About David Hunter
David Hunter (July 21, 1802 – February 2, 1886) was a Union general in the American Civil War. He achieved fame by his unauthorized 1862 order (immediately rescinded) emancipating slaves in three Southern states and as the president of the military commission trying the conspirators involved with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Hunter was born in Troy, New York, or Princeton, New Jersey. He was the cousin of writer-illustrator David Hunter Strother (who would also serve as a Union Army general) and his maternal grandfather was Richard Stockton, a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence. He graduated from the United States Military Academy, in 1822, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 5th U.S. Infantry Regiment. Records of his military service prior to the Civil War contain significant gaps. From 1828 to 1831, he was stationed on the northwest frontier, at Fort Dearborn (Chicago, Illinois), where he met and married Maria Kinzie, the daughter of the city's first permanent white resident, John Kinzie. He served in the infantry for 11 years, and was appointed captain of the 1st U.S. Dragoons in 1833. He resigned from the Army in July 1836 and moved to Illinois, where he worked as a real estate agent or speculator. He rejoined the Army in November 1841 as a paymaster and was promoted to major in March 1842. One source claims that he saw action in the Second Seminole War (1838–42) and the Mexican-American War (1846–48).
In 1860, Hunter was stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and he began a correspondence with Abraham Lincoln, focusing on Hunter's strong anti-slavery views. This relationship had long-lasting political effects, the first of which was an invitation to ride on Lincoln's inaugural train from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., in February 1861. During this duty, Hunter suffered a dislocated collarbone at Buffalo, due to a crowd pressing the president-elect.
Soon after the firing on Fort Sumter, Hunter was promoted to colonel of the 3rd U.S. Cavalry, but three days later (May 17, 1861), his political connection to the Lincoln administration bore fruit and he was appointed the fourth-ranking brigadier general of volunteers, commanding a brigade in the Department of Washington. He was wounded in the neck and cheek while commanding a division under Irvin McDowell at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. In August, he was promoted to major general of volunteers. He served as a division commander in the Western Army under Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont, and was appointed as commander of the Western Department on November 2, 1861, after Frémont was relieved of command due to his attempt to emancipate the slaves of rebellious slave holders. That winter, Hunter was transferred to command the Department of Kansas and, in March 1862, was transferred again to command the Department of the South and the X Corps.
Hunter served as the president of the court-martial of Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter (convicted for his actions at the Second Battle of Bull Run, but for which he was exonerated by an 1878 Board of Officers), and on the committee that investigated the loss of Harpers Ferry in the Maryland Campaign. He also served briefly as the Assistant Inspector General of the Department of the Gulf.
General Order No. 11
Hunter was a strong advocate of arming blacks as soldiers for the Union cause. After the Battle of Fort Pulaski, he began enlisting black soldiers from the occupied districts of South Carolina and formed the first such Union Army regiment, the 1st South Carolina (African Descent), which he was initially ordered to disband, but eventually got approval from Congress for his action. A second controversy was caused by his issuing an order emancipating the slaves in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida:
The three States of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, comprising the military department of the south, having deliberately declared themselves no longer under the protection of the United States of America, and having taken up arms against the said United States, it becomes a military necessity to declare them under martial law. This was accordingly done on the 25th day of April, 1862. Slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible; the persons in these three States — Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina— heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.
– Maj. Gen. David Hunter, Department of the South, General Order No. 11, May 9, 1862
This order was quickly rescinded by Abraham Lincoln, who was concerned about the political effects that it would have in the border states and who advocated instead a gradual emancipation with compensation for slave holders. Despite Lincoln's concerns that immediate emancipation in the South might drive some slave holding Unionists to support the Confederacy, the national mood was quickly moving against slavery, especially within the Army. The president and Congress had already enacted several laws during the war to severely restrict the institution, beginning with the First Confiscation Act in August 1861 and culminating in Lincoln's own Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, taking effect January 1, 1863. Concerned Confederate slave holders had worried since before the war started that its eventual goal would become the abolition of slavery and they reacted strongly to the Union effort to emancipate Confederate slaves. Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued orders to the Confederate States Army that Hunter was to be considered a "felon to be executed if captured".
Controversy over enlistment of ex-slaves
Undeterred by the president's reluctance and intent of extending American freedom to potential black soldiers, Hunter again flouted orders from the federal government and enlisted ex-slaves as soldiers in South Carolina without permission from the War Department. This action incensed border state slave holders, and Kentucky Representative Charles A. Wickliffe sponsored a resolution demanding a response.
Hunter quickly obliged with a sarcastic and defiant letter on 23 June 1862, in which he delivered a stern reminder to the Congress of his authority as a commanding officer in a war zone:
. . . I reply that no regiment of "Fugitive Slaves" has been, or is being organized in this Department. There is, however, a fine regiment of persons whose late masters are "Fugitive Rebels"--men who everywhere fly before the appearance of the National Flag, leaving their servants behind them to shift as best they can for themselves. . . . So far, indeed, are the loyal persons composing this regiment from seeking to avoid the presence of their late owners, that they are now, one and all, working with remarkable industry to place themselves in a position to go in full and effective pursuit of their fugacious and traitorous proprietors. . . . the instructions given to Brig. Gen. T. W. Sherman by the Hon. Simon Cameron, late Secretary of War, and turned over to me by succession for my guidance,--do distinctly authorize me to employ all loyal persons offering their services in defence of the Union and for the suppression of this Rebellion in any manner I might see fit. . . . In conclusion I would say it is my hope,--there appearing no possibility of other reinforcements owing to the exigencies of the Campaign in the Peninsula,--to have organized by the end of next Fall, and to be able to present to the Government, from forty eight to fifty thousand of these hardy and devoted soldiers."
While increasingly abolitionist Republicans in Congress were amused by the order, border state pro-slavery politicians such as Wickliffe and Robert Mallory were not. Mallory described the scene in Congress following the reading of the order as follows:
The scene was one of which I think this House should forever be ashamed . . . A spectator in the gallery would have supposed we were witnessing here the performance of a buffoon or of a low farce actor upon the stage . . . The reading was received with loud applause and boisterous manifestations of approbation by the Republican members of the House . . . It was a scene, in my opinion, disgraceful to the American Congress.
The War Department eventually forced Hunter to abandon this scheme, but the government nonetheless moved soon afterward to expand the enlistment of black men as military laborers. Congress approved the Second Confiscation Act in July 1862, which effectively freed all slaves working within the armed forces by forbidding Union soldiers to aid in the return of fugitive slaves.
In the Valley Campaigns of 1864, Union Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel was ordered by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to move into the Shenandoah Valley, threaten railroads and the agricultural economy there, and distract Robert E. Lee while Grant fought him in eastern Virginia. Sigel did a poor job, losing immediately at the Battle of New Market to a force that included cadets from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Hunter replaced Sigel in command of the Army of the Shenandoah and the Department of West Virginia on May 21, 1864. Grant ordered Hunter to employ scorched earth tactics similar to those that would be used later in that year during Sherman's March to the Sea; he was to move through Staunton to Charlottesville and Lynchburg, "living off the country" and destroying the Virginia Central Railroad "beyond possibility of repair for weeks." Lee was concerned enough about Hunter that he dispatched a corps under Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early to deal with him.
On June 5, Hunter defeated Maj. Gen. William E. "Grumble" Jones at the Battle of Piedmont. He moved up the Valley (southward) to Lexington, where he burned VMI on June 11 and his troops freely looted civilian property of all kinds along the way. Henrietta Lee, a relative of Robert E. Lee whose house was burned by the Union troops, wrote a letter addressing Hunter, promising that the "curses of thousands, the scorn of the manly and upright and the hatred of the true and honorable, will follow you and yours through all time, and brand your name infamy. INFAMY." Lexington was particularly hard hit. In addition to the burning of VMI, Hunter's men plundered a number of private homes and the library of Washington College. Hunter ordered the home of former Governor John Letcher burned, reporting afterwards that it was in retaliation for its absent owner's having issued "a violent and inflammatory proclamation ... inciting the population of the country to rise and wage guerrilla warfare on my troops."
Hunter's reign of terror in the Valley soon came to an end; he was defeated by Early at the Battle of Lynchburg on June 19. His headquarters was at Sandusky House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, and now operated as a house museum. Grant brought in Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, making him Hunter's subordinate, but making it clear that Sheridan would lead the troops in the field and that Hunter would be left with only administrative responsibilities. Hunter, realizing Grant's lack of confidence in him, requested to be relieved. He would serve in no more combat commands. He was promoted to brevet major general in the regular army on March 13, 1865, an honor that was relatively common for senior officers late in the war.
Hunter served in the honor guard at the funeral of Abraham Lincoln and accompanied his body back to Springfield. He was the president of the military commission trying the conspirators of Lincoln's assassination, from May 8 to July 15, 1865. He retired from the Army in July 1866. He was the author of Report of the Military Services of Gen. David Hunter, U.S.A., during the War of the Rebellion, published in 1873.
Hunter died in Washington, D.C., and is buried in the Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, New Jersey.
Colm Meaney portrays Hunter in the 2011 film The Conspirator.