Benjamin Butler and the Fate of Contraband Slaves
Benjamin Butler was the first person to declare escaped and captured slaves coming into Union lines contraband. This meant slaves, that were being used for the southern war
effort, were just as liable to seizure as horses, guns, food supplies or any other tool used by the Confederacy.
Benjamin Butler was the first person to declare escaped and captured slaves coming into Union lines contraband. This meant slaves, that were being used for the southern war effort, were just as liable to seizure as horses, guns, food supplies or any other tool used by the Confederacy.
When the Fort Monroe Decision occurred on May 24th, 1861, word spread quickly that slaves could be set free at the military outpost. Slaves came from all over Virginia to escape their southern masters, pleading for their freedom. Before he knew it, hundreds of slaves arrived at the fort. He wrote a letter dated May 27th, 1861 to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, in which he said, “I am in the utmost doubt what to do with this species of property. Up to this time I have had come within my lines men and women with their children–entire families–each family belonging to the same owner. I have therefore determined to employ, as I can do very profitably, the able-bodied persons in the party, issuing proper food for the support of all, and charging against their services the expense of care and sustenance of the non- laborers, keeping a strict and accurate account as well of the services as of the expenditure having the worth of the services and the cost of the expenditure determined by a board of Survey hereafter to be detailed.” (A transcription of the full dispatch may be found HERE.)
Butler states clearly that he intends to take care of these people but also to employ him for
a greater military strategy. He shows himself to be very humane in this letter to his superior officer.
About a month later, Butler’s own ideas on the subject shine through in a letter dated July 30th, 1861. He wrote to Secretary of War Simon Cameron asking just what the true status of these slaves were: “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 the rebellion and a state of war upon that status?” He continues, “Their former possessors and owners have causelessly, traitorously, rebelliously, and, to carry out the figure practically abandoned them to be swallowed up by the Winter storm of starvation. If property, do they not become the property of the salvors? But we, their salvors, do not need and will not hold such property, and will assume no such ownership. Has not, therefore, all proprietary relation ceased? Have they not become thereupon men, women and children?” (The full transcription of this letter is HERE.)
Butler’s questions would be answered later by the Confiscation Acts and, of course, by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
By: Will Sullivan