David Hunter was born on July 21, 1802. Records are unclear if his birthplace was Princeton, New Jersey, Woodbury, New Jersey, Troy, New York, or Washington, D. C. He was the second of five children of the Reverend Andrew Hunter and Mary Stockton Hunter. Besides being a clergyman, the elder Hunter served as a professor of mathematics and astronomy at Princeton University, at or near the time of Hunter’s birth. Hunter’s maternal grandfather, Richard Stockton, represented New Jersey in the Second Continental Congress and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Historians know little about Hunter’s early life. He enrolled at the United States Military Academy on September 14, 1818, and graduated on July 1, 1822, ranking twenty-fifth in a class of forty cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
Following his graduation from West Point, Hunter received a commission as a second lieutenant with the 5th U.S. Infantry. For the next eleven years, he served at numerous outposts, mostly in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. On June 30, 1828, the army officials promoted Hunter to first lieutenant.
In 1828, the army transferred Hunter to Fort Dearborn, near Chicago, Illinois. While serving there, he met, courted, and married Maria Indiana Kinzie, who historians believe to be the first child of European descent born in Chicago. The couple wed on September 18, 1829. Their marriage lasted fifty-six years and produced no children.
On March 4, 1833, army officials promoted Hunter to captain and assigned him to the 1st U. S. Dragoons. He spent the next three years in Kansas and Oklahoma, campaigning against American Indians.
Resignation and Return to the Army
On July 4, 1836, Hunter resigned his commission and returned to his wife’s hometown, Chicago, to pursue a career as a real estate agent and/or a land speculator. He rejoined the army five years later, in November 1841. On March 14, 1842, the army promoted Hunter to major and appointed him to a staff position as a paymaster. He served in that role at Tallahassee, Florida during the Second Seminole War (1835–1842) and with the Army of Occupation during the Mexican-American War (1846–1848).
Friendship with Abraham Lincoln
In 1860, while stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Hunter began corresponding with Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. The two men shared mutual views regarding the practice of slavery. After Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election in November, he invited Hunter to ride on his inaugural train from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D. C., in February 1861. Upon their arrival in the nation’s capital, Lincoln placed Hunter in charge of a security detail guarding the White House.
Wounded at the First Battle of Bull Run
One month after the Battle of Fort Sumter (April 12–14, 1861) launched the nation into civil war, the army promoted Hunter to the rank of colonel with the 6th U.S. Cavalry (May 14, 1861), commanding the Aqueduct Brigade stationed near Georgetown. In June, officials assigned Hunter to command the 2nd Division of Major General Irvin McDowell‘s Army of Northeastern Virginia (later the Army of the Potomac). On July 21, 1861, Hunter received a neck wound as he led his troops into combat at the First Battle of Bull Run. Following the battle, the War Department promoted Hunter to brigadier general of volunteers, effective May 17, 1861.
Western Department Commander
While recovering from his wound, the War Department promoted Hunter to major general of volunteers, effective August 13, 1861. In the fall of that year, officials transferred him to the Western Department, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, under the command of Major General John C. Frémont. After President Lincoln relieved Frémont of duty on October 24, 1861, Hunter assumed temporary command of the department on November 2, 1861.
Department of Kansas Commander
Just one week later, on November 9, 1861, the War Department reorganized federal forces in the West. General Orders, No. 97 (Headquarters of the Army) created the Department of the Missouri, commanded by Major General Henry W. Halleck. The same order named Hunter to command the newly created Department of Kansas, which encompassed “the State of Kansas, the Indian Territory west of Arkansas, and the Territories of Nebraska, Colorado, and Dakota.” Although not pleased with the reassignment, Hunter led that department from November 20, 1861, to March 11, 1862. During his tenure, he received Halleck’s praise for sending troops to assist Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant‘s Union victory at the Battle of Fort Donelson (February 12-16, 1862).
Department of the South Commander
In the spring of 1862, army officials transferred Hunter to command the Department of the South, effective March 31. Hunter’s new department comprised the seceded states of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. In early April, in cooperation with naval forces, Hunter oversaw the bombardment and reduction of Fort Pulaski, virtually closing the port of Savannah, Georgia.
General Orders, No. 11
On April 13, 1862, two days after the surrender of Fort Pulaski, David Hunter issued General Orders, No. 7 (Department of the South), freeing the slaves in the fort’s vicinity. One month later, on May 9, 1862, Hunter issued General Orders, No. 11 (Department of the South), which stated:
The three States of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina, comprising the Military Department of the South, having deliberately declared themselves no longer under the protection of the United States of America, and having taken up arms against the said United States, it becomes a military necessity to declare them under martial law. This was accordingly done on the 25th day of April, 1862. Slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible. The persons in these three States—Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida—heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.
Besides his unauthorized emancipation order, Hunter also began organizing escaped or captured slaves into combat units. To ensure that sufficient numbers of black troops were enlisted, Hunter went even further and instructed his six district commanders, “to send immediately to these headquarters, under a guard, all the able-bodied negroes capable of bearing arms within the limits of their several commands,” thus instituting the practice of conscription within his department.
President Lincoln, who was lobbying Congress for a bill that would voluntarily end the practice of slavery in the Border States in return for compensating slave owners, quickly rescinded Hunter’s emancipation order. In Presidential Proclamation 90, dated May 19, 1862, Lincoln stated:
I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, proclaim and declare that the Government of the United States had no knowledge, information, or belief of an intention on the part of General Hunter to issue such a proclamation, nor has it yet any authentic information that the document is genuine; and, further, that neither General Hunter nor any other commander or person has been authorized by the Government of the United States to make proclamations declaring the slaves of any State free, and that the supposed proclamation now in question, whether genuine or false, is altogether void so far as respects such declaration.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who had written a letter to President Millard Fillmore in 1850 recommending Hunter to a position of lieutenant colonel with a newly created regiment of light infantry, reacted angrily to Hunter’s proclamation. In his General Orders, No. 60 (CSA), dated August 21, 1862, Davis declared that:
Major-General Hunter and Brigadier-General Phelps be no longer held and treated as public enemies of the Confederate States, but as outlaws; and that in the event of the capture of either of them, or that of any other commissioned officer employed in drilling, organizing, or instructing slaves, with a view to their armed service in this war, he shall not be regarded as a prisoner of war, but held in close confinement for execution as a felon at such time and place as the President shall order.
Relieved of Command
While Hunter’s efforts to enlist and arm former slaves created a furor, Congress and the president soon adopted his views with the enactment of the Militia Act of 1862 (July 17, 1862). Nonetheless, the War Department temporarily relieved Hunter of his command on June 12, 1862, and recalled him to Washington for special services. While there, he served as president of the court-martial of Major General Fitz John Porter for his performance at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Hunter also served on a committee that investigated the loss of Harpers Ferry in the Maryland Campaign.
Return to the Department of the South
On January 21, 1863, Hunter returned to his command of the Department of the South, where he served until June 3. During his second tenure, Hunter responded to Jefferson Davis’s execution threat in a letter to the Confederate president dated April 23, 1863. Hunter informed Davis:
In the month of August last you declared all those engaged in arming the negroes to fight for their country to be felons, and directed the immediate execution of all such as should be captured. I have given you long enough to reflect on your folly. I now give you notice that unless this order is immediately revoked I will at once cause the execution of every rebel officer and every rebel slaveholder in my possession.
Fortunately, for both sides, on June 3, 1863, officials recalled Hunter to Washington, where he served in several administrative capacities for the next year.
Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
On March 12, 1864, President Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Soon thereafter, Grant ordered Major General Franz Sigel to invade western Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, which had served as the breadbasket for the Confederacy throughout the war. In May 1864, Sigel marched 9,000 to 10,000 soldiers into the valley, but his campaign was short-lived and ill-fated.
Upon learning of Sigel’s advance from the north, Confederate Major General John C. Breckinridge cobbled together a force of approximately 4,000 men, including cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, to oppose the Yankee invaders. On May 15, 1864, the Rebels engaged Sigel’s army at New Market, Virginia. Despite being outnumbered, the Confederates drove the Federals from the field.
After retreating to Strasburg, Virginia, army officials relieved Sigel of his command and replaced him with Hunter on May 19, 1864. Grant ordered Hunter to resume the offensive, live off of the land, and use scorched-earth tactics in the Shenandoah Valley. On June 5 and 6, Hunter defeated a Confederate force commanded by Major General William E. “Grumble” Jones at the Battle of Piedmont.
Burning the Virginia Military Institute
Following the Union victory, Hunter moved south to Lexington, where he burned the Virginia Military Institute and plundered the town on June 12, 1864. Hunter also ordered the burning of former Virginia Governor John Letcher’s home in retaliation for Letcher issuing “a violent and inflammatory proclamation … inciting the population of the country to rise and wage guerrilla warfare on my troops.”
Replaced by Sheridan
Confederate General Robert E. Lee countered Hunter’s actions by sending a force of approximately 8,000 soldiers, under the command of Lieutenant General Jubal Early, into the valley to halt the federal destruction. On June 17 and 18, Early foiled Hunter’s attempt to occupy Lynchburg, driving the Federals back into West Virginia. After Hunter’s defeat at the Battle of Lynchburg, Grant dispatched Major General Philip Sheridan to take command of federal forces in the Valley. Relegated to a subordinate position, Hunter asked to be relieved of his duties.
Army officials placed Hunter on a leave of absence, awaiting orders from August 8, 1864, to February 1, 1865. He then served on court-martial duty from February 1 to May 9, 1865. During that period, he received brevet promotions to the ranks of brigadier general and major general in the regular army, both effective March 13, 1865.
Despite Hunter’s lackluster military career and his clash with Lincoln over General Orders, No 11, he and the president remained close friends throughout the war. Following Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865, Hunter served as an honor guard at the president’s funeral, and he accompanied Lincoln’s body back to Springfield, Illinois for burial. From May 8 to July 15, 1865, Hunter served as president of the military commission that tried the conspirators involved in Lincoln’s assassination.
Hunter held a few administrative posts before mustering out of the volunteer army on January 15, 1866. He retired from active service with the regular army on July 31, 1866.
Hunter lived in Washington, DC, for the rest of his life. He died of heart failure at his home on February 2, 1886, at the age of eighty-three. Hunter’s remains are buried at Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, New Jersey.