Commander of the 5th Division of the Army of the Tennessee to a Tennessee Slaveholder

Memphis Tenn.  Aug 24th 1862

My dear Sir,  I freely admit that when you recall the times when we were schoolfellows, when we were younger than now, you touch me on a tender point, and cause me to deeply regret that even you should style yourself a Rebel.  I cannot believe that Tom Hunton the Companion of Gaither, Rankin, and Irvin and many others long since dead, and of Halleck. Ord, Stevens and others still living can of his own free will admit the anarchical principle of secession or be vain enough to suppose the present Politicions Can frame a Government better than that of Washington Hamilton & Jefferson.  We cannot realize this but delude ourselves into the belief that by some strange but successful jugglery the manegers of our Political Machine have raised up the single issue, North or South, which shall prevail in America? or that you like others have been blown up, and cast into the Mississippi of Secession doubtful if by hard fighting you can reach the shore in safety, or drift out to the Ocean of Death,  I know it is no use for us now to discuss this–war is on us.  We are Enemies, still private friends.  In the one Capacity I will do you all the harm I can, yet on the other if here. you may have as of old my last Cent, my last shirt and pants,  You ask of me your negroes. and I will immediately ascertain if they be under my Military Control and I will moreover see that they are one and all told what is true of all–  Boys if you want to go to your master, Go–  You are free to choose,  You must now think for yourselves.  Your Master has seceded from his Parent Government and you have seceded from him–both wrong by law–but bothe exercising an undoubted natural Right to rebel,  If your boys want to go, I will enable them to go, but I wont advise, persuade or force them–  I confess I have not yet seen the “Confiscation Act,” but I enclose you my own orders defining my position,  I also cut out of a paper Grant's Orders, and I assert that the Action of all our Leading Military Leaders, Halleck, McClellan, Buell, Grant & myself have been more conservative of slavery than the Acts of your own men.  The Constitution of the United States is your only legal title to slavery.  You have another title, that of posession & Force, but in Law & Logic your title to your Boys lay in the Constitution of the United States.  You may say you are for the Constitution of the United States, as it was–  You know it is unchanged, not a word not a syllable and I can lay my hand on that Constitution and swear to it without one twang.  But your party have made another and have another in force   How can you say that you would have the old, when you have a new   By the new if sucessful you inherit the Right of Slavery, but the new is not law till your Revolution is successful.  Therefore we who contend for the old existing Law, Contend that you by your own act take away Your own title to all property save what is restricted by our constitution, your slaves included.  You know I don't want your slaves; but to bring you to reason I think as a Military Man I have a Right and it is good policy to make you all feel that you are but men–that you have all the wants & dependencies of other men, and must eat, be clad &c to which end you must have property & labor, and that by Rebelling you risk both,  Even without the Confiscation Act, by the simple laws of War we ought to take your effective slaves.  I don't say to free them, but to use their labor & deprive you of it; as Belligerents we ought to seek the hostile Army and fight it and not the people.–  We went to Corinth but Beaureguard declined Battle, since which time many are dispersed as Guerillas.  We are not bound to follow them, but rightfully make war by any means that will tend to bring about an end and restore Peace.  Your people may say it only exasperates, widens the breach and all that, But the longer the war lasts the more you must be convinced that we are no better & no worse than People who have gone before us, and that we are simply reenacting History, and that one of the modes of bringing People to reason is to touch their Interests pecuniary or property.

We never harbor women or children–we give employment to men, under the enclosed order.  I find no negroes Registered as belonging to Hunton, some in the name of McGhee of which the Engineer is now making a list–  I see McClellan says that the negroes once taken shall never again be restored.1  I say nothing.  My opinion is, we execute not make the Law, be it of Congress or War.  But it is Manifest that if you wont go into a United States District Court and sue for the recovery of your slave property You can never Get it, out of adverse hands.  No U.S. Court would allow you to sue for the recovery of a slave under the Fugitive Slave Law. unless you acknowledge allegiance.  Believing this honesty, so I must act. though personally I feel strong frindship as ever, for very many in the South   With Great Respect Your friend

W. T. Sherman

Maj. Genl. W. T. Sherman to Thomas Hunton, Esq., 24 Aug. 1862, vol. 3, pp. 51–53, Letters Sent, W. T. Sherman Papers, Generals' Papers & Books, series 159, Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94, National Archives.

1. On August 9, 1862, General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, issued an order promulgating President Abraham Lincoln's executive order of July 22, which had instructed the federal armies operating in rebellious states to seize property suitable for military purposes and to employ slaves. McClellan added that slaves employed by the Union army “have always understood that after being received into the military service of the United States in any capacity they could never be reclaimed by their former holders,” and he promised such slaves “permanent military protection against any compulsory return to a condition of servitude.” (The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, series 1, vol. 11, pt. 3, pp. 362–64.)

Published in The Destruction of Slavery, pp. 292–94, and in Free at Last, pp. 68–71.