DescriptionAbraham Lincoln Historic Autograph Letter, two pages, 7.75" x 9.75", separate conjoined sheets. Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., May 17, 1864. To the Secretary of War (Edwin M. Stanton).
On July 30, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation stating that "It is the duty of every Government to give protection to its citizens, of whatever class, color, or condition, and especially to those who are duly organized as soldiers in the public service...The Government of the United States will give the same protection to all its soldiers; and if the enemy shall sell or enslave any one because of his color, the offence be punished by retaliation upon the enemy's prisoners in our possession. It is therefore ordered that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works, and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war."
On April 12, 1864, Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River, about 40 miles above Memphis, Tennessee. The Union garrison at the Confederate-built earthen fortification comprised 295 white Tennessee troops and 262 Colored Troops, all under the command of Major Lionel F. Booth. A cavalry division of approximately 2,500 Confederate soldiers surrounded Booth's force. Rebel sharpshooters on the surrounding knolls began firing into the fort. Booth was killed and Major William F. Bradford took command of the garrison. The Confederates then occupied strategic locations around the fort and Forrest demanded unconditional surrender. Bradford refused and the Confederate troops renewed their attack, overran the fort, and drove the Federal troops down the river's bluff. Union casualties were high. The April 16, 1864 edition of The New York Times reported what occurred after the rebels "came in swarms over our troops, compelling them to surrender. Immediately upon the surrender ensued a scene which utterly baffles description. Up to that time, comparatively few of our men had been killed; but, insatiate as fiends, bloodthirsty as devils incarnate, the Confederates commenced an indiscriminate butchery of the whites and blacks, including those of both colors who had been previously wounded...Both white and black were bayoneted, shot or sabred; even dead bodies were horribly mutilated, and children of seven and eight years and several negro women killed in cold blood. Soldiers unable to speak from wounds were shot dead, and their bodies rolled down the banks into the river. The dead and wounded negroes were piled in heaps and burned, and several citizens who had joined our forces for protection were killed or wounded. Out of the garrison of six hundred, only two hundred remained alive...Two negro soldiers, wounded at Fort Pillow, were buried by the rebels but afterward worked themselves out of their graves..."
Two days later, on April 18, 1864, at the Sanitary Commission Fair in Baltimore, President Lincoln said the following: "A painful rumor, true I fear, has reached us of the massacre by the rebel forces at Fort Pillow in the west end of Tennessee on the Mississippi River of some 300 colored soldiers and white officers who had just been overpowered by their assailants. There seems to be some anxiety in the public mind whether the government is doing its duty to the colored soldier, and to the service at this point. At the beginning of the war, and for some time, the use of colored troops was not contemplated; and how the change of purpose was wrought, I will not now take time to explain. Upon a clear conviction of duty I resolved to turn that element of strength to account; and I am responsible for it to the American people, to the Christian world, to history, and on my final account to God. Having determined to use the negro as a soldier, there is no way but to give him all the protection given to any other soldier...We do not today know that a colored soldier, or white officer commanding colored troops, has been massacred by the rebels when made a prisoner. We fear it, believe it, I may say, but we do not know it. To take the life of one of their prisoners, on the assumption that they murder ours, when it is short of certainty that they do murder ours, might be too serious, too cruel a mistake. We are having the Fort Pillow affair thoroughly investigated...If there has been the massacre of 300 there, or even the tenth part of 300, it will be conclusively proved; and being so proved, the retribution shall as surely come. It will be a matter of grave consideration in what exact course to apply the retribution; but in the suppose case, it must come."
The April 30, 1864 issue of Harper's Weekly, the most widely circulated magazine in America, reported the massacre at Fort Pillow, repeating verbatim the April 16th Times description, with a full-page illustration graphically detailing the alleged massacre. In part, "We give on page 284 a sketch of the horrible Massacre at Fort Pillow. The annals of savage warfare nowhere record a more inhuman, fiendish butchery than this, perpetrated by the representatives of the 'superior civilization' of the States in rebellion." Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly carried a similar report and illustration depicting rebel soldiers bayoneting, shooting, and beating fallen Union soldiers, most of them colored troops. No doubt President Lincoln read of the massacre in these periodicals as well as the newspapers. On May 3, 1864, he wrote Secretary of State Seward, "Please invite all members of the Cabinet to be present at the meeting today." Dated the same day were letters to each cabinet member, with identical content, stating that "It is now 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 opinion as to what course in your judgment the government should take in this case." Replies from his seven cabinet members were dated May 4th to 6th and varied in length from three to eight pages. Secretary of State William Seward advised the President "that the General commanding the United States forces be instructed to state to the commanding General of the insurgents the following points: - That this Government has learned that a number of United States colored soldiers with their white officers were massacred at the siege of Fort Pillow by the captors of the Fort. That this Government has seen no evidence which authorizes it to believe that the insurgents disavow those massacres" and "that insurgent prisoners of war now in military custody equal in number and corresponding in rank to the number of United States soldiers and officers who were massacred at Fort Pillow after having surrendered as prisoners of war, be immediately set apart and held in rigorous confinement, and that notice be given to the commanding General of the insurgents that the disposition which shall ultimately be made of the prisoners so confined will depend upon the answers which shall be given by him to the (charges)." Secretary of War Edwin Stanton opined "That of the rebel officers now held as prisoners by the United States, there should be selected by lot a number equal to the number of persons ascertained to have been massacred at Fort Pillow, who should be immediately placed in close confinement as hostages, to await such further action as may be determined...That the rebel authorities at Richmond be notified that the prisoners so selected, are held as hostages, for the delivery up of Generals [Nathan Bedford] Forrest and [James R.] Chalmers and those concerned in the massacre at Fort Pillow, or to answer in their stead, and that in case of their non delivery within a reasonable time, to be specified in the notice, such measures will be taken in reference to the hostages by way of retributory punishment for the massacre at Fort Pillow, as are justified by the laws of civilized warfare." The view of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase was that "among the rebel prisoners of highest rank, now held by the United States, there should be taken a number, equivalent, according to the rules of exchange, to the number of officers & men murdered at Fort Pillow & that notice of the selection should be given by the Lieutenant General to the General Commanding the rebel armies, accompanied by a demand for information whether the Fort Pillow murders are sanctioned by the rebel authorities. Should an affirmative answer be returned or should it become otherwise manifest that those atrocities will not be disavowed but repeated, then the pledge given by the order of July 30, 1863 should be promptly and decisively redeemed." Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles suggested "1. That the rebel authorities be called upon to avow or disavow the policy of killing the negro soldiers in the Union army after they shall have surrendered. 2. That they be required to bring to punishment the officers in command of the rebel forces at Fort Pillow at the time of the massacre. 3. In the event of refusal to punish the officer who was in command or a disavowal of the policy of killing Union soldiers after they have surrendered, that rebel officers be taken into close custody and held accountable for the conduct of the War by the rebels on humane and civilised principles." Attorney General Edward Bates advised to "Adopt no plan of action, and especially, make no threat of vengeance or retaliation, without resolving at the same time, to act it out, to the letter, meeting all its consequences, direct and contingent...I would have no compact with the enemy for mutual slaughter - no cartel of blood and murder no stipulation to the effect that 'if you murder one of my men, I will murder one of yours!' Retaliation is not mere justice. It is avowedly Revenge; and is wholly unjustifiable, in law and conscience, unless adopted for the sole purposes of punishing past crime and of giving a salutary and blood saving warning against its repetition. In its very nature it must be discretionary." Postmaster General Montgomery Blair wrote the President that "There are two reasons which would prevent me from ordering the execution of prisoners, man for man, in retaliation for the massacre at Fort Pillow. First: That I do not think the measure would be justified by the rules of civilized warfare even in a contest between alien Enemies.Second: Because, even if allowable in such a contest, it would not be just in itself or expedient in the present contest...If it had not have been committed and we could stop it by saying we would execute some prisoners in our hands, that would of course, be proper enough. But when the crime has been committed and the question is whether we shall punish the authors vicariously by shooting prisoners who have not been engaged in it with the certainty that such punishment will lead to the shooting of an equal number of our prisoners in the hands of the enemy, and so on till all are shot on both sides, the question is very different." Secretary of the Interior John Usher advised caution. "We are upon the eve of an impending battle. Until the result shall have been known it seems to me to be inexpedient to take any extreme action in the premises. If favorable to our arms we may retaliate as far as the laws of War and humanity will permit. If disastrous, and extreme measures should have been adopted, we may be placed in a position of great embarrassment, and forced to forego our threatened purpose in order to avoid a worse calamity. I do not think it would be wise to inflict retaliation upon the prisoners now in our hands who were captured before the massacre complained of. Of those who may be thereafter captured, the forces under Forrest's command, or acting in concert with him, are, in the first instance, the proper subjects of retaliation...I am of opinion that the government should set apart for execution, an equal number of prisoners who, since the massacre, have been or may hereafter, from time to time, be captured from Forrests Command, designating, in every instance, as far as practicable, officers instead of privates."
On May 5, 1864, the report of the Joint Committee of Congress on the Conduct of the War on the Fort Pillow Massacre was presented to Congress stating that "It will appear from the testimony thus taken, that the atrocities committed at Fort Pillow were not the results of passion excited by the heat of conflict, but were the results of a policy deliberately decided upon and unhesitatingly announced." On May 6, 1864, President Lincoln met with his cabinet to discuss their suggestions. About 60 miles away, the armies of Generals U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were already engaged in the Battle of the Wilderness, the "impending battle" referred to in Usher's letter. Welles wrote in his diary, in part, "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 most others. Between Mr. Bates and Mr. Blair a suggestions 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 avoid communication with the Rebel authorities. Take 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 conspicuously in this butchery be captured, he should be turned over for trial for the murder at For 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."
On May 17, 1864, President Lincoln decided on what course the government would take in response to the massacre at Fort Pillow. Offered here is Lincoln's order to Secretary of War Stanton. The President left three blank spaces where he had planned to add numbers. It was never signed. The letter, handwritten by Lincoln on separate conjoined sheets, is in very fine condition:
"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 [blank space] 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 has assigned and set apart by name [blank space] insurgent officers, theretofore, 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 [blank space] 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 States 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, and will, if the insurgents assent, be exchanged for such 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."
Lincoln's secretary, John G. Nicolay, in chapter 25 of A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln (1902), explained that "two influences decided the course of the government against retaliation. One was that General Grant was about to begin his memorable campaign against Richmond, and that it would be most impolitic to preface a great battle by the tragic spectacle of a military punishment, however justifiable. The second was the tender-hearted humanity of the ever merciful President." Nicolay then relates what Frederick Douglass told him. In part, "'I shall never forget the benignant expression of his face, the tearful look of his eye, and the quiver in his voice when he deprecated a resort to retaliatory measures. "Once begun," said he, "I do not know where such a measure would stop." He said he could not take men out and kill them in cold blood for what was done by others. If he could get hold of the persons who were guilty of killing the colored prisoners in cold blood, the case would be different, but he could not kill the innocent for the guilty.'"
Lincoln's May 17, 1864 letter to Stanton is published in Volume VII of Roy P. Basler's The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (1953). Basler notes that "Presumably this communication to Stanton was never signed or delivered, and there is some mystery surrounding the fact that it should have been preserved until recently in the papers of Major Thomas T. Eckert of the War Department telegraph office." Eckert was the telegraph superintendent of the War Department and trusted emissary of President Lincoln. Basler writes that "No record has been found of a communication from Stanton to the Confederate authorities carrying out Lincoln's instructions." Lincoln concluded this letter by giving the Confederacy six weeks to agree to exchange their captured "colored soldiers of the United States" for Confederate prisoners of war. If they didn't, the U.S. government would assume that "said captured colored troops shall have been murdered, or subjected to Slavery" and will "take such action as may then appear expedient and just." No doubt this referred to his July 30, 1863, proclamation ordering "that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed." The Confederacy would then have retaliated by executing Northern prisoners and an atrocious cycle of carnage off the battlefield would have begun. One can only reflect on what was going through Lincoln's mind as he wrote this letter, ultimately deciding not to sign it. Undoubtedly, this is one of the most historically important letters of any U.S. President in existence, one that if it had been sent, would have adversely changed American history. Ex. Henry E. Luhrs Collection.
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