In the history of slave emancipation in the United States, Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler is an unlikely, but real hero. Civil War Emancipation has already addressed how Butler by declaring slaves “contraband of war” in late May 1861 helped make Union-controlled territory a refuge for escaped slaves and in the process was the first Union official to undermine slavery in a major way. By asserting that slaves when they were the property of disloyal owner were subject to seizure, Butler provided a legal justification that did not immediately challenge slavery’s legality (politically essential in Spring 1861), but in the long run provided the basis to begin practically speaking to dismantle the peculiar institution.
However, as late as April 1861, Ben Butler would have seemed an improbable convert to the anti-slavery cause. A political general from Massachusetts, Butler was a Democrat before the war, going as far as to champion Jefferson Davis as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1860 and supporting John C. Breckenridge, the southern Democratic nominee, after the party split on sectional lines that year. He owed his commission to his support for the war in the wake of Fort Sumter (Lincoln needed “War Democrats” like Butler) and the fact he was a long-time officer in the Massachusetts militia before the Civil War.
After the Baltimore riot of April 19, 1861, where a pro-Confederate mob clashed with Union troops transiting the city between railroad stations (resulting in the deaths of four soldiers and twelve civilians), Massachusetts Governor John Andrew gave Benjamin Butler the difficult task of re-establishing communications with Washington, D.C. Butler quickly embarked by steamer with the 8th Massachusetts Infantry landing at Annapolis, Maryland’s state capital, on April 20.
Ever the canny politician, Gen. Butler realized that his task was political as well as military. His ability to restore reliable communications would rely on his ability to avoid violent clashes with Maryland’s white population, many of whom sympathized with the Confederacy even if the state as a whole was reluctant to join them in secession. So while he left Maryland authorities with no doubt of the military muscle at his disposal and his willingness to use it if necessary (especially in response to overt resistance), Benjamin Butler also tried to conciliate the state’s white population where he could.
Butler quickly realized that best way to show his good will to Marylanders was by placating the state’s slaveholders. In the days following Lincoln’s call for troops rumors of an impending slave uprising swept through the state. Maryland slave owners were just as fearful of their slaves as their counterparts across the Potomac River in Virginia. They worried the arrival of northern troops would embolden their human property to rise up in a bloody race war. So a practical political step to forestall violent resistance to the Union regiments transiting through the state was to prove they were there to defend the property rights of Maryland slaveholders and not turn their slaves against them.
Hence, Benjamin Butler’s letter of April 23, 1861 to Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks. The letter read simply:
I have understood within the last hour that some apprehensions were entertained of an insurrection of the negro population of this neighborhood. I am anxious to convince all classes of persons that the forces under my command are not here in any way to interfere with or countenance any interference with the laws of the State. I am therefore ready to co-operate with your excellency in suppressing most promptly and effectively any insurrection against the laws of Maryland.
So in late April 1861, Gen. Benjamin Butler still was a defender of slavery, a position consistent with his antebellum stance as a “dough face”–a pro-South northern Democrat. It would take Butler’s realization of the military value of the slaves to begin to change his mind. A shift that would start as a hard-nosed tactic aimed at rebellious slaveholders but by the end of the Civil War transform Benjamin Franklin Butler into a sincere champion of the black troops he would come to command and an aggressive Radical Republican during Reconstruction. But in April 1861, there was as yet no hint of the man Butler would become–but there soon would be.