May 19, 1862: Hunter frees the slaves – Lincoln revokes his proclamation

Lincoln with a newspaper

Political general David Hunter, as we have seen, declared slaves free in the area when he captured Fort Pulaski, Georgia. On May 9, he declared all slaves free in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. Lincoln wasn’t ready for this move politically; he still may have entertained hopes of appealing to hidden unionist sentiment in the southern states. While he was moving rapidly toward the conclusion that the abolition of slavery would become a necessary war measure, Lincoln was not there yet. And he certainly wasn’t going to let it happen piecemeal by unauthorized actions by his military commanders.

From the Official Record:


Whereas, there appears in the public prints what purports to be a proclamation of Major-General Hunter in the words and figures following, to wit:

Hilton Head, S. C., May 9, 1862.

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 Untied 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.


Major-General, Commanding.

And whereas, the same is producing some excitement and misunderstanding:

Therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, proclaim and declare that the Government of the United States had no knowledge, information or belief of an intention on the part of General Hunter to issue such a proclamation nor had it yet any authentic information that the document is genuine. And further that neither General Hunter nor any other commander or person has been authorized by the Government of the United States to make proclamations declaring the slaves of any State free; and that the supposed proclamation now in question whether genuine or false is altogether void so far as respects such declaration.

I further make known that whether it be competent for me as Commander- in- Chief of thee Army and Navy to declare the slaves of any State or Stats free, and whether at any time in any case it shall have become a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the Government to exercise such supposed power are questions which under my responsiblity I reserve to myself and which I cannot feel justified in leaving to the decision of commanders in the field. These are totally different questions from those of police regulations in armies and camps.

On the 6th day of March last by a special message I recommended to Congress the adoption of a joint resolution to be substantially as follows:

Resolved, That the United States ought to co- operate with any State which may adopt a 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 system.

The resolution in the language above quoted was adopted by large majorities in both branches of Congress and now stands an authentic, definite and solemn proposal of the nation to the States and people most immediately interested in the subject- matter. To the people of those States I now earnestly appeal; I do not argue, I beseech you to make the argument for yourselves; you cannot if you would be blind to the signs of the time; I beg of you a calm and an enlarged consideration of them, ranging if it may be far above personal and partisan politics. This proposal makes common cause for a common object casting no reproaches upon any; it acts not the Pharisee. The changes it contemplates would come gently as the dews of Heave, not rending or wrecking anything. Will you not embrace it! So much good has not been done by one effort in all past time as in the Providence of God it is now your high privilege to do. May the vast future not have to lament that you have neglected it.

In witness whereof I have herunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington this nineteenth day of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty- two, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-sixth.


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