln called a cabinet meeting (requesting in advance, via Secretary of State Seward, that everyone be there) to discuss a government response to reports of a massacre at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.

I recommend reading the (linked above) comprehensive and relatively balanced treatment of the battle in Wikipedia. It takes into account Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest's version of events, but also notes the underlying deadly racism that prevailed in his command. "The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners." This quote by Forrest doesn't exactly support his professions of innocence.

During the meeting - and as he had done previously concerning the issue of whether to send provisions to Fort Sumter just prior to the opening of the war - President Lincoln gave written instructions to each member of his cabinet, requesting that they offer in writing their opinion as to what course the government should take regarding reports that "a large number of our colored soldiers, with their white officers, were, by the rebel force, massacred after they had surrendered:"

Executive Mansion,
Washington, May 3, 1864.


It is now quite certain that a large number of our colored soldiers, with their white officers, were, by the rebel force, massacred after they had surrendered, at the recent capture of Fort-Pillow. So much is known, though the evidence is not yet quite ready to be laid before me. Meanwhile I will thank you to prepare, and give me in writing your [2] opinion as to what course, the government should take in the case. Yours truly A. LINCOLN


[1] ADfS, DLC-RTL. The envelope containing the letter is endorsed by Lincoln "Letter to each Member of Cabinet, May 3, 1864.'' Individual letters sent to the cabinet members are extant as follows: to Blair (DLC-Blair Papers), to Seward (DNA FS RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters), to Welles (owned by George A. Ball, Muncie, Indiana). The lengthy and divergent replies from the cabinet members are in the Lincoln Papers, but limitations of space forbid adequate quotation and summary. A satisfactory summary may be found in Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, VI, 478 ff. All members agreed that the Confederate government should be called on to avow or disavow the massacre. Seward, Chase, Stanton, and Welles agreed in advising that Confederate prisoners equal in numbers to the Union troops massacred should be set apart as hostages, to be executed if the Confederate government avowed the massacre. Usher, Bates, and Blair advised no retaliation against innocent hostages, but advised that orders be issued to commanders to execute the actual offenders (Forrest and any of his command) if captured. Recommendations of the cabinet were not carried out, but see further Lincoln's instructions to Stanton, May 17, infra. For the report of the special committee (Senator Benjamin F. Wade and Representative Daniel W. Gooch) appointed to investigate the massacre, see House Committee Reports No. 65, Thirty-eighth Congress, First Session.

Although attempts have been made to absolve General Forrest and although Forrest's own explanation undertook to place the blame on the Union commander, Major Lionel F. Booth, for declining to surrender the fort before it was stormed, the truth contained in Forrest's own reports to Assistant Adjutant General Thomas J. Jack and to General Leonidas Polk on April 15, 1864, is self-evident. Testimony of survivors was that after they had thrown down their arms the Confederates shot most of those who did not jump into the river. Forrest's report to Jack is as follows:

"...Arrived there [Fort Pillow] on the morning of the 12th and attacked the place with . . . about 1,500 men, and after a sharp contest captured the garrison and all of its stores. A demand was made for the surrender, which was refused. The victory was complete, and the loss of the enemy will never be known from the fact that large numbers ran into the river and were shot and drowned. The force was composed of about 500 negroes and 200 white soldiers (Tennessee Tories). The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards. There was in the fort a large number of citizens who had fled there to escape the conscript law. Most of these ran into the river and were drowned.

"The approximate loss was upward of 500 killed, but few of the officers escaping.

"It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners. We still hold the fort.

"My loss was about 20 killed and about 60 wounded. . . .'' (OR, I, XXXII, I, 610-11).

[2] The autograph draft was revised to the present text by an unidentified hand. As Lincoln wrote it, the remainder of this sentence read: "what course, in your judgment the government should take in the case.''

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