The Preachers: John Eaton (1829-1906)

Union Army chaplain who served as superintendent of freed slaves in the Mississippi River Valley from 1862 to 1865. His services were honored with appointment as brevet general and appointment as commander of a brigade of black soldiers. He apparently had the confidence of both President Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant and sometimes carried messages between them.

Eaton graduated from theological school and was ordained shortly before the Civil War. He joined an Ohio regiment as a chaplain, serving in Missouri and Tennessee. In December 1862, he was named by General Grant to take charge of the all escaped slaves in the Mississippi River region. He proved a compassionate and adept organizer for the freedmen – finding work, education housing and other help for thousands of former slaves, helping to conclude work contracts and marriages for hundreds. In his order of appointment, Grant wrote:

It will be the duty of the Superintendent of contrabands to organize them into working parties in saving cotton, as pioneers on railroads and steamboats, and in any way where their service can be made available.
Where labor is performed for private individuals, they will be charged in accordance with the tariff fixed in previous orders.
When abandoned crops of cotton are saved for the benefit of Government, the officer selling the same will turn over to the Superintendent of Contrabands the same amount charged individuals
The negroes will be clothed, and in every way provided for, out of their earnings so far as practicable, the account being kept of all earnings and expenditures, and subject to the inspection…1

Eaton did not welcome his assignment. Grant biographer Brooks Simpson wrote: “Not exactly a willing volunteer, Eaton sought out Grant, hoping to be excused from the responsibility. The general would have none of that. He calmly explained his thinking behind the matter, admitting that his proposal attempted to satisfy the demands of military necessity and ‘the dictates of mere humanity, as Eaton phrased it. Many whites, Grant argued believed that blacks would not work of their own free will. His own experience in Missouri suggested otherwise; it also suggested that the best way to counter racist stereotypes was to provide concrete examples of how freed blacks would respond to opportunity.”2 In his own memoirs Eaton recalled his reaction to Grant’s appointment: “No language can describe the effect of this order upon me. Never in the entire army service, through the whole war, during imprisonment or in the midst of battles with the roar of cannon in my ears, amid the horrors of the hospital or in facing my own exposure to assassination, do I recall such a shock of surprise, amounting to consternation, as I experienced when reading this brief summons to undertake what seemed to me an enterprise beyond the possibility of human achievement. I retired to my cot and drew the blankets round me, – not to sleep, but to think it out alone. It was useless to question what I meant or what my future was to be.”3

General Grant recalled in his own memoirs: “There was no special authority for feeding them unless they were employed as teamsters, cooks,,, and pioneers with the army; but only able-bodied young men were suitable for such work. This labor would support but a very limited percentage of them. The plantations were all deserted; the cotton and corn were ripe: men, women, and children above ten years of age could be employed in saving these crops. To do this work with contrabands, or to have it done, organization under a competent chief was necessary. On inquiring for such a man Chaplain Eaton, now and for many years the very able United States Commissioner of Education, was suggested. He proved as efficient in that field as he has since done in his present one. I gave him all the assistants and guards he called for. We together fixed the prices to be paid for the negro labor, whether rendered to the government or to individuals. The cotton was to be picked from abandoned plantations, the laborers to receive the stipulated price (my recollection is twelve and a half cents per pound for picking and ginning) from the quartermaster, he shipping the cotton north to be sold for the benefit of the government. Citizens remaining on their plantations were allowed the privilege of having their crops saved by freedmen on the same terms.”4

Grant’s orders helped regularize the processes under which escaped slaves were dealt with by the army. “The men in the ranks, increasingly irked by Southern arrogance, silently allowed the runaways to pass through their lines or be absorbed into various forms of menial service,” wrote historian Allen C. Guelzo. “The decision by white soldiers to intervene on behalf of black strangers was so widespread that it becomes easy to miss how utterly extraordinary these interventions were, especially since they were happening in the face of commanders’ direct contrary orders.”5

Grant sent Eaton to the White House to report to President Lincoln in July 1863. “Armed with the letter from General Grant and with my report, I presented myself at the White House. There was no delay, no obstructive formality. The messenger took my letter at once to the President and promptly ushered me into Mr. Lincoln’s apartment,” recalled Eaton in his memoirs. “My call was so timed that the multitude of visitors as well as the clerks – ‘the boys,’ as Mr. Lincoln called them – were gone for the day, and the President was sitting by his office desk alone. His cordial manner put me at once at my ease. There was not the slightest affectation, nor assumption of superiority. We talked with the utmost freedom, but I found myself subjected to the keenest investigation that it has ever been my experience to undergo.”6

When Eaton went back to the White House to discuss the President’s reactions to his report, “The President left me in no doubt as to the satisfaction with which he had read the information contained therein. He spoke at some length about the efforts that had been made in the East to meet the Negro question, – how he had urged deportation and colonization, and of the failure of such efforts to solve the difficulty. His sympathy with the suffering caused by some of the mistakes was very evident. He told me, for instance, that he Negroes in the Cow Island settlement on the coast of Hayti were suffering intensely from a pest of ‘jiggers’ from which there seemed to be no escape or protection. His distress was as keen as it was sincere, and I have often thought of it as an illustration of his kindness of heart, which found no detail too insignificant upon which to expend itself. The spectacle of the President of the United States, conducting the affairs of the Nation in the midst of civil war, and genuinely affected by the discomfort occasioned a little group of Negroes by an insect no bigger than a pinhead, was a spectacle that has stayed by me all my life.”7

Eaton’s conversations with President Lincoln ranged from slavery to the symbolic. President Lincoln told Eaton “that there were some people who thought the work on the Capitol ought to stop on account of the war, people who begrudged the expenditure, and the detention of the workmen from the army.” Mr. Lincoln argued, however, that “the finishing of the Capitol would be a symbol to the nation of the preservation of the Union If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.”8

Freedmen commissioner Eaton returned to Washington in August 1864 to straighten out difficulties with the Treasury Department over implementing new federal laws. “On reaching Washington on August 10, I went directly to the White House. Mr. Lincoln was alert to know the facts I had come to present, and his reception of me was cordiality itself. Although he felt the force of the argument in favor of making the most out of the crops, and of introducing into that disaffected section of the country a population which might be presumed to be loyal and devoted to the interests of the Union, he was at the same time fully prepared to consider the question from every point of view. When I told him of the danger and suffering of the Negroes occasioned by raids upon plantations, of the difficulty of exercising adequate authority and restraint over operations so extended and remote from the military posts, when I related the freedom with which the lessees interpreted and applied the orders issued by the Treasury, Mr. Lincoln’s keen face sharpened with indignation. ‘I have signed no regulations authorizing that!’ he exclaimed more than once in the course of my narrative.” In his conversations President Lincoln relayed his confidence in General Grant. President Lincoln told Eaton: “Before Grant took command of the eastern forces we did not sleep at night here in Washington. We began to fear the rebels would take the capital, and once in possession of that, we feared that foreign countries might acknowledge the Confederacy. Nobody could foresee the evil that might come from the destruction of records and of property. But since Grant has assumed command on the Potomac, I have made up my mind that whatever it is possible to have done, Grant will do, and what ever he doesn’t do, I don’t believe it to be done. And now we sleep at night.”9

Eaton wrote: “The President’s grasp of the situation was astonishing especially in view of the many and serious problems that lay upon his mind. When he heard my tale to the end, he sent me promptly to the Secretary of the Treasury. Mr. [William P.] Fessenden himself was out of the city at the time, but in his absence I was referred to the Assistant Secretary, Mr. George Harrington. To him I repeated the substance of mystery, dwelling on the fact that the dependents, whom we had been led to believe would be provided for by the plantation agents, had, after all, been thrown upon military support; that there were no competent instrumentalities other than military for their care; and that my assistants had been compelled to extend Government aid to numerous freedmen endeavoring to help themselves, and consequently had open contracts which could not be settled till the close of the season. In addition to these complications I referred to the difficulty of controlling the policy and acts of the planters, many of whom proved themselves disloyal to the Union in feeling as well as reckless of what might result to it indirectly from their own selfish operations. Had all the lessees been loyal and is interested Union men, the plans of the Treasury might have succeeded admirably, but among men some of whom were union one day and rebel the next, according as their private interests might incline them, and in a territory owned principally by strong Southern sympathizers who laughed bitterly at the presumption of the United States Treasury in leaving lands to which they themselves laid violent claim, it was not be expected that an extended system of peaceful agricultural operations could be conducted. Mr. Harrington took a common-sense view of the harm and confusion sure to result from a transfer so untimely and so unprovided for…”10

According to Eaton, “The general situation had been made known to the President in his personal interviews with [Congressman] E. B. Washburne and General [James] Wadsworth, both of whom had made a semi-official inspection of the condition of freedmen in the districts under my care, so that Mr. Lincoln and the members of his Cabinet with whom I came in touch were in a measure prepared for the fuller revelation I was able to make. The purpose of the Administration was not by any means to revoke the rights and privileges already accorded to lessees, but rather to see to it that all present contracts should be fulfilled with every possible regard to the rights of the people, – of whatever race or color, and to issue no new contracts except under more favorable conditions.”11 Eaton wrote: “In respect to the freedmen as a whole, it had become plain that the Treasury should control the funds and revenues, as it did for other operations, while the War Department, possessing the only efficient organization for such service, should be given facilities to provide for the dependents, and left free to administer their industrial and educational affairs, and to execute justice toward the freedmen as to all others in the regions under control of the army.”12

John Eaton recalled with wonder his interactions with President Lincoln: “The freedom with which he discussed public affairs with me often filled me with amazement, and many other men have testified to his openness when once his confidence was gained. He spoke quite fully of the opposition he encountered, and expressed some surprise that there should be so much antagonism to his policy in the ranks of the great abolitionists. I think the criticism of such men as [Horace] Greeley and Wendell Phillips was a great grief and trial to him. Of a well-known abolitionist and orator he once exclaimed in one of his rare moments of impatience, ‘He’s a thistle! I don’t see why God lets him live!’ And of a certain Senator for whose principles and methods he was without mercy he once said, ‘He’s too crooked to lie still!’ The vision invoked of the uneasy politician was irresistibly vivid.”13

In mid-August 1864, Mr. Lincoln dispatched Eaton to City Point to check Grant’s political temperature. President Lincoln told him: “The disaffected are trying to get him to run, but I don’t think they can do it. If he is the great general we think he is, he must have some consciousness of it, and know that he cannot be satisfied with himself and secure the credit due for his great generalship if he does not finish his job. I do not believe that they can get him to run.”14 When Eaton explained his mission to Grant at his headquarters and asked his position on becoming a candidate for President, Grant replied: “They can’t compel me to do it!”15

Eaton served as Tennessee superintendent of schools (1867-69) and U.S. commissioner of education (1870-1886) before becoming president of Marietta College.


  1. John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 5.
  2. Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, p. 166.
  3. Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, p. 79.
  4. John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 87-88.
  5. John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 89.
  6. John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 186-187.
  7. John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 168-169.
  8. John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 170.
  9. John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 190.
  10. Brooks D. Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865, p. 162.
  11. John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 92.
  12. John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 26-27 (Generals Order No. 13, December 17, 1862).
  13. John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 171.
  14. John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 184.
  15. John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 186.