Fugitive Slave Policy Defined

Major General Benjamin F. Butler commanded Federals at Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers. His forces had gradually moved inland and occupied various points, including the town of Hampton. However, after the Federal defeat at Bull Run, Butler had to send many of his troops north to help defend Washington. Consequently, he abandoned Hampton and withdrew much of his remaining force back to the fort.

In late July, Butler had written to Secretary of War Simon Cameron asking him to define what should be done with slaves who fled their masters to seek sanctuary within the Federal lines. Butler wrote that Hampton had become a refuge for “runaway slaves” (or what Butler called “contraband of war”) seeking Federal protection. Brigadier General John B. Magruder, commanding Confederates in the region, read a copy of Butler’s letter and moved some 2,000 troops near Hampton “to capture and send up to the works at Williamsburg all the Negroes” there.

On August 7, two Confederate companies drove a token Federal force out of Hampton and allegedly gave residents 15 minutes to evacuate, after which “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. Magruder did not acknowledge such destruction in his report.

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 and President Abraham Lincoln had adopted a policy of accepting the fugitives into military lines, but with an exception. In slave states loyal to the Union, the Fugitive Slave Act requiring Federal officials to return fugitives to their masters must remain in effect. However, “in states wholly or partly under insurrectionary control,” slaves being put to work against the Federal war effort could be confiscated and made to work for the Federal military instead.

U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Major General Benjamin F. Butler | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

As for individual slaveholders who were loyal to the U.S. but happened to live in a Confederate state, Butler was told 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 it would help put down the rebellion.

Cameron wrote, “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 warned Butler against molesting peaceful slaveholders or encouraging “the servants of peaceable citizens in a house or field” to escape. This provided a temporary answer as to what should be done with fugitive slaves in wartime. But it did not establish a permanent policy as to whether the slaves might be freed once the war ended. It also did not provide any guidance on how the Federal commanders would be expected to care for all those seeking sanctuary within their lines.


  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 1. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.

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