The Great Conspiracy

“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, military stores. Such policy would be National

“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.”

This original draft of the report was modified, at the instance of
President Lincoln, to the following–and thus appeared in Secretary
Cameron’s report of that date, as printed:

“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 should 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.”
The language of this modification is given to show that the President,
at the close of the year 1861, had already reached a further step
forward toward Emancipation–and the sound reasoning upon which he made
that advance. He was satisfying his own mind and conscience as he
proceeded, and thus, while justifying himself to himself, was also
simultaneously carrying conviction to the minds and consciences of the
People, whose servant and agent he was.

That these abandoned Slaves would “constitute a Military resource” and
“should not be turned over to the Enemy” and that “their labor may be
useful to us” were propositions which could not be gainsaid. But to
quiet uncalled-for apprehensions, and to encourage Southern loyalty, he
added, in substance, that at the close of this War–waged solely for the
preservation of the Union–Congress would decide the doubtful status of
the Slaves of Rebels, while the rights of Union Slave-holders would be

The Contraband-Slave question, however, continued to agitate the public
mind for many months–owing to the various ways in which it was treated
by the various Military commanders, to whose discretion its treatment,
in their several commands, was left–a discretion which almost
invariably leaned toward the political bias of the commander. Thus, in
a proclamation, dated St. Louis, February 23, 1862, Halleck, commanding
the Department of Missouri, said:

“Soldiers! let no excess on your part tarnish the glory of our arms!

“The order heretofore issued in this department, in regard to pillaging
and marauding, the destruction of private property, and the stealing or
concealment of Slaves, must be strictly enforced. It does not belong to
the Military to decide upon the relation of Master and Slave. Such
questions must be settled by the civil Courts. No Fugitive Slaves will
therefore be admitted within our lines or camps, except when especially
ordered by the General Commanding. * * * ”

And Buell, commanding the Department of the Ohio, in response to a
communication on the subject from the Chairman of the Military Committee
of the Kentucky Legislature, wrote, March 6, 1862:

“It has come to my knowledge that Slaves sometimes make their way
improperly into our lines, and in some instances they may be enticed
there, but I think the number has been magnified by report. Several
applications have been made to me by persons whose servants have been
found in our camps, and in every instance that I know of the master has
recovered his servant and taken him away.”

Thus, while some of our Commanders, like Dix and Halleck, repelled or
even expelled the Fugitive Slave from their lines; and others, like
Buell and Hooker, facilitated the search for, and restoration to his
master, of the black Fugitive found within our lines; on the other hand,
Fremont, as we have seen, and Doubleday and Hunter, as we shall yet see,
took totally different ground on this question.

President Lincoln, however, harassed as he was by the extremists on both
sides of the Slavery question, still maintained that calm statesman-like
middle-course from which the best results were likely to flow. But he
now thought the time had come to broach the question of a compensated,
gradual Emancipation.

Accordingly, on March 6, 1862, he sent to Congress the following

“Fellow citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives:

“I recommend the adoption of a joint Resolution by your honorable
bodies, which shall be substantially as follows:

“Resolved, That the United States ought to co-operate with any State
which may adopt gradual abolishment of Slavery, giving to such State
pecuniary aid, to be used by such State in its discretion, to compensate
for the inconveniences, public and private, produced by such change of

“If the proposition contained in the Resolution does not meet the
approval of Congress and the Country, there is the end; but if it does
command such approval, I deem it of importance that the States and
people immediately interested should be at once distinctly notified of
the fact, so that they may begin to consider whether to accept or reject
it, The Federal Government would find its highest interest in such a
measure, as one of the most efficient means of self preservation.

“The leaders of the existing Insurrection entertain the hope that this
Government will ultimately be forced to acknowledge the Independence of
some part of the disaffected region, and that all the Slave States North
of such part will then say, ‘the Union for which we have struggled being
already gone, we now choose to go with the Southern Section.’

“To deprive them of this hope, substantially ends the Rebellion; and the
initiation of Emancipation completely deprives them of it, as to all the
States initiating it. The point is not that all the States tolerating
Slavery would very soon, if at all, initiate Emancipation; but that,
while the offer is equally made to all, the more Northern shall, by such
initiation, make it certain to the more Southern that in no event will
the former ever join the latter in their proposed Confederacy. I say,
‘initiation,’ because in my judgment, gradual, and not sudden
Emancipation, is better for all.

“In the mere financial or pecuniary view, any member of Congress, with
the census tables and Treasury reports before him, can readily see for
himself how very soon the current expenditures of this War would
purchase, at fair valuation, all the Slaves in any named State.

“Such a proposition on the part of the General Government sets up no
claim of a right by Federal authority to interfere with Slavery within
State limits, referring, as it does, the absolute control of the subject
in each case to the State and its people immediately interested. It is
proposed as a matter of perfectly free choice with them.

“In the Annual Message last December, I thought fit to say, ‘the Union
must be preserved; and hence all indispensable means must be employed.’
I said this, not hastily, but deliberately. War has been made, and
continues to be an indispensable means to this end. A practical
reacknowledgment of the National authority would render the War
unnecessary, and it would at once cease. If, however, resistance
continues, the War must also continue; and it is impossible to foresee
all the incidents which may attend, and all the ruin which may follow
it. Such as may seem indispensable, or may obviously promise great
efficiency toward ending the struggle, must and will come.

“The proposition now made, though an offer only, I hope it may be
esteemed no offense to ask whether the pecuniary consideration tendered
would not be of more value to the States and private persons concerned,
than are the Institution, and Property in it, in the present aspect of

“While it is true that the adoption of the proposed resolution would be
merely initiatory, and not within itself a practical measure, it is
recommended in the hope that it would soon lead to important practical
results. In full view of my great responsibility to my God and to my
Country, I earnestly beg the attention of Congress and the People to the

“March 6, 1862.”
In compliance with the above suggestion from the President, a Joint
Resolution, in the precise words suggested, was introduced into the
House, March 10, by Roscoe Conkling, and on the following day was
adopted in the House by 97 yeas to 36 nays.

Of the 36 members of the House who voted against this Resolution, were
34 Democrats, and among them were Messrs. Crisfield of Maryland, and
Messrs. Crittenden, Mallory, and Menzies of Kentucky. These gentleman
afterward made public a report, drawn by themselves, of an interesting
interview they had held with President Lincoln on this important
subject, in the words following:

“‘DEAR SIR:–I called, at the request of the President, to ask you to
come to the White House to-morrow morning, at nine o’clock, and bring
such of your colleagues as are in town.'”
“‘WASHINGTON, March 10, 1862.

“Yesterday on my return from church I found Mr. Postmaster General Blair
in my room, writing the above note, which he immediately suspended, and
verbally communicated the President’s invitation; and stated that the
President’s purpose was to have some conversation with the delegations
of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware, in explanation
of his Message of the 6th inst.

“This morning these delegations, or such of them as were in town,
assembled at the White House at the appointed time, and after some
little delay were admitted to an audience.

“After the usual salutations and we were seated, the President said, in
substance, that he had invited us to meet him to have some conversation
with us in explanation of his Message of the 6th; that since he had sent
it in, several of the gentlemen then present had visited him, but had
avoided any allusion to the Message, and he therefore inferred that the
import of the Message had been misunderstood, and was regarded as
inimical to the interests we represented; and he had resolved he would
talk with us, and disabuse our minds of that erroneous opinion.

“The President then disclaimed any intent to injure the interests or
wound the sensibilities of the Slave States. On the contrary, his
purpose was to protect the one and respect the other; that we were
engaged in a terrible, wasting, and tedious War; immense Armies were in
the field, and must continue in the field as long as the War lasts; that
these Armies must, of necessity, be brought into contact with Slaves in
the States we represented and in other States as they advanced; that
Slaves would come to the camps, and continual irritation was kept up;
that he was constantly annoyed by conflicting and antagonistic
complaints; on the one side, a certain class complained if the Slave was
not protected by the Army; persons were frequently found who,
participating in these views, acted in a way unfriendly to the
Slaveholder; on the other hand, Slaveholders complained that their
rights were interfered with, their Slaves induced to abscond, and
protected within the lines, these complaints were numerous, loud, and
deep; were a serious annoyance to him and embarrassing to the progress
of the War; that it kept alive a spirit hostile to the Government in the
States we represented; strengthened the hopes of the Confederates that
at some day the Border States would unite with them, and thus tend to
prolong the War; and he was of opinion, if this Resolution should be
adopted by Congress and accepted by our States, these causes of
irritation and these hopes would be removed, and more would be
accomplished towards shortening the War than could be hoped from the
greatest victory achieved by Union Armies; that he made this proposition
in good faith, and desired it to be accepted, if at all, voluntarily,
and in the same patriotic spirit in which it was made; that Emancipation
was a subject exclusively under the control of the States, and must be
adopted or rejected by each for itself; that he did not claim nor had
this Government any right to coerce them for that purpose; that such was
no part of his purpose in making this proposition, and he wished it to
be clearly understood; that he did not expect us there to be prepared to
give him an answer, but he hoped we would take the subject into serious
consideration; confer with one another, and then take such course as we
felt our duty and the interests of our constituents required of us.

“Mr. Noell, of Missouri, said that in his State, Slavery was not
considered a permanent Institution; that natural causes were there in
operation which would, at no distant day, extinguish it, and he did not
think that this proposition was necessary for that; and, besides that,
he and his friends felt solicitous as to the Message on account of the
different constructions which the Resolution and Message had received.
The New York Tribune was for it, and understood it to mean that we must
accept gradual Emancipation according to the plan suggested, or get
something worse.

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