Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Federal Department of Virginia at Fort Monroe, wrote to Secretary of War Simon Cameron requesting clarification on the Lincoln administration’s policy regarding slaves escaping from their masters and seeking sanctuary within Federal military lines.
The Federal government began outlining the basis of a fugitive slave policy on July 9, when the House of Representatives approved a resolution lifting any requirements for army commanders to return fugitives to their owners. This passed despite urgings from several commanders to recommend returning the fugitives, as was being done in the Western Theater, since the army had no way to care for them.
Many influential Radical Republicans in Congress supported not only protecting fugitives from their masters, but turning the war into a crusade to abolish slavery as well. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, two of the most vocal abolitionists in the Senate, met with President Abraham Lincoln and Vice President Hannibal Hamlin at the White House on July 23. Hamlin, an abolitionist himself, sided with the senators in urging Lincoln to make the conflict a war of slave liberation. Sumner asserted that this was a military necessity; Chandler argued that freeing slaves would cause the Confederacy to collapse under the chaos of racial disorder.
Taking a centrist position between the Radicals and conservatives in his party, Lincoln explained that most northerners were not ready to fight to free slaves. Moreover, forcing slaveholders to free their slaves without compensation or any plan for education, employment, or welfare would encourage Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri to secede. The Radicals feared that Lincoln tried too hard to garner support from Democrats, most of whom backed Lincoln’s pledge not to interfere with slavery where it already existed.
General Butler had already sparked controversy in May when he announced that slaves escaping into his lines were “contraband of war” and refusing to return them to their masters. He was now forcing the administration to take a stand on the issue with this July 30 letter to Cameron. Butler asked a series of questions about the legal status of the contrabands, about 1,000 of whom had sought refuge within his lines over the past two months. Butler also expressed concern about having sent reinforcements to Washington because this had compelled him to give up Hampton where “all these black people were obliged to break up their homes… fleeing across the creek within my lines for protection and support.” Butler wrote:
“Indeed it was a most distressing sight to see these poor creatures, who had trusted to the protection of the arms of the United States, and who aided the troops of the United States in their enterprise, to be thus obliged to flee from their homes, and the homes of their masters, who had deserted them, and become not fugitives from fear of the return of the rebel soldiery, who had threatened to shoot the men who had wrought for us, and to carry off the women who had served us to a worse than Egyptian bondage.”
The Federal government was still bound to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, but Butler had argued that that law did not apply to Virginia because she claimed to no longer be a state in the Union, and thus had no claim to fugitives escaping to the protection of a “foreign” army. Butler believed that refusing to return fugitives hindered the Confederate war effort, and as such he had put the slaves to work as unpaid laborers in his camp. Feeling that it was time to decide “the question of their final disposition,” Butler asked:
“First–What shall be done with them? and, Second, What is their state and condition? Are these men, women, and children, slaves? Are they free? Is their condition that of men, women, and children, or that of property, or is it a mixed relation? What their status was under the Constitution and laws, we all know? What has been the effect of rebellion and a state of war upon that status?… If property, do they not become the property of the salvors? But we, their salvors, do not need and will not hold such property… has not, therefore, all proprietary relation ceased?”
Butler then partly answered his own questions by opining that these slaves could no longer be considered property: “Have they not become thereupon men, women and children? No longer under ownership of any kind, the fearful relicts of fugitive masters, have they not by their masters’ acts and the state of war assumed the condition, which we hold to be the normal one, of those made in God’s image?”
Noting that some Federal commanders, including Major General Irvin McDowell at Bull Run, had ordered fugitive slaves returned to their masters, Butler asked, “Is that order to be enforced in all Military Departments? Now, shall the commander of regiment or battalion sit in judgment upon the question, whether any given black man has fled from his master, or his master fled from him? Indeed, how are the free born to be distinguished?”
Butler explained that he wanted to continue his current course of action because in wartime, all enemy property was theoretically subject to confiscation. If “it should be objected that human beings were brought to the free enjoyment of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, such objections might not require much consideration.” The Lincoln administration would render a decision on the matter in August.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Faust, Patricia L. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.