Lest We Forget - African American Military History by Researcher, 
					Author and Veteran Bennie McRae, Jr.

HEADQUARTERS FIFTH DIVISION

HEADQUARTERS FIFTH DIVISION, CAVALRY CORPS,
MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI,

Eastport, Miss., June 22, 1865.

Brig. Gen. W. D. WHIPPLE,
Asst. Adjt. Gen. and Chief of Staff, Dept. of the Cumberland:

I beg leave to call the attention of the major-general commanding to the present peculiar situation of affairs in the portion of the country occupied by my command, and respectfully invite attention to the following extract from a communication from Lieut. Col. H.C. Forbes, Seventh Illinois Cavalry, commanding U.S. forces at Okolona and surrounding villages, as an example under which every station throughout the district is laboring to a more or less extent:

[We are in the midst of a remote, populous, sensitive district, without instructions to guide, or orders to administer, except in a very limited sense. Not less than a territory of 2,500 square miles looks to this point as its natural center, and the fact of a military occupancy gives the people the opportunity and, in a manner, the right to expect some announcement of public policy and some indications of private duty in the trying ordeal through which this, with all Southern communities, is now passing. I am visited by hundreds of men asking information of vital interest, without the ability to give more than a semi-intelligent guess toward solution. The needs of this region are imminent, pressing, critical, and unless some action is taken commensurate with their importance, the most deplorable consequences are not far away. First and foremost, as usual, are the negroes. They are becoming more and more demoralized daily, notwithstanding the most constant and consistent efforts of the military to enjoin industry and quiet. A large portion of the able-bodied are already vagrants and more are daily becoming so. The slightest friction of the home harness is enough to drive them into vagabondism. As soon as they cease to work they subsist by stealing, and even the raft road, which has been rationing and paying them $25 per month, cannot retain them in its employ. They desert their agreements in whole gangs, always leaving in the night. The most trivial and childish reasons are sufficient to cause them to adopt courses which jeopardize not only their security and comfort, but even their lives. Five stout negroes and about twenty women and children ran away en masse last night from a mistress who has permitted them to make their own living on her own place for two years, because one of them was angered at the mistress requiring him to catch and saddle a horse. In the night they stole her horses and clothing and came in here. This case is one of a hundred, merely. Save as they fancy, they are determined not to work. The vagrancy of the able leaves the ineffective a dead weight on the planters' hands, and in self-defense he thrusts these out to follow their providers. How can he be required to feed and clothe the imbecile, when he is not confirmed in the control of the labor needful to provide the means? Great things are expected from the Freedmen's Bureau. I expect little from it, from the fact that it will be unable to connect itself with the black masses with sufficient intimacy to be able to control their movements, unless practically every master be constituted its supervising agent, and this would prove to be the formal revival of slavery under Federal authority. I fear that the vital truth for the present is that the freedmen of these interior regions are not able to be free. For them to be free is for them first to beg, then to steal, and then to starve. The nearest superintendent of freedmen, of whom I can hear, is at Meridian. He enjoys the dignity of captain and announces some very fine theories for the regulation of the labor question, intended, as far as I can learn, to affect an area of about 10,000 square miles of territory, every square inch of which is in a state of fermentation, and becoming every day more and more surcharged with gathering disgust and more dangerous passions. The whites even hear nothing of his announcements, much less the blacks. He is the party by whom all contracts are to be registered, to him all the complaints of the negroes are to be submitted, and by him all discipline is to be enforced. He is 160 miles away, and needs to exercise a positive jurisdiction on every plantation every day; to be, in fact, universal overseer. The whites say, "What shall we do if the blacks refuse to work? It may be answered, Cease to feed them, and if contumacious, drive them away." They reply, "What if they won't go; but hide by day and steal by night?" Answer, "Detect them in crime and turn them over to the courts. They reply, We have no courts. We answer, General Thomas recent order re-establishes the jurisdiction of the courts for the administration of the laws as in existence prior to the act of secession." They ask, "Can we administer our black code, then?" "We think not, for that contains the most authoritative possible recognition of slavery in all its old vital relations to society and law." They rejoin, "We have no other law. What then? What shall we do?" There is but one reply left; it is, "Refer the matter to the nearest agent of the Freedmen's Bureau at Meridian." They then reply, "How shall they be restrained meanwhile, during the pendency of the reference?" And you can recur to no law but that of force again, which is slavery. I have grown satisfied that there is, and can be, no such thing as the actual immediate emancipation of a large mass of plantation slaves. To announce their freedom is not to make them free, and the continuous rigors of necessity and restraints of authority, inseparable respectively from their own circumstances and the self-defensive action of society, constitutes essentially the substance of slavery still. As Federal soldiers, we can neither recognize slavery nor its equivalent and are left helpless lookers-on, while the broken ship and crazed crew are drifting on the rocks together. I see but one remedial plan. That is, to compel by some intimate, close-fitting system of prescriptions every able-bodied negro to work, the adoption of some appropriate rule of law for the government of the class, under which the courts can administer restraints and confirm rights, and the thorough, careful policing of the entire area of the slave States by mounted soldiery in support of the jurisdiction of the courts; that soldiery to be intimately subdivided and finally assigned to certain territorial limits. I presume that so comprehensive a measure will not be taken until some great and fatal mischief has indicated its necessity. Meanwhile, what am I to do, or to attempt toward restraining the vagrancy and violence of the negroes, and the cruelty and heartlessness of the bad masters? Starving people are coming in from every direction, from five to sixty miles away, for relief. I am clean worn out with their wan and haggard beggary. I would rather face an old-fashioned war-time skirmish line any time than the inevitable morning eruption of lean and hungry widows that besiege me at sun up and ply me until night with supplications that refuse to be silenced.]

I have avoided reporting the seemingly petty annoyances incident to a command of this kind and should say nothing now, were I not of the opinion that the major-general commanding would be pleased to know as near as possible the condition of the people. Thus far my whole object has been simply to keep order, and will continue to be, until further instructions are received. To this end, so far as it has been in my power, I have encouraged the citizens, who have shown a disposition to engage in peaceful pursuits, and at the same time have given those who are prone to evil, to understand that further depredations would not be tolerated, and the offenders would be summarily dealt with. The instructions already received, in regard to distributing among the poor the Confederate corn found in this district, have already been carried into effect, and much suffering has been alleviated from this source. The relation at present existing between the freed-men and their former masters is, as a matter of course, a source of aggravation to the latter, and no doubt a great deal of inconvenience is experienced and perhaps occasional wrongs committed. This undoubtedly accounts for the fact that the people are very anxious to ascertain the policy to be enforced in regard to the freedmen. And for the benefit of all concerned, I would earnestly request that I may be furnished at an early day, or from time to time, such directions as will enable me to carry out the wishes of the major-general commanding.

I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

EDWARD HATCH,
Brevet Major-General, Commanding.

 

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Category: Civil War | Subcategory: Reports | Tags: Mississippi , Illinois
Related Topics / Keywords / Phrases: 1865, Cavalry, Civil War, Cumberland, Edward, Edward Hatch, GE, Hatch, Illinois, Military Division of the Mississippi, Mississippi, Ohio, Old, Territory, Ward,