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1864 April 30: President Lincoln’s Thoughts on the Fort Pillow Massacre and Retribution

May 2, 2014

The following article is from the April 30, 1864, issue of The Prescott Journal.

President Lincoln on the Recent Massacre.

A dispatch from Baltimore, dated April 18th, says :

The inauguration exercises of the Great Fair at the Maryland Institute to-night were very imposing.  The President’s appearance in the Hall was greeted with tremendous applause.  After the inaugural address of Gov. Bradford,¹ the President was loudly called for, and, in response, proceeded to make a brief address.  He referred to the great change that had taken place in Baltimore during the last three years.  The world, he said, had long been in want of a correct definition of the word freedom.  Whilst all present advocated liberty, there was in their minds many very opposite views of what liberty was.—With one man, liberty implied to work for himself and to do as he pleased with the proceeds of his labor.  With others, liberty meant to do as you please with other men and their labor.  One of these two conflicting ideas would have to give way to the other.  He thought from some occurrences which had lately taken place in Maryland, that her people were about to determine which of these views of freedom should control her destiny.

He then alluded to the occurrences reported to have taken place at Fort Pillow and the massacre of several hundred soldiers by the Confederates.  Many supposed the Government did not intend to do its duty in regard to the protection of colored soldiers.  He desired to say that all such were mistaken.  When the question of employing colored men as soldiers was left to the Government, it rested very much with himself whether he should make soldiers with them or not.  He pondered the matter carefully, when he became convinced that it was his duty so to employ them.  He did not hesitate to do so.  He stood before the American people responsible for the act, responsible before the Christian world.  He should stand in the eye of the historian responsible for it.  He stood before his God, and did not shrink from the decision he had made.  Moreover he believed he was right, and when the Government determined to make soldiers of the colored people, he thought it only just they should have the same protection as the white soldiers, (applause,) and he hesitated not to declare the Government would so protect them to the utmost of its power.

Whenever a clear, authenticated case is made out, retribution would follow.  Hitherto it had been difficult to ascertain certainly which should govern a decision in a matter so serious, but in the affair at Fort Pillow it would be likely to find a clear case.  The Government had no direct evidence to confirm the reports in existence relative to the massacre, but he himself feared the facts related were true.  When the government does know the facts from official sources and they substantiate the reports, retribution will be surely given.  (Great applause.)  But how retribution will be administered was a question still to be settled.  Would it be right to take the lives of prisoners in Washington, at Fort Delaware or elsewhere in retaliation for acts in which they had not shared, and which will probably be found at the ordering of only a few individuals or possibly of only one man !

The President reiterated that the Government would not fail to visit retribution when the facts were clearly proven.  Throughout his remarks he was warmly applauded, and especially his determination to visit retribution on the barbarous deeds of the rebels.

1.  Augustus Williamson Bradford (1806-1881) was the 32nd governor of Maryland, serving from 1862 to 1866. He supported the Union, but opposed the Federal government’s interference in internal Maryland affairs.

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