The July 30 edition of Civil War Emancipation featured an emotional letter from Gen. Benjamin Butler to Secretary of War Simon Cameron in which Butler essentially asked what was to become of the about 900 fugitive slaves within his lines. Butler’s letter was prompted, at least in part, by the withdrawal of nearly half the troops under his command to bolster the defenses of Washington, D.C., after the disastrous Union defeat at Bull Run/Manassas on July 21. The troop loss forced Butler to abandon nearby Hampton, which he had been developing as a fortified town for the slaves under his protection. Butler’s concern was quite justified, as Confederate Brig. Gen. J. Bankhead Magruder quickly moved into Hampton after Union forces left and torched it, reporting to his superiors that the town “was the harbor of runaway slaves and traitors, and being under the guns of Fort Monroe it could not be held by us even if taken.“
Simon Cameron did not reply to Butler’s July 30 letter until August 8. The exact cause of the delay in the response is not known, but likely was related to the imminent passage of the First Confiscation Act in Congress and the question of whether President Lincoln would sign it into law. Lincoln did so on August 6 and Cameron could now offer Gen. Butler the guidance he sought about contraband slaves at Fortress Monroe.
If Ben Butler had hoped for a reply that would solve his refugee problem, Cameron’s letter was a disappointment. It essentially was a restatement of the Lincoln administration’s position on this issue since Butler had started giving sanctuary to the slaves of rebel owners in late May. Cameron wrote, “It is the desire of the President that all existing rights in all the States be fully respected and maintained. The war now prosecuted on the part of the Federal Government is a war for the Union and for the preservation of all constitutional rights of States and the citizens of the States in the Union.” So, in other words, as far as the Lincoln administration was concerned in August 1861, the future of slavery was not an issue in the Civil War. It had merely accepted the confiscation of slaves used in support of the rebellion as a military necessity and wanted the property rights of loyal slaveholders be respected except to the extent it “needs be wholly or almost wholly suspended as to remedies by the insurrection and the military measures necessitated by it.” The Secretary of War directed Gen. Butler to keep a careful record of the work done by all fugitive slaves under his jurisdiction so that loyal slaveholders might be compensated in the future, as owners customarily would be for any hired slaves. As to the ultimate fate of the slaves of disloyal owners, Cameron issued the vague reassurance that “upon the return of peace Congress will doubtless properly provide for all the persons thus received into the service of the Union.“
Significantly though, Simon Cameron finished his letter by writing Ben Butler quite sternly, “You will . . . neither authorize nor permit any interference by the troops under your command with the servants of peaceful citizens in house or field, nor will you in any way encourage such servants to leave the lawful service of their masters, nor will you except in cases where the public safety may seem to require prevent the voluntary return of any fugitive to the service from which he may have escaped.” By not differentiating here between the slaves of loyal or disloyal owners, Cameron clearly indicated that he did not want the general or his troops to aggravate even rebel slaveholders by taking their slaves without good cause (such as their use by Confederate forces).
The problem of implementing this last directive would be what it had been since late May. Even if Benjamin Butler and his men rigorously followed the War Department’s guidance, it ignored the agency of the slaves and that the Union army hardly had to entice slaves into their lines–wanting to be free they came in droves on their own initiative. So even as the Lincoln administration tried to wish away the issue of the slaves’ future, the actions of countless individual slaves and their desire for freedom would not let them.