May 23, 1861 is a very important day in the history of emancipation during the American Civil War. In retrospect, it was the date that slavery began to crumble. Civil War Emancipation has already dealt with this day in its April 2 edition discussing Adam Goodheart’s article in the New York Times Magazine. Goodheart related the now famous story of how on May 23, 1861, three Virginia slaves fled Confederate lines, where they were being used as forced labor to build fortifications, and sought refuge with Union troops at Fortress Monroe. General Benjamin Butler, in command of the fort, who just the month before had offered his Massachusetts troops to the Governor of Maryland to suppress a feared slave uprising, now faced the choice of what to do with the three men.
To get some sense of how momentous would be his choice not to return the slaves it is first important to remember, as Civil War Emancipation related on March 10, that when faced with the same decision in March, soon after Lincoln’s inaugural, federal troops at both Fort Sumter in South Carolina and Fort Pickens in Florida did not hesitate promptly to turn over slaves seeking sanctuary to local authorities to be returned to their owners. The second important thing to recall is how passionate in many quarters of the North in Spring 1861 was the assertion that the nascent conflict was not about slavery. Indeed, on May 22, 1861, the day before the three fugitive slaves appeared at Fortress Monroe, the following appeared in the New Hampshire Patriot & State Gazette. It read:
“Probably nine tenths of the volunteers who fill the regiments which New York has contributed, and will continue to contribute, at the call of a republican Administration, to preserve the integrity of the United States, are Democrats. They have no sympathy with anti-slavery, and scout the idea of an “irrepressible conflict” between the system of free labor and that of slave labor. They deprecate the causes of irritation, which have goaded the seceding States into their present unlawful, traitorous and unnecessary attitude, and they are resolved that, rebellion once ended, anti-slavery agitation shall also disappear. The same sentiment inspires our moneyed men, merchants, manufacturers, and others, whose thousands and tens of thousands of dollars have been so readily contributed to equip troops, war vessels, and carry on the war.”
Later the same paper carried an extract from the New York Times, under the heading “What We Fight For.” It read:
The struggle is not, on the part of the North, for the overthrow of slavery. It is not a war for emancipation. It is not an attack upon the institutions of the South. With slavery in the States the North has nothing to do–claims no right to interfere, and will not voluntarily interfere with it there. But the North, the East, and the West will defend the Constitution–will uphold the Union. The millions of the Free States have resolved that this Republic shall not be overthrown.
If the whole republican press and the leading men of that party would preach this doctrine, honestly, we should soon see a “united North” upon the subject of the war. But as long as such influential men as Gov. Andrew and such papers as his organ the Boston Atlas, contend that “the meaning of this fight is the doom of slavery,” and insist that slave insurrections shall be promoted and excited by our troops, so long will tens of thousands of honest men and true patriots not only keep aloof from all participation in the deplorable strife, but raise their earnest protest against it. Every good citizen, and especially every Democrat, is ready to fight for the preservation of the Government and the integrity of the Constitution and the Union, but not for the atrocious objects aimed at by these miserable demagogues whose course and counsels have brought upon the country its present and prospective calamities.
While the New Hampshire Patriot & State Gazette was obviously a newspaper aligned with the Democratic Party, many Republicans in Spring 1861 would have felt the same way. By ignoring slavery as the cause of the war, they willed the subject to go away. However, the slaves would not let them. When Benjamin Butler decided for reasons of military advantage not to return the three slaves to their rebel owners, he provided slaves who had a realistic chance of reaching Fortress Monroe with the hope that by fleeing there they would escape slavery. No longer would fleeing to Union lines be a rash act but a rational if risky action for people desperate to be free. Butler may not have meant to start the practical process of emancipation by declaring the slaves of rebel owners to be “contraband of war” but by doing so he gave the slaves a powerful incentive to do what was now in their power to bring down slavery–and en masse they began to act.