President Lincoln, The General and the Nuns

By Richard F. DeJean.  

Over the years and very much of a rarity, almost to say once in a blue moon, I would hear discussions of how a small convent of nuns from France had an influence on the Emancipation Proclamation delivered by President Lincoln. The Congress then passed the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution. This occurred in Southwest Louisiana, where I am from. Not that these nuns had an influence on the passage of these Amendments, but rather on their content.

As will be seen, this article is not meant to provide authority on any legal issue that might be raised in it, but is, rather, a glimpse into how everyday affairs may unwittingly influence actions of great magnitude.

The Academy of the Sacred Heart was founded in 1821 in Grand Coteau, Louisiana by a group of nuns from France who came to Louisiana at the bidding of its French settlers to provide education for their daughters. (It is the second oldest institution of learning west of the Mississippi). The institution of slavery as it existed in the United States at that time, would probably have been foreign to them.

These had to be women strong of body and spirit for, after landing at New Orleans, they had to proceed up Louisiana’s rivers and bayous and then negotiate rudimentary road systems and swamps. The early settlers laid out physical facilities for them once they arrived at Grand Coteau. And there would have been slaves assigned to assist.   However, after their arrival, the nuns granted the slaves their freedom, kept them at the Academy and paid them for their work.

Nathaniel Prentice Banks

The Civil War actually provides the backdrop for the subject matter of this article.   Nathaniel Prentice Banks was born in Waltham, Massachusetts January 30, 1816. He studied law and was admitted to the Suffolk County Bar and practiced in Boston. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1849-1852 and served as its Speaker for two years. He served in the House until 1858 when he was elected Governor of Massachusetts. He entered the Union Army as a Major General May 16, 1861. He had a relationship with President Abraham Lincoln that I suspect arose during his tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

As the Union forces moved to control the Mississippi River and the forts along it, General Nathaniel Banks was appointed by President Lincoln in charge of all forces in the Gulf States. Law and Order, even outside of battle zones, was probably almost nonexistent. In addition to looting by the armies of both sides as they moved through the countryside, there were also bands of marauders preying upon households and institutions throughout the South. When General Banks arrived in New Orleans, where he set up his headquarters, he was informed by his wife that the nuns at Grand Coteau were of the same Order as the nuns providing education to their daughter in a school she attended in New York State. In no uncertain words, Mary Banks told General Banks to protect the nuns at Grand Coteau. Therefore, whenever there was to be an engagement at or around Grand Coteau (and there were several including a major one, called the Battle at Bayou Bourbeau) General Banks would send a detachment of Union soldiers to encircle and protect the convent. Thus began a rather unusual relationship between General Banks and the nuns at Grand Coteau and in particular their reverend mother namely Reverend Mother Amelie Jouve.

At the head of these detachments was a Colonel Chickering. This Colonel took written messages from the General to the Reverend Mother and back from the Reverend Mother to the General. When General Banks began hearing of the school the nuns had established for the children of the slaves, he wrote: “Dear Reverend Madame. Dear Amelie; Dear Aloisia: Today General Franklin liberated the ‘Diana’ into Union hands,   and discovered confederate stores of cotton, the sale of which up North will fund the Union’s needs. Additionally recovered is a large packet of books meant for your children, which Franklin personally delivered to your school. ‘Damn school for slaves there’ he reported when we met up in battle. General Franklin is not an Abolitionist.   Tell me dear lady of this school of which he is indignant? May I learn more….”

In reply, Mother Jouve wrote:

“Dear General:   From our balcony, we see cannon being rolled up…
And the boom shakes the eaves; directly in front yesterday down
the road today…Dear General, many runaway slaves, a huge
population are hiding in our forests. Whole families. Hundreds
without clothes or food. May I beg indulgence for these. Death
from disease and starvation. Yet more arrive. Postscript: For
the books we are again your debtors. To education we dedicate
ourselves, Dear General Nathanial. Education universal is the
only cure for such hatred as you are battling. Less with guns
and more with books; open schools and win the war. Inspired
by Tolstoy, in 1861 we established the ‘Free School’ for the
children of our former slaves.….”

Such was the beginning of the influence Reverend Mother Jouve had on General Banks, which information General Banks would later provide to President Lincoln. This all sounds rather basic today, but at that time, it was unprecedented.

General Banks had the ear of President Lincoln for several reasons, one of which was that he was one of Lincoln’s more favored generals. There was another event which I became aware of doing research for this article; there were 13 parishes in Louisiana which did not secede from the union. And General Banks began negotiating with leaders in these communities in an attempt to begin a movement which would bring Louisiana back into the Union. I learned that John E. Bouligny, who is part of my families lineage, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Louisiana, stayed in Washington after the outbreak of the Civil War and became involved with President Lincoln and General Banks in the attempt to bring Louisiana back into the Union. President Lincoln sent John Bouligny as his emissary through Union and Confederate lines to deliver a letter to assist in bringing Louisiana back into the Union.   This is probably how President Lincoln became interested in the internal political affairs of Louisiana.


Acting at the behest of President Lincoln to bring Louisiana back into the Union, General Banks organized a Constitutional Convention which adopted a new Constitution on July 22, 1864. However, despite several progressive features, the new Constitution failed to give blacks the right to vote. While slavery was outlawed, blacks still did not have the right of suffrage although the new Constitution did give the legislature the authority to enfranchise black males. Banks is credited with this provision. However, even he wanted to limited suffrage on the basis of military service, taxation or “intellectual fitness”.

As General Banks continues to correspond with Mother Jouve, we find him writing to her:

“President Lincoln sends praise, and official congressional
thanks.   Lincoln’s smile is evident in his official ‘approval’
stamp on your idea of universal education.”

And in a subsequent letter to the Reverend Mother, written in the formal style of that time, General Banks wrote:

“Shake this country upside down, Mr. President, and re-pattern
it anew in the style of democracy for all! You direct me, my
new Brigadier General Amelie, to name the High Road of
freedom, ‘education’. My fellow officers joke that there will
be more education for Negros in Louisiana than whites. There
are now 30 schools for Negro children!!”

In the work Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandsworth, Jr. (LSU Press), the author looks at Banks’ campaign for governor of Massachusetts and outlines the differences between Nathaniel Banks as one candidate and Francis Bird as the other, and states:

“Members of the Bird Club believed that slavery was morally
wrong and should be fought unceasingly without compromise.
Banks headed a second faction, known as the Banks Club,
which was moderate, willing to compromise, and practical
in its approach. Although Bank’s faction also opposed slavery,
its members objected to Abolitionism and subordinated moral
justification of their cause to attain political and economic

Unknown to Hollandsworth, General Banks had been in communication with Mother Jouve at Grand Couteau and had been receiving her assessment of the good work that the freed slaves did for her at the convent. General Banks’ assessment of black troops continued to moderate when on August 5, 1864, he issued General Orders No. 108 which directed that “requiring these black troops to perform most of the labor on fortifications, and the labor and fatigue duties on permanent stations and camps, will cease, and they will only be required to take their fair share of fatigue duty, with the white troops”.

And as James Hollandsworth, Jr. mentions in his work:

“Although Lincoln’s plan for reconstruction was initiated
simultaneously in the several states occupied by Union
forces, nowhere did it progress as far or have as much
chance for success as in Louisiana. It was in Louisiana
that the first efforts were made to enfranchise the black
man, to provide him with an education, and to set up a
civil government that was responsive to the needs of all
of its citizens.”

As to General Banks’ relationship with President Lincoln, Hollandsworth quoted a letter from General Halleck to General Grant: “General Banks is a personal friend of the President and has strong political supporters in and out of Congress.”   Thus it is easy to see how General Banks had the ear of President Lincoln.

And, continuing, Hollandsworth wrote: “To his credit, Banks did take some steps to hasten the process. Within months of his arrival in Louisiana, he had embarked on an ambitious program to educate former slaves. He started by assigning a white teacher with the rank of lieutenant to each black regiment. Although there was a shortage of trained teachers, by June, 1864, at least nine military schools in New Orleans were serving on average 2400 soldier-students a day.”

I submit that these actions on the part of General Banks were due in large part, if not entirely, as a result of the information he received from the nuns operating the school at Grand Coteau. There were no other persons or factions with whom he associated who would have been responsible for the changes in his thinking.


It is clear that President Lincoln’s views on slavery and on how to abolish it changed over the years.   Some of his views were political in nature and some personal to himself.

In a message to Congress on March 6, 1862, President Lincoln stated:

“Fellow citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives,
I recommend the adoption of a Joint Resolution by your honorable
bodies which shall be substantially as follows:

‘Resolved that the United States ought to cooperate with any
state which may adopt gradual abolishment of slavery, giving
to such state pecuniary aid to be used by such state in its
discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences public and
private, produced by such change of system.'”

And in a letter of December 22, 1862, to “Hon. A.H. Stephens”, President Lincoln writes:

“Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican
administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves
or with them, about their slaves?   If they do, I wish to assure you, as
once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for
such fears.”

And, finally, on April 11, 1865, in his “Gladness of Heart” speech following the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865 and only three days before his assassination he references that “General Banks wrote me that he was confident the people, with his military cooperation would reconstruct, substantially on that plan” and then he goes on in this same speech to mention that “some 12,000 voters in the heretofore slave-state of Louisiana have sworn allegiance to the Union, held elections, organized a state government, adopted a free constitution, giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white and empowering the Legislature to confer the elected franchise upon the colored man.”

This is given further credence by Hollandsworth where he states: “Appearing on the balcony of the White House to address a boisterous crowd that had gathered to celebrate Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln endorsed the idea of limited black suffrage along the lines Banks had proposed during the Louisiana Constitutional Convention.”


Let us now look at what has been termed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (September 22, 1862) and the final Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) and see how they differ. During this period of time, there was no one in contact with President Lincoln regarding conditions of the slaves in the confederate states more so than General Banks. And there was no one, or group, in the state of Louisiana providing more first-hand information to General Banks on the lives of the slaves and their future more so than the nuns at Grand Coteau.


“That it is my purpose, upon the meeting of Congress to again
recommend the adoption of a practical measure tendering
pecuniary aid to the free acceptance or rejection of all slave-states,
so called, the people whereof may not then be in rebellion against
the United States, and which states, may then have voluntarily
adopted, or thereafter may voluntarily adopt, immediate or gradual
abolishment of slavery within their respective limits; and that the
effort to colonize persons of African descent, with their consent, upon
 this continent, or elsewhere, with the previously obtained consent of the
Governments existing there will be continued.

Done at the City of Washington, this 22nd day of September, in the
year of our Lord, 1862, and of the independence of the United States,
the 87th.”

By the President:
Abraham Lincoln


When we look at the Final Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, we note, first of all, that there is no further language speaking of “the effort to colonize persons of African descent”.

And, further, President Lincoln in the Final Emancipation Proclamation declared:

“And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do
order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said
designated states, and parts of states, are, and henceforward
shall be free; and that the executive government of the United
states, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will
recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to
abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense;
and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they
labor faithfully for reasonable wages…”

By the President:
Abraham Lincoln

Again, in this final Emancipation Proclamation we see incorporated into it, principles passed along to General Banks from Mother Jouve and the nuns at Grand Coteau.   Thus, General Banks became aware of the need to do more than simply “free” the slaves. They would need schooling and payment for their future labors.

On January 30, 1863, General Banks wrote to his wife, Mary, that his Order on employment of slaves “is the best act of my life and within three months will solve all the troubles here about slaves.”

On April 11, 1865, in delivering his so-called “Gladness of Heart” speech, delivered two days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the President detailed, primarily, the efforts at bringing Louisiana back into the Union and mentioned General Banks specifically, stating: “When the Message of 1863 with the plan before mentioned reached New Orleans, General Banks wrote me that he was confident the people, with his military cooperation, would reconstruct, substantially on that plan…Some 12,000 voters in the heretofore slave/state of Louisiana have sworn allegiance to the Union, assumed to be the rightful political power of the state, held elections, organized a state government, adopted a free-state constitution, giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white


, and empowering the legislature to confer the elected franchise upon the colored man. Their legislature has already voted to ratify the constitutional amendment recently passed by congress, abolishing slavery throughout the nation.”

I believe Banks was at his side when he delivered this speech and while I have not been able to nail this down authoritatively, I have read that at one point in his speech, President Lincoln murmured over his shoulder to General Banks “Thanks to Amelie!”.   72 hours later he was assassinated!

And, whereas Nathaniel P. Banks would never again become Speaker of the House, after the Civil War, he was again elected to Congress and was a member of the House of Representatives on December 18, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was adopted, voting in favor thereof as well as in 1866 voting in favor of the 14thAmendment and voting to approve the 15th Amendment in 1869.


So, for the chance that a young girl attended a school in New York taught by an Order of Nuns who would also have a school in the middle of Louisiana’s French Cajun Country, and the posting by President Lincoln of the girl’s father in overall command of this area during the Civil War, we might not have had an Emancipation Proclamation with the strong language for its day, as well as the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, or at least as soon as these great laws came to be.

Academy of the Sacred Heart – Grand Coteau
Academy of the Sacred Heart

(This school, the Academy of the Sacred Heart, is still providing excellent education to students in southwest Louisiana on the exact same grounds upon which it was founded.   My mother and both of my sisters graduated from there.)



Richard DeJean’s practice in Sumner emphasizes personal injury and employment discrimination. He also sits on the Board of Directors for the Sumner Food Bank.