Friday, February 15, 2013

'A means, not an end to put down this rebellion'

The Emancipation Proclamation forced soldiers as well as civilians to confront the issue of slavery. As their letters home indicated, soldiers' views ran the gamut from pro-slavery to abolitionist. But a consensus did begin to emerge once President Lincoln's proclamation was a fait accompli.

In reading New Hampshire letters, I found many where soldiers now came at the issue as a practical matter rather than a moral issue. It wasn't so much that freeing the slaves was right as it was that freeing them would hurt the rebel cause and end the war faster.

Take, for example, the opinion of a 14th New Hampshire soldier who called himself Lauren E. Bent (his real name appears to have been Lauren E. Gardner). Bent was a 20-year-old private from Winchester, N.H. I found his letters at the Historical Society of Cheshire County and quoted him in Our War.

Here is what Bent wrote to his mother and sister back home on Feb. 15, 1863:

"Perhaps you have read some letters from soldiers that are against the Government and that are discouraged but not many. Those that are are democrats that inlested for the bounty & are all the time whining about the damnd black abolishionists & the d----d nigger. No patriot will growl about the Governments freeing the slaves. It is a means, not an end to put down this rebellion. We have as good a right to confiscate the slaves of rebels as any other property as a means of putting down this rebellion. But because old Abe says confiscate the negros by freeing them they are growling about it and cursing him & the Government but do not say anything against the rebels and Jeff Davis. They are rebels themselves."

On Sept. 19, 1864, at Winchester, Va., during the 14th New Hampshire's biggest battle of the war, Private Bent was severely wounded. He died the next day.    

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