Having printed the Emancipation Proclamation in its entirety and without acerbic commentary in the January 9, 1863 edition of his Republican Journal, publisher William H. Simpson understood that an influx of black soldiers would buttress the Union’s battle- and disease-thinned ranks. More Union soldiers and sailors meant more military pressure applied to Confederate defenders already stretched thin.
Grasping the concept months earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had declared in presidential ink that freed slaves, at least those “of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”
The Emancipation Proclamation simultaneously declared the slaves in hostile states free and able to participate in the war against the Confederacy. Yes, Lincoln had consigned them to garrison duty, but what if the slaves’ former masters attacked those posts?
Then the garrison troopers must fight.
Admittedly the “garrison” proviso of the Emancipation Proclamation upgraded the status of black soldiers as detailed in the Militia Act of 1862, passed by the 37th Congress on July 17. The law gave Lincoln authority to enlist “persons of African descent” into the military to build entrenchments and perform “camp service or any other labor, or any military or naval service for which they may be found competent.”
Too often relegated to pick-and-shovel work in the months to come, black soldiers chafed at being denied the opportunity to fight.
In his pro-Republican Daily Whig & Courier, William H. Wheeler also recognized the unmentioned military impact of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Very few of our people now doubt that slavery is the right hand of the rebellion,” he stated. Slaves consigned to “agricultural and other labors” provided such sufficient manpower that Confederate officials could place “into the field nearly all the able bodied white men in the Gulf States.”
Let Lincoln free the slaves, and “the main stay and support of the rebellion” would vanish, thus allowing the North to be “successful in subduing the traitors,” Wheeler reasoned.
“Shall Slavery be saved, or the Union be Saved?” That was the question for Wheeler.
Versed in the Emancipation Proclamation’s intent, even many slaves in the Deep South “are rolling up their sleeves and leaving” the plantations along the Mississippi River, Lt. Col. Philo Hersey of the 26th Maine Infantry reported from Camp Chalmette near New Orleans on January 5.
Some slaves left “secretly by night, and others very deliberately by day” as their masters watched, Hersey noticed. One planter complained that all his slaves, “more of less,” had run away, so now the Southerner and his wife must “go to work now in their old age.”
The planter did not care when Hersey responded, “That’s what we all do in New England.”
Except for the single term of Democratic Governor Samuel Wells in 1856, Maine’s chief executives had supported abolition since the 1854 election of Anson Morrill. Beating Wells in the 1856 election, Hannibal Hamlin had served as governor for only six weeks before the Maine House of Representatives elected to him fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat.
Joseph H. Williams, the Maine Senate president, had completed Hamlin’s gubernatorial term as Lot Myrick Morrill, the younger brother of former governor Anson, won the 1858 election. Congressman Israel Washburn Jr. had replaced Morrill as governor in January 1861.
All five Republican governors had espoused abolition, albeit some louder than others, and Hamlin had earned bitter notoriety in the South for being Lincoln’s vice president. Pro-slavery Confederates viewed Lincoln and his Republican supporters as “black Republicans” for their abolitionist views — and at least some Confederates regarded Republican-run Maine as equally evil.
Bursting past the Union blockaders guarding the Mississippi River passes on June 30, 1861, the CSS Sumter and Confederate Navy Capt. Raphael Semmes had vanished into the Gulf of Mexico after an exciting pursuit by the USS Brooklyn. On a cloudy Wednesday, July 3, a lookout spotted “two sail nearly ahead … off Cape Corrientes” in Cuba, Semmes noted.
He chased and caught both ships, the “first … a Spanish brig,” the second “the U.S. ship Golden Rocket, of Bangor, Me., in ballast.” Semmes ordered the Golden Rocket’s “master and crew” and “some provisions and a few other articles” brought to the Sumter before his sailors set the Maine ship afire around 10 p.m.
“Our first prize made a beautiful bonfire and we did not enjoy the spectacle the less because she was from the black Republic State of Maine,” chuckled Semmes, an Alabamian and a 35-year U.S. Navy veteran prior to jumping ship to the Confederate Navy.
Within the flames of the Golden Rocket roiled the seething intra- and interracial hatred that would erupt at Fort Pillow and elsewhere later in the war.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.