Lincoln on Race and Slavery

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

65

AL to Edwin M. Stanton:
CW, 7:345–346

On April 12, 1864, the Mississippi River ran red with the “blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards.” Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest exulted over the black and white Union troops his men slaughtered after they surrendered their isolated Tennessee fort. For the remainder of the war, “Remember Fort Pillow!” tumbled from the lips of black Union soldiers, while others stitched those words onto their uniforms in defiance of the enemy they faced. All understood that if captured, they more likely would be shot than ever see the inside of a rebel prison camp. But by flying the “black flag,” Confederates only increased the ferocity of the battlefield and the black soldiers' drive to win freedom for themselves and their brethren. Lincoln soon learned the details of the terrible slaughter and on April 18 in Baltimore publicly acknowledged what Forrest's men had done. He explained that because he had recruited black men into the army, it was his responsibility “to give him all the protection given to any other soldier.” He did not question the government's obligation to protect its black troops but puzzled over how to do it: “The difficulty is not in stating the principle, but in practically applying it” (CW, 7:302). After an army inquiry—later followed by a congressional one—confirmed the horrifying details, Lincoln discussed a response with his cabinet in early May and then crafted but never sent the following letter to his secretary of war. Several members of the administration, William Henry Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Gideon Welles, and even Edwin M. Stanton, were willing to execute an equal number of rebel prisoners in the unlikely event that the Confederate government would take responsibility for Forrest's actions. Other members opposed killing innocent captives, but agreed to execute Forrest and officers in his command if they happen to fall into Union hands. Lincoln resisted his cabinet's suggestions, crafted these ambiguous and halting

-302-

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