||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Hunter, David (July 21, 1802 – February 2, 1886)
David Hunter was a Union general during the Civil War. In May 1862, he
issued an order freeing all the slaves in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina,
but it was quickly rescinded by President Abraham Lincoln.
David Hunter was born in Washington, D.C., on July 21, 1802, to Mary Stockton
Hunter and Andrew Hunter, a minister, and was a grandson of Richard Stockton, a
signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey. After graduating
from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1818, he served with the U.S.
Army on the western frontier, including two trips across the Rocky Mountains.
He was stationed at Fort Dearborn (later, Chicago), 1828–1831, and married Maria
Indiana Kinzie. In 1836, he resigned from the army, but he found his business
pursuits in the Chicago area to be unsatisfactory, so he returned to the army in
1842 as a paymaster at the rank of major. He again served across the western
frontier until the Civil War. Correspondence with Abraham Lincoln resulted in
Hunter accompanying the president–elect from Illinois to Washington, D.C., in
On May 14, 1861, Hunter was promoted to colonel, and three days later to
brigadier general. He was wounded at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21,
and was promoted to major general on August 13. On November 2, he replaced
General John C. Fremont as commander of the Western Department. Hunter sent
detachments to participate in the Union victories at Forts Donelson and Henry in
February 1862. On March 31, 1862, he was reassigned to command the Department
of the South, which encompassed Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. After
capturing Fort Pulaski (Georgia) on April 11, he emancipated all the captured
slaves. On May 9, he declared all the slaves in the Department of the South to
be “free for ever.” Ten days later, President Lincoln nullified Hunter’s
emancipation order, reserving the “war power” of emancipation for himself as
commander–in–chief. The president also overruled Hunter when he raised a
regiment of black recruits in South Carolina. He was relieved of the command of
the Department of the South on August 22, 1862.
Hunter served on the court–martial of Fitz–John Porter, who was dishonorably
discharged in January 1863 (the sentence was reversed in 1882). In May 1864,
Hunter was placed in charge of the Union offensive in the Shenandoah Valley of
Virginia. On June 5, he defeated a Confederate force at Piedmont and then set
fire to the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. He later ordered the
burning of the residence of John Letcher, a former governor of Virginia.
Hunter’s actions provoked a Confederate counteroffensive led by General Jubal
Early, who penetrated into Maryland, demanding ransom from several towns, and
reaching as far as seven miles from the White House. The Confederates were
forced back into Virginia, but Hunter was relieved of his command on August 8,
1864, in favor of General Philip Sheridan. Hunter spent the rest of the war
serving on courts–martial.
After Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Hunter accompanied the
president’s body back to Springfield, Illinois, for burial. He then served as
first officer of the military commission trying the conspirators in Lincoln’s
assassination. He retired the next year. David Hunter died in Washington,
D.C., on February 2, 1886.
Sources consulted: Mark M. Boatner, “Hunter, David,” The Civil War
Dictionary, rev. ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1991; Rod Paschall, “Hunter,
David,” American National Biography (online).