Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Donald Yacovone et al. | Go to book overview

58

AL to Nathaniel P. Banks:
CW, 6:364–365

Nathaniel Prentice Banks, a politically appointed general and career politician from Massachusetts, commanded the military department that included Louisiana and played a key role in developing Reconstruction plans for the state. Captured by the Union early in 1862, Louisiana offered a critical look into the administration's early Reconstruction policies and a glimpse into the fate of African Americans of the South had Lincoln survived his second term. The state possessed a large African American population; New Orleans alone was home to twenty-five thousand blacks, including a wealthy and well-educated black community of eleven thousand. This group also provided some of the first black troops permitted to join the Union army; under Banks these men fought heroically at Port Hudson and at Milliken's Bend. When Lincoln learned from George S. Boutwell, who had been governor of Massachusetts in the 1850s and began serving in Congress the previous March, that Louisiana Unionists had begun drafting a new constitution, he offered Banks his views. Lincoln insisted that emancipation be permanent and that the document address slavery in those areas still under rebel control. What happened in Louisiana mattered to the president, and he kept in close contact with the military governor of the state, George Foster Shepley, and even knew the head of the committee charged with drafting the new constitution, Thomas J. Durant. The president's primary concerns, however, did not go much beyond restoring Louisiana to the Union and providing “some practical system” that would allow the races to coexist in the postwar world. Reeducation of whites did not occur to him, only the education of young African Americans. While he said nothing else of consequence to Banks, Lincoln did address a letter to Louisiana governor Michael Hahn on March 13, 1864, suggesting that the state might consider enfranchising “very intelligent colored people” and those who

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