Stephen Augustus Hurlbut was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on November 29, 1815. He was the third of four children born to Martin Luther Hurlbut and Lydia Bunce Hurlbut. The elder Hurlbut, a native of Massachusetts, was a Unitarian minister and a teacher. Although he denounced slavery as morally wrong, he owned as many as nine slaves while living in Charleston. Hurlbut’s mother, a native of Charleston, died on January 19, 1821, when Stephen was five years old.
Martin Hurlbut later remarried and, in 1831, moved his family to Philadelphia, where Stephen attended local schools. In 1837, Stephen returned to Charleston, where he studied law and apprenticed under his father’s friend, attorney James Louis Petigru. Later that year, Hurlbut passed his examinations and joined the bar. He then went to work in Petigru’s law practice.
In 1840 Hurlbut joined the 17th South Carolina Militia Regiment as an enlisted man. He soon became a commissioned officer and traveled to Florida to campaign against American Indians during the Second Seminole War (1835–1842). Although Hurlbut took part in some reconnaissance missions, he saw no combat.
After returning from Florida, Hurlbut opened his own law practice in Charleston in 1842. He also remained in the militia where he eventually achieved the rank of major. During the next three years, Hurlbut became active in Whig politics and Charleston society. By 1845, however, he was on the brink of financial failure because of his extravagant lifestyle and addiction to gambling. Under a cloud of suspicion for forgery and embezzlement and a mountain of debt, Hurlbut hastily left Charleston in 1845.
Relocation to Illinois
Hurlbut eventually landed in the frontier town of Belvidere, Illinois, where his past was unlikely to follow him. Upon arriving in Belvidere, Hurlbut established another law practice that thrived.
In 1846, he met and began courting Sophronia R. Stevens. The couple wed on May 13, 1847. Their marriage produced no children.
Hurlbut also remained active in Whig politics. In 1847, he served as a delegate to the state’s constitutional convention. One year later, he served in the Electoral College. In 1858, voters elected Hurlbut to the Illinois House of Representatives and re-elected him in 1860. One result of his active role in the Whig Party was the blossoming of a friendship with fellow Whig Abraham Lincoln, which would later serve him well.
When the Civil War began, Hurlbut enlisted with the 15th Illinois Infantry Regiment on April 20, 1861, and his men elected him as a company captain. On June 14, 1861, President Lincoln rewarded his friend, Hurlbut, with a commission as a brigadier general of U.S. volunteers.
Battle of Fort Donelson
After serving in Illinois and Missouri, Hurlbut joined General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of West Tennessee following the Battle of Fort Donelson (February 11–February 16, 1862) as commander of the 4th Division.
Battle of Shiloh
When Grant moved up the Tennessee River, Hurlbut’s division was the first to reach Pittsburg Landing, the site of the Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862). Hurlbut commanded the 4th Division during the Battle of Shiloh, where he showed personal bravery.
Siege of Corinth
Hurlbut subsequently commanded his division during the Siege of Corinth (April 29-May 30, 1862). On September 17, 1862, the War Department promoted Hurlbut to major general of volunteers for personal bravery and meritorious conduct during the Battle of Shiloh. In October,
Battle of Hatchie’s Bridge
Hurlbut again showed personal bravery at the Battle of Hatchie’s Bridge (October 5, 1862), while pursuing the combined Confederate forces of Major General Earl Van Dorn and Major General Sterling Price in northern Mississippi.
Under Suspicion in Memphis
On December 18, 1862, the U.S. War Department issued General Orders No. 210, placing Hurlbut in command of the newly created 16th Army Corps. General Grant then appointed Hurlbut as governor of the Military District of Memphis. During his tenure in Memphis, Hurlbut came under suspicion of involvement in felonious activities, including smuggling and prostitution. Critics also accused him of falsely imprisoning and stealing the property of persecuted Jews in the area. When his illicit activities prompted Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to launch an investigation, Hurlbut wrote to President Lincoln on July 7, 1863, offering to resign. Grant endorsed Hurlbut’s resignation in a letter to the president dated two days later. Lincoln the politician overrode Lincoln the commander-in-chief, however. On July 31, the president replied to Hurlbut’s letter of resignation, urging his friend to reconsider. On August 10, 1863, Hurlbut withdrew his resignation.
Fort Pillow Massacre
Even with Lincoln’s support, Hurlbut’s remaining time in command of Memphis was short-lived. In February 1864, Hurlbut sent 557 Union soldiers to occupy Fort Pillow, overlooking the east banks of the Mississippi River, thirty-eight miles north of Memphis, despite Major General William T. Sherman’s previous orders to evacuate the facility. The soldiers whom Hurlbut sent to occupy the fort included approximately 300 members of the 6th U.S. Regiment Colored Heavy Artillery and a part of the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery, many of whom were former slaves.
On April 12, 1864, 2,500 Confederate cavalrymen, commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest, raided the earthen fortification. After seizing the outer defenses, Forrest’s men allegedly massacred many of the black soldiers defending the fort as they fled or attempted to surrender. Hurlbut’s role in the “Fort Pillow Massacre” coupled with his general inability to stop Forrest’s marauding in the Memphis area led Grant to dismiss the disgraced general from his role as governor of the Military District of Memphis in April 1864.
Department of the Gulf Commander
Hurlbut was not without a command for long. In June 1864, he visited President Lincoln in Washington before going on to Baltimore to serve as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, where he supported Lincoln’s re-nomination. Two months later, Lincoln rewarded his friend with an appointment as commander of the Department of the Gulf.
Hurlbut’s behavior did not improve during his tenure as commander of the Department of the Gulf. His involvement in numerous sordid activities gradually became an embarrassment to the Lincoln administration. By December 1864, the president convened a committee to investigate his friend’s disreputable operations in New Orleans. Before anything came of the matter, the war ended, and President Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865. One week later, on April 22, Nathaniel P. Banks replaced Hurlbut as commander of the Department of the Gulf. On June 20, 1865, Hurlbut quietly mustered out of volunteer service.
After leaving the service, Hurlbut helped found the Grand Army of the Republic and served as its first commander-in-chief from 1866 to 1868. In 1869, newly inaugurated President Grant appointed Hurlbut as Minister Resident to the United States of Colombia. Hurlbut served in that position until 1872, when he returned to Illinois and mounted a successful congressional campaign. Voters of Illinois’ 4th District elected Hurlbut to a seat on the U.S. House of Representatives during the 43rd and 44th Congresses (March 4, 1873–March 4, 1877). Hurlbut lost his attempt to maintain his seat in the November 1876 congressional election.
On May 18, 1881, President James A. Garfield nominated Hurlbut to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Peru. The Senate confirmed Hurlbut the next day, and he assumed his post on August 2, 1881. Hurlbut served until March 27, 1882, when he suffered a heart attack and died in Lima, Peru. His body was returned to the United States and was interred at Belvidere Cemetery, Belvidere, Illinois.