This weekend’s New York Times Magazine contains an article by Adam Goodheart, titled “How Slavery Really Ended in America,” adapted from his book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening. It tells the story of how in late May 1861, slaves began fleeing to the Union outpost of Fortress Monroe, Virginia, and how they were given sanctuary by the post’s commander, Major General Benjamin Butler.
Newly arrived at Fortress Monroe, on May 23, 1861, Butler was confronted by the arrival of three fugitive slaves from the Confederate defensive works project across Hampton Roads. Faced with the looming prospect of being shipped to North Carolina to work on fortifications, Goodheart writes “the three slaves decided to leave the Confederacy and try their luck, just across the water, with the Union.”
As Civil War Emancipation has chronicled, they were not the first slaves to seek sanctuary in a Union military post. Soon after Lincoln’s inauguration in early March, slaves in separate incidents had presented themselves at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Florida. Consistent with the Fugitive Slave Act the slaves in both instances had been rebuffed and turned over to local authorities. The post commanders at Sumter and Pickens took this action on their own initiative and it was accepted by the Lincoln administration, still hopeful at that point for reconciliation with the slave states.
However, by the end of May the situation was very different. Confederate forces had attacked Fort Sumter on April 12 and forced its surrender. In response, Lincoln called for volunteers to restore federal authority in the South. Lincoln’s actions led four of the remaining eight slaves in the Union to secede, including Virginia. On the same day the three slaves appeared at Fortress Monroe, May 23, the Commonwealth’s voters had ratified secession.
In this atmosphere of uncertainty, Benjamin Butler had to decide what action to take. His hand was forced by the arrival of a Confederate officer at Fortress Monroe under flag of truce demanding the slaves return. Adam Goodheart relates the encounter between Butler and the Virginian, Major John Baytop Cary.
Cary got down to business. “I am informed,” he said, “that three Negroes belonging to Colonel Mallory have escaped within your lines. I am Colonel Mallory’s agent and have charge of his property. What do you mean to do with those Negroes?”
“But you say you have seceded,” Butler said, “so you cannot consistently claim them. I shall hold these Negroes as contraband of war, since they are engaged in the construction of your battery and are claimed as your property.”
If anyone was qualified to devise, on short notice, a solid justification to hold slaves who had escaped Confederate custody, it was Benjamin Butler. A crafty litigator and politician from Massachusetts, Butler was a recently commissioned Major General who owed his appointment to Lincoln’s desire to solidify the support of Democrats like him that favored military action against the South. Butler would prove a dismal battlefield commander, but in this incident showed him to be a gifted administrator.
By declaring the three slaves “contraband of war,” Benjamin Butler did not challenge their status as property and by extension call into question of slavery’s legality. At this stage of the conflict, most political leaders in the North were eager to depict the developing conflict merely as a rebellion against legitimate government authority which had nothing to do with slavery. However, officers on the ground like Butler quickly realized the slaves were a significant military asset to the Confederacy, acting not only as laborers, teamsters, and in other support roles for the army, but also by keeping southern agriculture functioning allowing a much larger portion of the white male population to be available for military service than might otherwise have been the case. Hence, as property being used in support of a rebellion against the government, Butler’s “contraband of war” formulation legally justified the seizure of the slaves without immediately undermining their status as property. The Lincoln administration quickly acquiesced to Butler’s policy and Congress gave it the force of law in early August through the Confiscation Act of 1861.
What neither Butler nor leaders in Washington, D.C., reckoned on was the slaves’ response to his contraband policy. Soon other slaves began seeking sanctuary with Union forces, over 500 at Fortress Monroe alone by June 1861. The northern press soon dubbed these escaped slaves as “contraband,” a name initially resisted by some black leaders and abolitionists, but which even they eventually accepted.
But if the episode at Fortress Monroe demonstrated anything it was the fierce determination of the slaves to be free. A few slaves seeking sanctuary quickly became hundreds and then even more. As Adam Goodheart writes:
Within weeks after the first contrabands’ arrival at Fort Monroe, slaves were reported flocking to the Union lines just about anywhere there were Union lines: in Northern Virginia, on the Mississippi, in Florida. It is unclear how many of these escapees knew of Butler’s decision, but probably quite a few did. Edward Pierce, a Union soldier who worked closely with the contrabands, marveled at “the mysterious spiritual telegraph which runs through the slave population,” though he most likely exaggerated just a bit when he continued, “Proclaim an edict of emancipation in the hearing of a single slave on the Potomac, and in a few days it will be known by his brethren on the gulf.”
Within little more than a year, the stream of a few hundred contrabands at Fort Monroe became a river of tens — probably even hundreds — of thousands. They “flocked in vast numbers — an army in themselves — to the camps of the Yankees,” a Union chaplain wrote. “The arrival among us of these hordes was like the oncoming of cities.”
So the arrival of Union forces in a locality in the South, or even the prospect of their arrival, quickly began to undermine the institution of slavery, as slaves now had a place to escape from slavery with little fear of recapture. Yet without the initiative of the slaves this situation likely would have never arisen. Certainly, the slaves could not gain freedom on their own, but they determinedly pried at the tiniest fissure in the slave system made by the arrival of northern troops and the peculiar institution began to crumble under the weight of countless individual slaves fleeing it.
As Adam Goodheart relates, Lincoln administration policy about the contrabands quickly began to lag behind the reality on the ground. So much so, that the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which was announced in September 1862, in many ways was merely playing catch up. Goodheart ends his story with an anecdote that captures that situation well. He writes:
On the September day of Lincoln’s edict, a Union colonel ran into William Seward, the president’s canny secretary of state, on the street in Washington and took the opportunity to congratulate him on the administration’s epochal act.