Forty Acres and a Mule: Part Three Those Around Lincoln Question Sherman’s Possible Abuse of Freedmen and Sherman States Essentially That This Is Nonsense

Heather Gray
May 10, 2017
Justice Initiative International

Forty Acres and a Mule: Part One
Forty Acres and a Mule: Part Two

By the time Sherman arrived in Savannah, there were questions in Washington, DC about his attitude toward the freedmen and whether or not Sherman was being abusive and disrespectful of them. This could perhaps have been one of the reasons why Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, chose to come to Savannah to find out for himself what Sherman was up to. Sherman reflects upon all of this in his “Memoir” along with a private letter he received from General H.W. Halleck of Army Headquarters about the issue, which is shared below. There are two interesting facets here. One is that Lincoln was apparently concerned that the freedmen be treated with respect and the other is that Sherman was apparently of the same opinion and he defends himself in his “Memoir” about the critical attitudes about him resonating out of Washington, DC.

The other issue to be addressed is that many have questioned Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery and the freedmen altogether. Lincoln’s concern that freedmen be treated with respect, and that Sherman, as a representative of Lincoln’s government, should also be respectful of the freed slaves, is thought by some to perhaps be a point of departure for Lincoln. Some have alternatively questioned that this concern might, in fact, be the “real Lincoln!”

I also want to mention that when Sherman successfully made his march through Georgia to Savannah from November 15 to December 21, 1864,  he wrote a note to President Lincoln on December 22, 1864 offering the “City of Savannah” as his December 1864 Christmas gift to Lincoln. Lincoln then responded to Sherman. Below is information about the exchange of letters.

Sherman’s message to Lincoln

On December 26, 1864, Sherman’s December 22, 1864 message to Lincoln was published in the New York Times. It read, “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.” (The Learning Network)

Then, also on December 26, 1864, Lincoln replied to Sherman:

“Many, many thanks for your Christmas-gift – the capture of Savannah. When you were about leaving Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious, if not fearful; but feeling that you were the better judge, and remembering that ‘nothing risked, nothing gained’ I did not interfere. Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours.” (The Learning Network)

Lincoln’s Questions about Sherman Regarding Freedmen and Sherman’s Response

From Sherman’s “Memoir” he recounts the apparent prevailing view of some around President Lincoln in 1864/65 that he, Sherman, was being inappropriately hostile toward the Freedmen. Sherman explains this dilemma that includes a letter from General H. W. Halleck of the Army Headquarters. Sherman assumes also that Secretary of War, Stanton, thought the same about him which is why he notes that Stanton likely preferred that Sherman not be in the meeting room with the Freedmen on January 12, 1865 when Stanton asked Twelfth Question about the “feeling of the colored people” toward Sherman. So Sherman left the room. As Sherman notes below, up to that time he had been a part of the discussion with the Freedmen. Below is the commentary about this issue, recounted directly from Sherman’s memoir.


From General William T. Sherman’s “Memoir”
(Pgs: 606-609)

Up to this time I was present, and, on Mr. Stanton’s intimating that he wanted to ask some questions affecting me, I withdrew, and then he put the twelfth and last question:

Twelfth Question. State what is the feeling of the colored people toward General Sherman, and how far do they regard his sentiments and actions as friendly to their rights and interests, or otherwise?

Answer. We looked upon General Sherman, prior to his arrival, as aman, in the providence of God, specially set apart to accomplish this work, and we unanimously felt inexpressible gratitude to him,  looking upon him, as a man who should be honored for the faithful performance of his duty. Some of us called upon him immediately upon his arrival, and it is probable he did not meet the secretary with more courtesy than he did us. His conduct and deportment toward us characterized him as a friend and gentleman. We have confidence in General Sherman, and think what concerns us could not be in better hands. This is our opinion now, from the short acquaintance and intercourse we have had.

It certainly was a strange fact that the great War Secretary should have catechized negroes concerning the character of a general who had commanded a hundred thousand men in battle, had captured cities, conducted sixty-five thousand men successfully across four hundred miles of hostile territory, and had just brought tens of thousands of freedmen to a place of security; but because I had not loaded down my army by other hundreds of thousands of poor negroes, I was construed by others as hostile to the black race. I had received from General Halleck, at Washington, a letter warning me that there were certain influential parties near the President who were torturing him with suspicions of my fidelity to him and his negro policy; but I shall always believe that Mr. Lincoln, though a civilian, knew better, and appreciated my motives and character. Though this letter of General Halleck has always been treated by me as confidential, I now insert it here at length:

WASHINGTON, D. C., December 30, 1864
Major-General W. T. SHERMAN, Savannah

MY DEAR GENERAL:  I take the liberty of calling your attention, in this private and friendly way, to a matter which may possibly hereafter be of more importance to you than either of us may now anticipate. While almost every one is praising your great march through Georgia, and the capture of Savannah, there is a certain class having now great influence with the President, and very probably anticipating still more on a change of cabinet, who are decidedly disposed to make a point against you. I mean in regard to “inevitable Sambo.” The say that you have manifested an almost criminal dislike to the negro, and that you are not willing to carry out the wishes of the Government in regarding to him, but repulse him with contempt! They say you might have manifested an almost criminal dislike to the negro, and that you are not willing to carry out the wishes of the government in regard to him, but repulse him with contempt.  They say you might have brought with you to Savannah more than fifty thousand, thus stripping in Georgia of that number of laborers, and opening a road by which as many more could have escaped from their masters; but that, instead of this, you drove them from your ranks, prevented their following you by in cutting the bridges in your rear, and thus caused the massacre of large numbers by Wheeler’s calvary. To those cavalry who know you as I do, such accusation will pass as the idle winds, for we presume that you discouraged the negroes from following you because you had not the means of supporting them, and feared they might seriously embarrass your march. But there are others, and among them some in high authority, who think or pretend to think otherwise, and they are decidedly disposed to make a point against you.

I do not write this to induce you to conciliate this class of men by doing any thing which you do not deem right and proper, and for the interest of the Government and the country; but simply to call your attention to certain things which are viewed here somewhat differently than from your stand-point. I will explain as briefly as possible:

Some here think that, in view of the scarcity of labor in the South, and the probability that a part, at least, of the able-bodied slaves will be called into the military service of the rebels, it is of the greatest importance to open outlets by which these slaves can escape into our lines, and they say that the route you have passed over should be made the route of escape, and Savannah the great place of refuge. These, I know, are the views of some of the leading men in the Administration, and they now express dissatisfaction that you did not carry them out in your great raid.

Now that you are in possession of Savannah, and there can be no further fears about supplies, would it not he possible for you to reopen these avenues of escape for the negroes, without interfering with your military operations? Could not such escaped slaves find at least a partial supply of food in the rice-fields about Savannah, and cotton plantations on the coast.

I merely throw out these suggestions. I know that such a course would be approved by the Government, and I believe that a manifestation on your part of a desire to bring the slaves within our lines will do much to silence your opponents. You will appreciate my motives in writing this private letter.

Yours truly,

There is no doubt that Mr. Stanton, when he reached Savannah, shared these thoughts, but luckily the negroes themselves convinced him that he was in error, and that they understood their own interests far better better than did the men in Washington, who tried to make political capital out of  this negro question.  The idea that such men should have been permitted to hang around Mr. Lincoln, to torture his life by suspicions of the officers who were toiling with the single purpose to bring the war to a successful end, and thereby to liberate all slaves is a fair illustration of the influences that poison a political capital. My aim then was, to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us. “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” I did not want them to cast in our teeth what General Hood had once done in Atlanta, that we had to call on their slaves to help us to subdue them. But, as regards kindness to the race, encouraging them to patience and forbearance, procuring them food and clothing, and providing them with land whereon to labor, I assert that no army ever did more for that race than those I commanded in Savannah.

When we reached Savannah, we were beset by ravenous State agents from Hilton Head, who enticed and carried away our servants, and the corps of pioneers which we had organized, and which had done such excellent service. On one occasion, my own aide-de-camp, Colonel Audenried, found at least a hundred poor negroes shut up in a house and pen, waiting for the night, to be conveyed stealthily to Hilton Head. They appealed to him for protection, alleging that they had been told that they must be soldiers, that “Massa Lincoln” wanted them, etc. I never denied the slaves a full opportunity for voluntary enlistment, but I did prohibit force to be used, for I knew that the State agents were more influenced by the profit they derived from the large bounties then being paid than by any love of country or of the colored race. In the language of Mr. Frazier, the enlistment of every black man “did not strengthen the army, but took away one white man from the ranks.”  (See note below regarding Mr. Frazier.)

William Tecumseh Sherman: Memoirs

(First printed in 1875 by D. Appleton and Company & in the 2000 edition by Penguin Books.

(Note: Regarding “Mr. Frazier” mentioned above, Sherman is referring to Garrison Frazier who was the spokesperson for the freedmen who met with Sherman and Stanton.  The description of Frazier is as follows: Garrison Frazier, aged 67 years, born in Granville County, N.C.  Slave until eight years ago, when he bought himself and wife, paying $1,000 in gold and silver.  Is an ordained minister in the Baptist Church, but, his health failing, has now charge of no congregation. Has been in the ministry 35 years.)   



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