Every northern commander was sucked into the vortex of the fugitive slave issue, none more so than Grant in the heart of the cotton kingdom. As plantation owners fled his advancing army, thousands of slaves raced to freedom in Grant’s camps. Temporary towns of makeshift dwellings, overcrowded with frightened black refugees, sprang up on the fringes of army posts. The slaves’ lamentable condition demanded urgent attention. “There were men, women, and children in every stage of disease or decrepitude, often nearly naked, with flesh torn by the terrible experiences of their escapes,” wrote John Eaton, who saw slaves dropping by the wayside. “Sometimes they were intelligent and eager to help themselves; often they were bewildered or stupid or possessed by the wildest notions of what liberty might mean . . . Some radical step needed to be taken.”
At first Grant was perplexed by these masses of dislocated people. “Citizens south of us are leaving their homes & Negroes coming in by wagon loads,” he wired Halleck, adding plaintively, “What will I do with them?” Many northerners feared an abrupt influx of blacks, making it essential to employ them in the South. Nobody stood under any illusions about the extent of northern bigotry. On November 13, 1862, Grant took his first historic step in dealing with runaway slaves, naming Eaton as superintendent of contrabands for the Mississippi Valley—“contraband” of war being the term of art for runaway slaves coined by General Benjamin Butler in 1861 as a way to bypass the Fugitive Slave Act, then still in effect. A farmer’s son, born in New Hampshire, Eaton had graduated from Dartmouth College and served as school superintendent in Toledo, Ohio. After attending Andover Theological Seminary, he was assigned as chaplain to the Twenty-Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry. A caring, passionate advocate for the former slaves, he faced the daunting need to shelter, employ, and prepare them for the demands of freedom. He set up large contraband camps where slaves could be educated, treated for medical problems, and set to work picking cotton as hired hands. Eaton felt awed by the godlike responsibility thrust upon him—“There was no plan in this exodus, no Moses to lead it”—and sensed it would be “an enterprise beyond the possibility of human achievement.”
When Eaton first met Grant at La Grange, Tennessee, he expected to find “an incompetent and disagreeable man” whose weather-beaten face would betray signs of dissipation. Instead, he was pleasantly surprised to discover Grant’s innate modesty, simplicity, and sobriety. Other than the shoulder straps that signified a major general, Grant was indistinguishable from his officers. Grant knew that the deeper his army penetrated into cotton country, the more he would have to grapple with the destiny of a slave population fast emancipating itself. Eaton was stunned that Grant’s thinking already “far outstripped” the “meager instructions” he had received from Halleck.
In fact, Grant’s imagination had charted the entire arc of the freed slaves from wartime runaways to full voting citizenship. This man who had so recently balked at abolitionism now made a startling leap into America’s future. To Eaton, Grant delineated a lengthy list of useful tasks that “contrabands” could perform, with the men building bridges, roads, and earthworks or chopping wood for Mississippi steamers, while women worked in kitchens and hospitals. But this merely served as prelude to something much bigger. “He then went on to say that when it had been made clear that the Negro, as an independent laborer . . . could do these things well, it would be very easy to put a musket in his hands and make a soldier of him, and if he fought well, eventually to put the ballot in his hand and make him a citizen. Obviously I was dealing with no incompetent, but a man capable of handling large issues. Never before in those early and bewildering days had I heard the problem of the future of the Negro attacked so vigorously and with such humanity combined with practical good sense.” This sudden enlargement of Grant’s thinking and concern for the ex-slaves shows how the war had reshaped his views on fundamental issues.
Grant gave Eaton orders to establish the first contraband camp at Grand Junction, Tennessee, where thousands of former slaves had congregated. A central aim was to have newly liberated blacks work on abandoned plantations, picking cotton and corn that could be shipped north to assist the war effort. “We together fixed the prices to be paid for the negro labor,” Grant recalled, “whether rendered to the government or to individuals.” It was a remarkable moment—the sudden advent of a labor market for former slaves, who would now be rewarded for picking cotton. Grant found himself overseeing a vast social experiment, inducting his black charges into the first stages of citizenship. Taking the proceeds from their labor, he created a fund that was “not only sufficient to feed and clothe all, old and young, male and female, but to build them comfortable cabins, hospitals for the sick, and to supply them with many comforts they had never known before.” This brand-new Grant never wavered in his commitment to freed people. It would be army commanders in the field, not Washington politicians, who worked out many of the critical details in caring for the recently enslaved. Frederick Douglass never forgot the service Grant rendered to his people, arguing that General Grant “was always up with, or in advance of authority furnished from Washington in regard to the treatment of those of our color then slaves,” and he cited the food, work, medical care, and education Grant supplied in the months before the official Emancipation Proclamation.
21 April 2019
Grant's Vision of Emancipation
From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 228-230: