HDQRS. MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI, In the Field, Dumfries, Virginia., May 17, 1865. 9 p.m.
General O. O. HOWARD, Washington, D. C.:
DEAR GENERAL: Your letter of May 12, inclosing General Orders, War Department, Numbers 91, of May 12, reached me here on arrival at camp about dark. Colonel Strong is camped just behind me, General Logan about two miles back, and the Fifteenth Corps at Aquia Creek, eight miles back. Copies of Orders, Numbers 91, are being made and will be sent back to them. I hardly know whether to congratulate you or not, but of one thing you may rest assured, that you possess my entire confidence, and I cannot imagine that matters that may involve the future of 4,000,000 of souls could be put in more charitable and more conscientious hands. So far as man can do, I believe you will, but I fear you have Hercules’ task. God has limited the power of man, and though in the kindness of your heart you would alleviate all the ills of humanity it is not in your power, nor is it in your power to fulfill onetenth part of the expectations of those who framed the bureau for the freedmen, refugees, and abandoned estates. It is simply impracticable. Yet you can and will do all the good one man may, and that is all you are called on as a man and Christian to do, and to that extent count on me as a friend and fellow soldier for counsel and assistance. I believe the negro is free by act of master and by the laws of war, now ratified by actual consent and power. The demand for his labor and his ability to acquire and work land will enable the negro to work out that amount of freedom and political consequence to which he is or may be entitled by natural right, and the acquiescence of his fellow men (white). But I fear that parties will agitate for the negro’s right of suffrage and equal political status, not that he asks it or wants it, but merely to manufacture that number of available votes for politicians to work on.
If that be attempted we arouse a new and dangerous element, prejudice, which, right or wrong, does exist, and should be consulted. There is law of race which over our whole country exists. The negro is denied a vote in all the Northern States save two or three, and then qualified by conditions not attached to the white race and by the Constitution of the United States. To States is left the right to fix the qualification of voters. The United States cannot make negroes vote in the South any more than they can in the North without revolution, and as we have just emerged from one attempted revolution it would be wrong to begin another. I believe the negro is free constitutionally, and if the United States will simply guarantee that freedom and allow the negro to hire his own labor, the transition will be comparatively easy, but if we attempt to force the negro on the South as a voter, “a loyal citizen,” we begin a new revolution in which the Northwest may take a different side from what we did when we were fighting to vindicate our Constitution. I am more than usually sensitive on this point because I have realized in our country that one class of men makes war and leaves another to fight it out. I am tired of fighting, and if the “theorists” of New England impose this new condition on us I dread the result.
The country is now deeply in debt, the South is exhausted and can contribute little or northing toward its payment no matter how severe the laws of taxation be made, and the sale of her lands and plantations will not realize one tenth part of the money required to pay the troops that will be needed to enforce the sales and maintain possession to the purchasers. I know the people of the South even better than you do, and you at least cannot doubt the sincerity of my opinion. I do believe the people of the South realize the fact that their former slaves are free, and if allowed reasonable time, and are not harassed by “confiscation” and political complication, will very soon adapt their condition and interest to their new state of facts. Many will sell or lease on easy terms part of their land to their former slaves and gradually the same political state of things will result as now exists in Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. The West will not submit to the taxation necessary to maintain separate colonies of negroes, or the armies needed to enforce the rights of negroes dwelling in the Southern States in a condition antagonistic to the feelings and prejudices of the people, the result of which will be internal war, and the final extermination of the white or black majority. But I confess I am not familiar with the laws of Congress which originated your bereau, and repeat my entire confidence in your pure and exalted character.
As to Mr. Stanton I expect nothing. My orders announcing to the troops the terms of our convention (first, at Durham’s Station) was addressed to the troops and not to the world. Mr. Stanton’s official bulletin published to the world conveyed false information, for it contained matter that he knew I did not possess, and he thereby stimulated a public attack on my motives. But what reason did my “order” give for his scrutiny and indorsing Halleck’s order to violate my truce, attack an enemy in the act of surrendering, when he knew General Grant was present and orders to my juniors to disobey my orders. I don’t yet understand his motives and don’t care. I did succeed in doing, spite of him, all the good my office demanded within the limits of Johnston’s command, and could as easily have extended them over the whole South. Stanton’s eight reasons against my terms are all bad and he knows it. His assertion that he could have made as good terms any time in the past four years is simply untrue, and you know it, and as a lawyer he knows that my terms did not make us liable for the rebel debt, or in any manner recognize the Southern Confederacy any more than the Dix-Hill cartel, or any of the many “terms” hitherto made between army commanders. But I will not bother you with such matters. Stanton’s and Halleck’s conduct to me was an insult, and I shall resent it as such, when I choose.
We will all be near Alexandria on Friday, and I know you will call to see us. Don’t let the foul airs of Washington poison your thoughts toward your old comrades in arms.
Truly, your friend,
W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General