Benjamin Butler on the Virginia Coast

May 30, 1861 – Secretary of War Simon Cameron endorsed Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s refusal to return fugitive slaves to their master. This set an important precedent in the war as both Federals and Confederates maneuvered for control of the Virginia seaboard east of Richmond.

Major General Benjamin F. Butler | Image Credit:
Major General Benjamin F. Butler | Image Credit:

On May 15, Federal authorities transferred Butler from command of the Department of Annapolis to the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott had admonished Butler for seizing Baltimore without orders two days ago, an action that enraged many Marylanders. But most northerners, especially Republicans, praised Butler’s audacity, which helped keep Washington secure.

In addition, Butler enjoyed support from Secretary of War Cameron and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase within President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. They wanted Butler, a Democrat, to set an example for his fellow party members by enforcing the administration’s war policies. Ultimately Lincoln tried appeasing both Butler’s supporters and detractors by moving him from Maryland to Virginia and promoting him to major general.

The Federal Department of Virginia and North Carolina was headquartered at Fort Monroe, at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers. It encompassed the region around Hampton Roads. Virginia’s secession had caused a dilemma in terms of state defense, with this Peninsula being most vulnerable to Federal invasion.

The vital Navy Yard at Norfolk was near the Peninsula, under Confederate control. General Robert E. Lee inspected the defenses at Norfolk and found them unsatisfactory. He appointed Brigadier General Benjamin Huger to take command of the forces there. Huger replaced General Walter Gwynn, who had not served actively for 29 years. Lee also consolidated Confederate forces on the lower Virginia Peninsula near Fort Monroe into a Department of the Peninsula under Colonel John B. Magruder, with headquarters at Yorktown.

Federals and Confederates quickly began shifting troops to this region; in addition to the Federal garrison at Fort Monroe, Federal warships patrolled the waters off Hampton Roads. Magruder’s men, which included the crack 1st North Carolina under Colonel D.H. Hill, began preparing for a potential Federal landing at Newport News, which would begin a drive toward Richmond.

General Butler arrived at Fort Monroe and assumed command on the 22nd. He had only about 2,000 soldiers in his garrison, but he soon received reinforcements to raise his total to 7,500. Butler’s first objective was Newport News, a strategic point on the Peninsula where the James River flows into Chesapeake Bay. Meanwhile, Federal warships began blockading the James, Nansemond, and Elizabeth rivers.

Butler’s Federals advanced from Fort Monroe on May 23, moving toward Hampton. The general then stirred controversy once more. When three slaves belonging to a Confederate colonel escaped to Fort Monroe, Butler refused the colonel’s request (made through an agent) to return them. The slaves had been building a Confederate battery on the Peninsula, and Butler would not allow them to continue working against the U.S. Butler announced, “I shall hold these Negroes as contraband of war.”

Butler wrote: “Major Cary of Virginia asked if I did not feel myself bound by my constitutional obligations to deliver up fugitives under the Fugitive-Slave Act. To this I replied that the Fugitive-Slave Act did not affect a foreign country, which Virginia claimed to be, and she must reckon it one of the infelicities of her position that in so far at least she was taken at her word.”

Butler proclaimed that he would only return the slaves if the owner swore allegiance to the U.S. and stopped using them to resist Federal authority by building defenses. Declaring slaves to be “contraband of war” set a precedent that encouraged other slaves to flee to Federal military camps in search of freedom. Northern newspapers soon applied the term “contraband” to the increasing number of slaves who risked harsh punishment by fleeing from their masters. Butler’s action embarrassed the Lincoln administration because it did not yet have a policy for dealing with fugitives. This sparked intense debate among the administration, Congress, and the military.

Nearly 70 slaves escaped to Fort Monroe within three days, and by month’s end about 1,000 slaves had gathered there, with hundreds of other fugitives heading for Federal lines at other locales. On the 30th, Secretary of War Cameron instructed Butler on how to deal with these contrabands: instead of returning them to their masters, they were to be fed and sheltered, and then put to work without pay while keeping records of their labor. Thus, they would continue as slaves, except their new master would be the Federal military.

Meanwhile, the Federal push toward Newport News continued. Around 7 a.m. on May 27, Butler deployed a force via transports to his objective, eight miles inland from Fort Monroe overlooking the mouth of the James River. The forces landed and built defensive works that included a fortification named Camp Butler. Butler reported that the camp “will be able to hold itself against any force that may be brought against it.”

The next day, Butler’s forces captured Newport News without opposition. This expanded the Federal base of operations around Fort Monroe; it also gave Federals potential to threaten Yorktown, the York River, or even Norfolk and Petersburg. This initiated the second of four proposed invasions of Virginia; the others were at Alexandria and Arlington, western Virginia, and Manassas.



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