Lot 62 of 413:
1863 Union officer who fought for Black civil rights in New Orleans  

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Autograph document of Union Army officer who mobilized "Negro labor" and established freedmen schools in Civil War Louisiana

Hanks, Lt. George H.

New Orleans


April 31, 1863.


Printed and handwritten Document Signed (Commutation of Quarters and Fuel) as “Superintendent of Negro Labor”.  1pg. + docketing on verso. Signed twice by Hanks and once by an Assistant Quartermaster.

Specifies Hanks’ $35 monthly expenditure for a two-room residence and lumber for fuel. Rare wartime autograph of an unheralded and tragic Union Army officer responsible for the education of thousands of ex-slaves during the Civil War,  financed by a famous “white slave propaganda” campaign which he masterminded.

Described as an “abolitionist and civil rights activist” while serving as a  Union Army officer, the 34 year-old Hanks had entered the service in Hartford as a Lieutenant shortly at the start of the Civil War. In mid-1862, when his regiment was sent to Union-occupied New Orleans, Hanks was tasked with organizing “contrabands” - slaves who had fled Confederate territory to the Union lines – into Army work groups. Months before he signed this document, he was appointed superintendent of a new “Bureau of Negro Labor” to recruit, house, feed and organize the work of ex-slaves picking cotton for Army use on former plantations.  His personal sympathy for the Blacks, often at odds with Army commanders catering to the Louisiana elite, led him to establish some 100 “freedmen” schools for ex-slaves. These were supported by funds raised in the north by the clever “white slave propaganda” he masterminded: Promoted to Colonel of a “Colored Regiment” of Black soldiers, Hanks found five children, ex-slaves whose skin was so light  they appeared to be white, and accompanied them to New  York and Philadelphia to be photographed. The resulting carte-de-visite photos of apparently “white” children still enslaved and sold as chattel by southern masters who had fathered them were mass distributed to shocked northeners who were moved to contribute money to support Hanks’ Black schools. Court-martialled for mismanagement by his enemies, but exonerated, and praised for his efforts by Grant and Sherman, Hanks' pioneering civil rights work laid the foundation for the later Freedman’s Bureau of the Reconstruction era. After the War, while living on a former Mississippi plantation, Hanks lost his wife and infant son to illness, a tragedy from which he never recovered. Once considered a brilliant Army officer, he failed in civilian business, lost all his property, accepted menial jobs and was finally reduced to keeping a cheap tavern in Kansas. Plagued by habitual drunkenness and remarried to a woman who accused him of abuse, in October 1873, Hanks wrapped himself in an Army blanket with his sabre buckled to his belt and testimonials to his military service in his pocket, and committed suicide by an overdose of morphine.

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