Butler’s Growing Contraband Problem

Tuesday, July 30, 1861

Benjamin Butler had a problem. Being commander of Fortress Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula was no easy job. Though there had been no major fighting since the Battle of Big Bethel, Confederates in General John Bankhead Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula threatened his positions at Newport News, Hampton and along the James River, giving him much to contend with.

When Butler first took command in May, three escaped slaves had come to the fort seeking asylum. Butler granted that without question. As more and more came, he decided that since Virginia regarded slaves as property, they could be confiscated as “contraband of war.” Washington agreed with his policy, however, Secretary of War Simon Cameron noted, “the question of their final disposition will be reserved for further determination.”

By the end of July, 900 escaped slaves were encamped in and around Fortress Monroe, 300 of whom were adult, able-bodied men, who worked on fortifications in the employment of the US government. The rest were “175 women, 225 children under the age of 10 years, and 170 between 10 and 18 years.” There were many more coming in each day.

All had been going as fine as possible for a time. A large number of escaped slaves were encamped near Hampton. The men were engaged in throwing up entrenchments, “saving our soldiers from that labor, under the gleam of the mid-day sun,” while the women earned “substantially their own subsistence in washing, marketing, and taking care of the clothes of the soldiers.”

After the Union defeat at Bull Run, General-in-Chief Winfield Scott called as many regiments to Washington as he could. Butler had to give up four and a half regiments, which required him to abandon the town of Hampton. “All these black people were obliged to break up their homes at Hampton,” explained the general, “fleeing across the creek within my lines for protection and support.”

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.

Now that there were 900 escaped slaves crowded near Fortress Monroe, Butler felt that perhaps it was time to determine “the question of their final disposition.”

Butler wrote to Secretary Cameron, asking: “First – What shall be done with them? and, Second, What is their state and condition?”

Musing on the question filled Butler with more uncertainties. “Are these men, women, and children, slaves?” asked Butler. “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?”

When male slaves first escaped into his lines, their status was simple. When they were slaves, they were used by the Confederate army. Once captured, they were contraband of war. That wouldn’t, however, necessarily apply to the women and children. If they were property of the slaveowners who had fled, General Butler wondered, could they not be considered as abandoned property and now the property of the United States government?

“But we, their salvors,” reasoned Butler, “do not need and will not hold such property, and will assume no such ownership.” He believed that since all these things were more or less arguable, that these former slaves were simply no longer 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?”

Butler believed it to be so, resolving that even though they may not have been “free born,” they were, “yet free, manumitted, sent forth from the hand that held them never to be reclaimed.”

This is how Butler felt from the start. The added number of escaped slaves did not change that. However, General Irvin McDowell, who commanded the troops at Bull Run, had a different view of things. He forbade any fugitive slaves from coming through his lines. This left Butler wondering, “Is that order to be enforced in all Military Departments?”

This raised even more questions: “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?”

Though he would follow whatever orders were given to him, he was certain what he wanted to do. In a war, all property being used by the enemy is subject to confiscation. If, by the act of confiscating, “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.”

Basically, Butler wished to carry on as he was.1



  1. Letter from Benjamin Butler to Simon Cameron, July 30, 1861. As printed in the New York Times, August 6, 1861. []
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Butler’s Growing Contraband Problem by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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