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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 474

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This is the grave of David Hunter.

Born in 1802, David Hunter came of age within the northern elite. His grandfather was Richard Stockton, who signed the Declaration of Independence and is probably best known today for having a rest stop named for him on the New Jersey Turnpike. Hunter went to West Point and graduated in 1822. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 5th U.S. Infantry Regiment. Over the next decade, he spent a lot of time on the western frontier. By few accounts was he a successful officer. In fact, he floated in and out of the military and there is a lot more conjecture about his life before the Civil War than is expected. There is even debate over whether he fought in the Mexican War, which seems like it would not be hard to clear up. When he wasn’t in the military, he seems to have worked for awhile as a real estate agent in Illinois. In any case, it wasn’t a particularly successful life, by and large.

Anyway, in 1860, Hunter and Abraham Lincoln began to correspond about slavery. Hunter hated slavery. Lincoln was a moderate on the issue, or more accurately a pragmatist, but he was interested in Hunter’s positions and they began a significant correspondence and became friends. Hunter was still in the military at this point, stationed at Fort Leavenworth. But Lincoln wanted him on the train taking him to Washington, so they developed their friendship riding across the country. In Buffalo, the crowds to see Lincoln were so ardent that Hunter dislocated his collarbone trying to keep them away from the president-elect.

After the Civil War began, Lincoln’s favorite officer rose quickly. He was immediately promoted to colonel, though that was as much about experience as anything else. But a mere three days after that, he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers. That was about connections. He fought at first Manassas and suffered a relatively minor wound to the cheek. He was then promoted to major general of volunteer and sent west, where he served under another prominent abolitionist, John C. Frémont. When Frémont preemptively emancipated slaves in Missouri, threatening the status of that state staying in the Union, he was canned and Hunter promoted to replace him. But Hunter was not considered reliable either, neither as a commander or as a stable moderate political force in a border state. So he was transferred to Kansas, which was a real backwater. He was very angry about this and started writing letters to Lincoln, who finally acquiesced to his friend’s desires. He was sent to command the Department of the South, where he was more an administrator than a field commander. While there, he presided over the court martial of Fitz John Porter for his failures at Second Manassas and helped investigate how McClellan lost Harpers Ferry in Lee’s Maryland campaign that led to Antietam.

Hunter was also still passionate about black rights and was a very strong advocate of arming black men to fight for their own freedom. Without permission, after the Battle of Fort Pulaski in April 1862, Hunter unilaterally emancipated slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida and created the 1st South Carolina regiment of troops from freed slaves. For the latter he at least did tacit approval from Congress. But Lincoln flipped out and immediately rescinded it. He was not ready for emancipation yet. But Hunter sure was. He continued to act on it, continued to enlist ex-slaves even after his initial attempt was abandoned. Jefferson Davis ordered him executed if captured. Border state politicians denounced him and northern Democrats thought him a scoundrel. He was a big headache for Lincoln but also helped move the ball forward on both emancipation and enlisting slaves. The War Department again forced him to give this up, but soon after issued the Confiscation Act, which was a more national effort to do what Hunter was already doing. Hunter also had no time for slavers. He knew about Davis’ execution order. So he decided to write the treason president. He wrote:

You say you are fighting for liberty. Yes you are fighting for liberty: liberty to keep four millions of your fellow-beings in ignorance and degradation;–liberty to separate parents and children, husband and wife, brother and sister;–liberty to steal the products of their labor, exacted with many a cruel lash and bitter tear;–liberty to seduce their wives and daughters, and to sell your own children into bondage;–liberty to kill these children with impunity, when the murder cannot be proven by one of pure white blood. This is the kind of liberty–the liberty to do wrong–which Satan, Chief of the fallen Angels, was contending for when he was cast into Hell.

Not bad!

After the issue of black troops was settled, Hunter continued to play a relatively important role in the war. After Franz Sigel was a disaster in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, Grant ordered Hunter to replace him, ordering him to use the same tactics that Sherman would use in Georgia, leaving supply lines behind and living off the Confederate land. Hunter was not messing around. He burned Virginia Military Institute after it sent cadets to fight his troops at New Market. He burned the plantation of former Virginia governor David Letcher after Letcher urged a guerilla campaign against Union troops. And while he didn’t burn what became Washington and Lee University, he did take it over and treat it with the lack of respect it deserved. However, after Jubal Early hammered him at the Battle of Lynchburg, leading Hunter to retreat for a few weeks and giving Early free rein in the Shenandoah Valley, he was replaced with Phil Sheridan. Grant actually defended Hunter’s actions, but Sheridan was so obviously the superior general. Hunter was given the opportunity to retain paper command, but a prideful man, refused that. He never fought again.

Hunter did serve in the honor guard for Lincoln’s funeral and was president of the military commission to try those implicated in Lincoln’s assassination. He retired from the army in 1866, published his memoirs in 1873, and died in 1886, at the age of 83.

David Hunter is buried in Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, New Jersey.

If you would like this series to visit other Civil War generals who played a role in ending slavery, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John C. Frémont is in Sparkill, New York and Benjamin Butler is in Lowell, Massachusetts. His grave is private and regular people can’t access it, but I can take a picture of the entrance or something. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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