Tag Archives: Fugitive Slaves

Cameron Defines Federal Fugitive Slave Policy

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.

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

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

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.

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References

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

The Confiscation Act

August 6, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln reluctantly signed a bill into the law authorizing Federal military commanders to seize property, including slaves, from people “aiding, abetting, or promoting” rebellion against the U.S.

Sponsored by Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, the law decreed in carefully worded language that “all such property is hereby declared to be lawful subject of prize and capture wherever found; and it shall be the duty of the (president) to cause the same to be seized, confiscated, and condemned.” The confiscated property “shall be condemned in the district or circuit court of the United States having jurisdiction.”

District attorneys were empowered to “institute proceedings of condemnation,” and any revenue gained from the confiscated property would be given to the Federal government. If a citizen brought a case for confiscation to the district attorney, that citizen would be eligible to receive half the confiscated property’s value; this incentivized informers. Property subject to seizure included land, homes, livestock, farm equipment, businesses, cash, stocks, bonds, and most importantly, slaves (although they were not referred to by that term).

Every slave owner aiding the Confederate military “shall forfeit his claim to such labor.” While this empowered Federal authorities to seize slaves as prizes of war, the law provided no explanation of what would be done to care for the slaves once confiscated. The law also did not provide for freeing those slaves; it only provided for taking them from disloyal masters.

Slaves as "contraband of war" | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Slaves as “contraband of war” | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Since this law mostly applied to slaves working in the Confederate armies as laborers, many assumed that those confiscated would be put to work at the same jobs for the Federal armies. This seemed to indicate that they would stay slaves, except now working for the Federal government rather than the Confederacy. Nevertheless, this law adopted the policy initiated by Major General Benjamin F. Butler at Fort Monroe, where he considered fugitive slaves to be “contraband of war” and refused to return them to their masters.

In the Republican-dominated Congress, all but six Republicans approved this measure. Supporters argued that confiscating property was an appropriate action to take against traitors. Many Radical Republicans saw this is a first step toward abolishing slavery, and they pushed this bill through Congress partly as a way to express disapproval of Lincoln’s moderate stance on the issue.

All but three members of the non-Republican parties in Congress (Democrats, Whigs, Constitutional Unionists, etc.) opposed this measure. Opponents argued that the law contradicted Lincoln’s stated war aims and the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution declaring that the war was about preserving the Union without interfering with slavery. Congressman John J. Crittenden, who co-sponsored the resolution, argued that legal precedent established the Federal government had no right to interfere with slavery during peace, and thus it should be the same during war.

Critics also argued that the logic of seizing property from traitors had no merit because under the Constitution, property could not be seized until the owner was convicted in court. Thus, property would be confiscated without constitutionally guaranteed due process. This law could also pave the way towards Federal military forces waging war on civilians.

While signing several last-minute bills in the Senate Chamber, Lincoln hesitated before signing this one because it interfered with slavery, something Lincoln had pledged not to do in his inaugural address. The partisan nature in which the bill passed troubled many because it indicated that if the conflict became a war against slavery, Republicans could expect no support from any other political parties to fight it. Partly to keep up bipartisanship in the struggle, this law was never fully enforced.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 12211-19; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6608; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 161-62; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 54; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 369; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 105-06; 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), p. 355-56; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 60; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q361

Federal Fugitive Slave Policy

July 30, 1861 – Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Federal garrison at Fort Monroe, Virginia, wrote to Secretary of War Simon Cameron requesting clarification on the Lincoln administration’s policy on slaves escaping from their masters and seeking protection 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.

The influential Radical Republicans in Congress not only supported protecting fugitives from their masters, but many favored 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, also an abolitionist, sided with Sumner and Chandler 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 make the Confederacy 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.

BenjaminFButlerButler, who had already sparked controversy by his refusal to return fugitives to their masters in May and calling them “contraband of war,” forced the issue on the 30th in his 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 since Virginia 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.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 61; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6597; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 161-62; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 43; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 102-03; 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), p. 355; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q361

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: Wikimedia.org

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

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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Sources

Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 31, 77-78, 81; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 44, 46-47; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 31-35; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2542, 2557; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 368-69; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 56; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 75, 77-80; 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), p. 355; Spearman, Charles M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 570; Ward, Geoffrey C.; Burns, Ric; Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 59-60; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 529-30, 570-71, 788; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q261

The Fort Pickens Dispute

March 31, 1861 – The commander of U.S.S. Brooklyn received President Abraham Lincoln’s order to reinforce Fort Pickens.

Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Located on Santa Rosa Island, Fort Pickens commanded Pensacola Bay in the Florida panhandle. A Federal garrison was stationed in Pickens, with a Federal naval squadron offshore that included the warship U.S.S. Brooklyn. There had been a tacit agreement under which the Confederates guarding the Pensacola Navy Yard would not threaten the Federals if the garrison at Pickens was not reinforced.

On the day after his inauguration, President Lincoln issued a verbal order to break the truce by landing 200 reinforcements from Brooklyn to resupply and reinforce Pickens. This was part of Lincoln’s inaugural pledge to “hold, occupy, and possess” Federal property. Moreover, Lincoln hoped that by landing troops, he could avoid another dispute like Fort Sumter and coerce the Confederacy into firing the first shot of a potential conflict.

Lincoln learned six days after delivering his verbal executive order that it had not been obeyed. He furiously reiterated the order to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott in writing, and the next day Scott sent a vessel to execute the directive. Captain Henry Adams, commanding Federal naval forces at Pensacola, either directly disobeyed Scott’s order or obeyed a superior’s order to ignore Scott’s instruction. This defiance was based on the tacit agreement to stand down if the Confederates showed no aggression.

Meanwhile, new Brigadier General Braxton Bragg organized a unified Confederate command at Pensacola. When he received news indicating the Federals may try reinforcing Pickens, he prohibited the transfer of any further supplies from either the fort or the naval squadron offshore. Confederates also seized U.S.S. Isabella at Mobile, Alabama. The vessel carried supplies for the Federal fleet at Pensacola.

On the 18th, four runaway slaves appeared before the Federal garrison at Fort Pickens. According to the commander, Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, the fugitives were “entertaining the idea” that the Federals would “protect them and grant them their freedom.” Slemmer returned them to their owners under guard, acting in accordance with Lincoln’s pledge in his inaugural address to enforce fugitive slave laws.

The standoff at Pickens continued through March. While Lincoln’s cabinet was split over whether to abandon Fort Sumter, they were unanimous that Pickens should be held. Attorney General Edward Bates urged Lincoln to hold the fort “at all hazards.” Secretary of State William H. Seward agreed, stating that it should be held “at every cost.” In addition, Seward worked to save face after his dubious involvement in the Fort Sumter situation by trying to get Lincoln to send a relief expedition to Pickens.

Seward arranged a White House meeting on March 29 with Lincoln and Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, army engineer heading construction of the new U.S Capitol dome. Seward hoped to have Meigs organize the expedition. Lincoln acknowledged the informal truce at Pensacola; he also said he had issued executive orders to reinforce Pickens, but since he had heard nothing since, the orders must have “fizzled out.”

Lincoln then agreed to allow Meigs to organize an expedition to Fort Pickens. Thus, two expeditions were being organized simultaneously: Fort Sumter, a naval expedition led by Gustavus V. Fox and supported by Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair; and Pickens, an army expedition led by Meigs and supported by Seward.

When the commander of U.S.S. Brooklyn received Lincoln’s order on the 31st, he refused to obey because the order had been signed by General-in-Chief Scott without clearance from the Navy Department. Meanwhile, General Bragg assembled 5,000 Confederates to invade Santa Rosa Island before Pickens could be reinforced.

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Sources

  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-33
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 31
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6109-20
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 18
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 50, 52
  • 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), p. 268-70
  • Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 276-77
  • White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q161
  • Wikipedia: Timeline of Events Leading to the American Civil War