May 6, 1865: Sherman advises against enfranchising black men.

First Vote

Sherman writes to Salmon P. Chase to try to persuade him not to go forward with plans to enfranchise freed slaves. He feels that it will reignite the war.

Official Records:


HDQRS. MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI.
Steamer Russia, Beaufort Harbor, May 6, 1865-6 a. m.
Honorable S. P. CHASE,
Chief Justice United States, Steamer Wayanda:

DEAR SIR: On reaching this ship late last night I found your valued letter, with the printed sheet, which I have also read, but not yet fully matured. * I am not yet prepared to receive the negro on terms of political equality for the reasons that it will arouse passions and prejudices at the North, which superadded to the causes yet dormant at the South, might rekindle the war whose fires are now dying out, and by skillful management might be kept down.

As you must observe, I prefer to work with known facts that to reason ahead to remote conclusions that by slower and natural laws may be reached without shock. By way of illustration, we are now weather bound; is it not better to lay quiet at anchor till these white-cap breakers look less angry and the southwest wind shifts? I think all old sailors will answer yes, whilst we impatient to reach our goal, are tempted to dash through, at risk of life and property. I am willing to admit that the conclusions you reach by pure mental process may be all correct, but don’t you think it better first to get the ship of state in some order, that it may be handled and guided?

Now at the South all is pure anarchy. The military power of the United States cannot reach the people who are spread over a vast surface of country. We can control the local State capitals, and it may be slowly shape political thoughts, but we cannot combat existing ideas with force. I say honestly that the assertion openly of your ideas as a fixed policy of our Government, to be backed by physical power, will produce new war, and one which from its desultory character will be more bloody and destructive then the last.

Our own armed soldiers have prejudices that, right or wrong, should be consulted and I am rejoiced that you, upon whom devolves so much are aiming to see facts and persons with your own eye. I believe you will do me the credit of believing that I am as honest, sincere, true, and brave as the average of our kind, and I say that to give all loyal negroes the same political status as white “voters” will revive the war and spread its field of operations.

Why not, therefore, trust to the slower and not less sure means of statesmanship? Why not imitate the example of England in allowing causes to work out their gradual solution instead of imitating the French, whose political revolutions have been bloody and have actually retarded the development of political freedom? I think the changes necessary in the future can be made faster and more certain by means of our Constitution than by any plan outside of it.

If, now, we go outside of the Constitution for a means of change we rather justify the rebels in their late attempt, whereas now, as GenEral Schofield tells us, the people of the South are ready and willing to make the necessary changes without shock or violence. I, who have felt the past war as bitterly and keenly as any man could, confess myself “afraid” of a new war, and a new war is bound result from the action you suggest of giving to the enfranchised negroes so large a share in the delicate task of putting the Southern States in practical working relations with the General Government.

With great respect,
W. T. SHERMAN,
Major-General.

*I’ll post this tomorrow.

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