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Lincoln Explores How to Help Slaves and Freedmen

August 8, 1864/2014
Volume 5, Issue 32 (200 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Lincoln Explores How to Help Slaves and Freedmen, Do the Right Thing, and Solve Political Problems

August 10, 1864. In August 1864 Lincoln and most other Republicans believed that he would not be reelected, and that if the Democratic candidate won, the South would effectively win the war. Historian John Stauffer writes, “Lincoln understood as never before that the fate of the Union hinged around the role of blacks. He had publicly acknowledged that ‘the emancipation policy and the use of colored troops constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion.’ Crucial military victories could not have been achieved ‘but for the aid of black soldiers.’ Perhaps blacks could help him out of his current predicament. And if they could not save the Union, perhaps they could help him secure emancipation. He was also open to alternative Reconstruction plans (though nothing so radical as [third party presidential candidate John Charles] Fremont’s), which could defuse infighting among Republicans.

“On August 10, with these issues on his mind, Lincoln met with John Eaton, an earnest young Dartmouth-trained minister. Eaton had achieved great success supervising freedmen at Davis Bend, Mississippi, a 400-square-mile peninsula south of Vicksburg that Grant had confiscated from Jefferson Davis’s family. Grant had great faith in Eaton and had hoped Davis Bend would ‘become a Negro paradise.’ In this he was not far wrong, for blacks thrived there, growing corn, vegetables, and cotton for the Union army. The community offered a wonderful alternative to Louisiana as a model for Reconstruction.

“[Eaton] . . . created a ‘self-directed labor and enterprise’ system . . . . The freedmen controlled their own community based on Eaton’s design. They worked as independent farmers, with the more experienced supervising the novices. They presided over their own court and justice system. And Eaton had started schools.

“Davis Bend was more productive than any other plantation in the Mississippi Valley, Eaton told Lincoln. . . .

“Lincoln was thrilled with Eaton’s report, and over the next week the two men met frequently to discuss the nature and destiny of the freedmen. . . .

Then Lincoln asked Eaton if there was a way to tap into blacks’ ‘grapevine telegraph’ in order to urge them to leave the plantations and ‘seek the protection of our armies.’  Such a move would greatly strengthen Union forces and destroy the source of rebel labor. It might even prevent a negotiated settlement that would leave countless blacks still in bondage.”

Lincoln then alluded to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, which was intended to incite slaves to rise up in revolt, noting while he had opposed Brown’s method and his timing, now that war was underway, he thought that “perhaps they could find a way to borrow from Brown in order to free more slaves and aid the Union.”

“Eaton had no idea how to access this strangely effective source of black communication. But he was struck with how accurately Lincoln understood ‘the situation in the South.'”

Lincoln mentioned his critics, including Frederick Douglass, “with the utmost frankness,” and so Eaton told him about a speech Douglass had given recently forcefully criticizing the president’s Reconstruction plan for being too lenient and for not being more aggressive with regard to black suffrage. And, Eaton told him, Douglass was furious with the president for not effecting one-for-one retribution for the murder or enslavement of captured black soldiers. Eaton shared Douglass’s indignation; as a Union officer in charge of freedmen, he knew that he too would be executed if he were captured by the enemy. Even after the massacre in April of about three hundred captured black soldiers at Fort Pillow, on the Mississippi River, Lincoln did not issue a retaliation order.

In reply to Eaton’s comments and summary of Douglass’s criticisms, Lincoln asked him if Douglass knew anything about his recent letter to Louisiana governor Michael Hahn. Eaton said probably not, because he himself didn’t know anything about it.

Lincoln then went to his desk, retrieved a copy of the March 13 letter and read it aloud to Eaton: “I barely suggest for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be let in [allowed to vote] — as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks. They would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom.”

“Eaton was stunned,” writes historian John Stauffer. “Not even radicals in Congress had been able to pass a Reconstruction bill granting blacks suffrage. . . .

“He put the letter down and then asked Eaton, ‘with that curious modesty characteristic of him,’ whether or not Frederick Douglass ‘could be induced to come see him.’

“Eaton replied that ‘he rather thought he could.’

“Lincoln then told Eaton about his meeting with Douglass a year earlier and said he considered him ‘one of the most meritorious men in America.'”


John Stauffer, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, 280-284. Emphasis added.

– Submitted by Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter A. Gilbert.

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