It has become a grave question for determination what shall be done with the slaves abandoned by their owners on the advance of our troops into southern territory, as in the Beaufort district of South Carolina. The whole white population therein is six thousand, while the number of negroes exceeds thirty-two thousand. The panic which drove their masters in wild confusion from their homes, leaves them in undisputed possession of the soil. Shall they, armed by their masters, be placed in the field to fight against us, or shall their labor be continually employed in reproducing the means for supporting the armies of rebellion?
The war into which this Government has been forced by rebellious traitors is carried on for the purpose of repossessing the property violently and treacherously seized upon by the enemies of the Government, and to re-establish the authority and laws of the United States in the places where it is opposed or overthrown by armed insurrection and rebellion. Its purpose is to recover and defend what is justly its own.
War, even between independent nations, is made to subdue the enemy, and all that belongs to that enemy, by occupying the hostile country, and exercising dominion over all the men and things within its territory. This being true in respect to independent nations at war with each other, it follows that rebels who are laboring by force of arms to overthrow a Government, justly bring upon themselves all the consequences of war, and provoke the destruction merited by the worst of crimes. That Government would be false to national trust, and would justly excite the ridicule of the civilized world, that would abstain from the use of any efficient means to preserve its own existence, or to overcome a rebellious and traitorous enemy, by sparing or protecting the property of those who are waging war against it.
The principal wealth and power of the rebel States is a peculiar species of property, consisting of the service or labor of African slaves, or the descendants of Africans. This property has been variously estimated at the value of from seven hundred million to one thousand million dollars.
Why should this property be exempt from the hazards and consequences of a rebellious war?
It was the boast of the leader of the rebellion, while he yet had a seat in the Senate of the United States, that the southern States would be comparatively safe and free from the burdens of war, if it should be brought on by the contemplated rebellion, and that boast was accompanied by the savage threat that “northern towns and cities would become the victims of rapine and military spoil,” and that “northern men should smell southern gunpowder and feel southern steel.” No one doubts the disposition of the rebels to carry that threat into execution. The wealth of northern towns and cities, the produce of northern farms, northern workshops and manufactories would certainly be seized, destroyed, or appropriated as military spoil. No property in the North would be spared from the hands of the rebels, and their rapine would be defended under the laws of war. While the loyal States thus have all their property and possessions at stake, are the insurgent rebels to carry on warfare against the Government in peace and security to their own property?
Reason and justice and self-preservation forbid that such should be the policy of this Government, but demand, on the contrary, that, being forced by traitors and rebels to the extremity of war, all the rights and powers of war should be exercised to bring it to a speedy end.
Those who war against the Government justly forfeit all rights of property, privilege, or security, derived from the Constitution and laws, against which they are in armed rebellion; and as the labor and service of their slaves constitute the chief property of the rebels, such property should share the common fate of war to which they have devoted the property of loyal citizens.
While it is plain that the slave property of the South is justly subjected to all the consequences of this rebellious war, and that the Government would be untrue to its trust in not employing all the rights and powers of war to bring it to a speedy close, the details of the plan for doing so, like all other military measures, must, in a great degree, be left to be determined by particular exigencies. The disposition of other property belonging to the rebels that becomes subject to our arms is governed by the circumstances of the case. The Government has no power to hold slaves, none to restrain a slave of his liberty, or to exact his service. It has a right, however, to use the voluntary service of slaves liberated by war from their rebel masters, like any other property of the rebels, in whatever mode may be most efficient for the defence of the Government, the prosecution of the war, and the suppression of rebellion. It is clearly a right of the Government to arm slaves when it may become necessary as it is to take gunpowder from the enemy. Whether it is expedient to do so is purely a military question. The right is unquestionable by the laws of war. The expediency must be determined by circumstances, keeping in view the great object of overcoming the rebels, re-establishing the laws, and restoring peace to the nation.
It is vain and idle for the Government to carry on this war, or hope to maintain its existence against rebellious force, without employing all the rights and powers of war. As has been said, the right to deprive the rebels of their property in slaves and slave labor is as clear and absolute as the right to take forage from the field, or cotton from the warehouse, or powder and arms from the magazine. To leave the enemy in the possession of such property as forage and cotton and military stores, and the means of constantly reproducing them, would be madness. It is, therefore, equal madness to leave them in peaceful and secure possession of slave property, more valuable and efficient to them for war than forage, cotton, and military stores. Such policy would be national suicide. What to do with that species of property is a question that time and circumstances will solve, and need not be anticipated further than to repeat that they cannot be held by the Government as slaves. It would be useless to keep them as prisoners of war; and self-preservation, the highest duty of a Government, or of individuals, demands that they should be disposed of or employed in the most effective manner that will tend most speedily to suppress the insurrection and restore the authority of the Government. If it shall be found that the men who have been held by the rebels as slaves are capable of bearing arms and performing efficient military service, it is the right, and may become the duty, of this Government to arm and equip them, and employ their services against the rebels, under proper military regulations, discipline, and command.
But in whatever manner they may be used by the Government, it is plain that, once liberated by the rebellious act of their masters, they should never again be restored to bondage. By the master's treason and rebellion he forfeits all right to the labor and service of his slave; and the slave of the rebellious master, by his service to the Government, becomes justly entitled to freedom and protection.
The disposition to be made of the slaves of rebels, after the
close of the war, can be safely left to the wisdom and patriotism
of Congress. The representatives of the people will
unquestionably secure to the loyal slaveholders every right to
which they are entitled under the Constitution of the country.
[Washington, D.C.] December 1, 1861
It is already a grave question what shall be done with those slaves who were abandoned by their owners on the advance of our troops into southern territory, as at Beaufort district, in South Carolina. The number left within our control at that point is very considerable, and similar cases will probably occur. What shall be done with them? Can we afford to send them forward to their masters, to be by them armed against us, or used in producing supplies to sustain the rebellion? Their labor may be useful to us; withheld from the enemy it lessens his military resources, and withholding them has no tendency to induce the horrors of insurrection, even in the rebel communities. They constitute a military resource, and, being such, that they should not be turned over to the enemy is too plain to discuss. Why deprive him of supplies by a blockade, and voluntarily give him men to produce them?
The disposition to be made of the slaves of rebels, after the close of the war, can be safely left to the wisdom and patriotism of Congress. The Representatives of the people will unquestionably secure to the loyal slaveholders every right to which they are entitled under the Constitution of the country.
Secretary of War.