General David Hunter is one of my favorite Civil War characters, not because of that crazy mustache and terrible comb-over, but primarily because he acted upon his beliefs. Sometimes he was wrong—as a matter of fact, he was often wrong—but his motives were pure. His judgment, however, was weak; it makes me want to pat him on the back and say "bless his heart." Three examples come to mind.
In early May 1862 he became frustrated with Washington’s inability to provide any answer to a pressing problem. South Carolina’s coastal area was full of slaves who had been abandoned to their own devices by their owners when the planters and their families fled ahead of the Union invasion. Were the slaves now free? To Hunter, they seemed free in practical terms, if not legal ones. When the government would not issue a statement freeing them legally, Hunter stepped in. He declared martial law, which put him in charge of the region. Then he issued a proclamation freeing the slaves.
It didn’t work, of course. Lincoln reacted with fury and repealed the proclamation, sending the slaves back into a condition of uncertain servitude after only 10 days of freedom. The US president was not yet firmly enough in control of Congress to proclaim emancipation, which was contrary to the wishes of many border states. Lincoln’s Emancipation proclamation would take another several months to go into effect, and he did not appreciate one of his generals preempting his decision.
The second of Hunter’s ideas involved taking all of those “freed” slaves and enrolling the men into black US Army regiments. Now, I admit that was a bad idea in May 1862 because it did not have the support of the Army’s hierarchy. And in retrospect, Hunter’s idea of ordering bright red pantaloons to serve as the black soldiers’ uniform would have done little but turn them into targets. Once again, Hunter was just ahead of his time. Later that year, the government officially approved the creation of black regiments. And from that decision several strong and effective regents came into existence. Hunter’s mistake was that he did not have official support for a very good idea.
His third decision is one that resonates with me because it resulted in many deaths, including that of my own great uncle. Hunter was the commanding general when the Union Army attacked James Island in their drive to reach Charleston. This time, Hunter had a careful battle plan, but he believed it would be necessary to delay the attack several days in order to secure backup. Seeing that delay as a chance to go back to Hilton Head for several days to clean up administrative details and to visit his wife, who was waiting for him there, he left his second-in-command in charge.
He gave General Benham what he believed to be clear orders, and then trusted him to comply. Instead, Benham found a loophole in the orders, and used it to send his men into a poorly-conceived attack against a Confederate fort at Secessionville. They failed badly, and several hundred Union soldiers were killed. Worse, the drive to capture Charleston had to be abandoned.
Hunter was a good man, with high morale standards and humanitarian goals. His failure came from his inability to look ahead and foresee the outcomes of his actions. After Secessionville, he was never again allowed to command troops. He spent the rest of the war serving on various military boards and courts Martial. He retired in 1866.