General Orders No. 17 - By order of the Secretary of War. Adjutant-General L. Thomas. Natchez, Mississippi - April 26, 1864
HDQRS. DEPARTMENT OF THE SOUTH,
Hilton Head, Port Royal, S.C., Mar. 6, 1863
GENERAL ORDERS No. 17.
In view of the necessities of the military situation, the impossibility of obtaining from Government all the troops required for service in this department, and the paramount importance (in view of existing complication of foreign policy) of at once placing strong garrisons of thoroughly acclimated troops in the Southern forts and posts of this department, in order that the troops now there may be used in the more active field operations for which they are better suited (such forts and posts being peculiarly liable to the ravages of climatic and epidemic diseases) all the able-bodied male negroes between the ages of eighteen and fifty within the military lines of the Department of the South who are not, in the date of the date of this order, regularly and permanently employed in the quartermaster and commissary departments or as the private servants of officers, within the allowance made by the Army Regulations, are hereby drafted into the military service of the United States, to serve as non-commissioned officers and soldiers in the various regiments and brigades now organized, and in process of being organized, by Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton, specially authorized to raise such troops by orders of the War Department.
Until other arrangements can be made, the families of all negroes thus drafted will be provided for by orders which General Saxton has authority to issue, but it is hoped and confidently believed that, is the present scarcity of labor in the department, few such families will be thrown upon the Government for support.
In the organization of this garrison force, the major general commanding would appeal earnestly to the patriotism and common sense of the officers and men of this command, while asking that every facility be afforded to the raising of these subordinate troops, who will be of service to the country, not merely by such soldierly proficiency as they may themselves attain under the tutelage of white officers in the various details of garrison duty, but who will also, man for man and regiment for regiment have the practical effect of doubling the white forces at the command of Government for the more active operation in the field, by releasing an equal number of white men and regiments from the weary and often pestilential through indispensable duty of manning the works along the Southern sea-coast.
Suddenly released from the cruel restraints of chattel slavery and still pursued into freedom by the curse of that ignorance which slavery fostered us its surest weapon and most effective shield, the major general commanding believes that the discipline of military life will be the very safest and quickest school in which these enfranchised bondsmen can be elevated to the level of our higher intelligence and cultivation, and that their enrollment in regular military organizations and the giving them in this manner a legitimate vent to their natural desire to prove themselves worthy of freedom, cannot fail to have the further good effect of rendering less likely mere sevils insurrection, unrestrained by the comities and usages of civilized warfare.
To all officers in the department who have thoroughly at heart the desire of suppressing as rapidly as possible the cruel evils of civil war, the organization of this garrison force offers an opportunity not to be lost for securing the promotion to commission of all such non-commissioned officers and privates as they consider deserving. All recommendations for promotions will be carefully considered as these headquarters; and in making such recommendations, regimentals and company officers will take into serious account the moral character of the person recommended, assuring themselves that he is one who can bear his sudden promotion without giddiness, and that his conduct will such as to furnish a steady, earnest, and reliable example to be placed before men whose characters in the novelty of freedom, have yet to be formed.
By command of Maj. Gen. D. Hunter:
CHAS G. HALPINE
Asst. Adjt. Gen. Tenth Army Corps, and Dept. of the South.
SOURCE: United States War Department. THE WAR OF THE REBELLION: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.