August 8, 1861 – Secretary of War Simon Cameron responded to Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s request to clarify the administration’s policy on fugitive slaves escaping into Federal military lines, one day after Confederates burned a refuge for escapees.
Butler commanded Federals at Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia peninsula between the York and James rivers. His forces had moved inland to occupy various points, including the town of Hampton. However, after the Federal defeat at Bull Run, Butler was compelled to send many of his men north to help defend Washington. This prompted him to withdraw much of his remaining force back to the fort, abandoning Hampton and other points.
Meanwhile, Confederate Brigadier General John B. Magruder had read a copy of Butler’s July 30 letter to Cameron stating that Hampton had become a refuge for “runaway slaves” (or what Butler called “contraband”) seeking Federal protection. Magruder responded by moving some 2,000 Confederates near the town “to capture and send up to the works at Williamsburg all the Negroes” there.
On August 7, two Confederate companies drove the Federals out of Hampton and allegedly gave residents just 15 minutes to evacuate; “the town was then fired in many places and burned to the ground.” Butler reported that not only did the Confederates seize the slaves there, but they also “took away with them most of the able-bodied white men.” Butler, who had refrained from firing on Hampton from Fort Monroe to avoid civilian casualties, charged Magruder with committing a “wanton act” by leaving the town in ruins.
The next day, Butler allowed many of the newly homeless elderly and infirmed into his lines and wrote once again to Cameron for clarification on the fugitive slave issue. Cameron responded that he had conferred with President Lincoln, who decided that the Fugitive Slave Act had no authority in states rebelling against the U.S. because enforcing that law relied on cooperation between Federal and state officials. Slaves should be returned to owners in loyal slave states (i.e., Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and the District of Columbia), but Federal officers were not obligated to return fugitives to slaveholders in Confederate states.
Regarding slaveholders in Confederate states who remained loyal to the U.S., Lincoln instructed Cameron to tell Butler that it was “quite clear that the substantial rights of loyal masters will be best protected by receiving such fugitives, as well as fugitives from disloyal masters, into the service of the United States, and employing them under such organizations and in such occupations as circumstances may suggest or require.” In other words, loyal masters should not mind surrendering their slaves to the Federal government if they would be used to help put down the rebellion.
Cameron wrote that after the war, “Congress will, doubtless, properly provide for all the persons thus received into the service of the Union, and for just compensation to loyal masters.” He directed Butler to refrain from molesting peaceful slaveholders or from encouraging slaves to escape.
While this answered the legal question of what to do with fugitives, it did not establish that those fugitives would be freed. It also led to the next question of how to care for all those coming into the Federal lines.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 64; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 54; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 106