The Rebels indirectly made use of the negroes against the Government, by employing them in the production of supplies for their armies in the field. “In this way,” he said, “they can bring to bear against us all the power of their so-called Confederacy. At the same time we are compelled to retain at home a portion of our fighting force to furnish supplies for the men at the front. The Administration has determined to take the negroes belonging to disloyal men, and make them a part of the army. This is the policy that has been fixed and will be fully carried out.”
General Thomas announced that he brought authority to raise as many regiments as possible, and to give commissions to all proper persons who desired them. The speech was listened to with attention, and loudly cheered at its close. The general officers declared themselves favorable to the new movement, and gave it their co-operation. In a few days a half-dozen regiments were in process of organization. This was the beginning of the scheme for raising a large force of colored soldiers along the Mississippi.
The disposition to be made of the negro women and children in our lines, was a subject of great importance. Their numbers were very large, and constantly increasing. Not a tenth of these persons could find employment in gathering abandoned cotton. Those that found such employment were only temporarily provided for. It would be a heavy burden upon the Government to support them in idleness during the entire summer. It would be manifestly wrong to send them to the already overcrowded camps at Memphis and Helena. They were upon our hands by the fortune of war, and must be cared for in some way.
The plantations which their owners had abandoned were supposed to afford the means of providing homes for the negroes, where they could be sheltered, fed, and clothed without expense to the Government. It was proposed to lease these plantations for the term of one year, to persons who would undertake the production of a crop of cotton. Those negroes who were unfit for military service were to be distributed on these plantations, where the lessees would furnish them all needed supplies, and pay them for their labor at certain stipulated rates.
The farming tools and other necessary property on the plantations were to be appraised at a fair valuation, and turned over to the lessees. Where the plantations were destitute of the requisite number of mules for working them, condemned horses and mules were loaned to the lessees, who should return them whenever called for. There were promises of protection against Rebel raids, and of all assistance that the Government could consistently give. General Thomas announced that the measure was fully decided upon at Washington, and should receive every support.