On May 26, 1861, General George McClellan, then commander of the Department of the Ohio, ordered federal forces into western Virginia to secure the Unionist region, as the rest of the state had now seceded. The step was urgently necessary because reports had reached him that pro-secession forces were burning bridges of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, threatening communications between the Midwest and Eastern cities such as Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
To his field commanders that day, he issued the following telling instruction. It read, “I count on your prudence and courage. Preserve the strictest discipline. See that the rights and property of the people are respected and repress all attempts at negro insurrection.” Clearly, this order was meant to reassure white West Virginians that McClellan’s troops came not to undermine slavery, but in defense of the property rights of slaveholders. It was also consistent with George McClellan’s belief that slavery was a constitutionally protected institution, which obligated him and his troops to respect its integrity. Still, as the war progressed, George McClellan, a Democrat, would continue to hold that position, even as the Lincoln Administration embraced emancipation in the second half of 1862. It would be an important difference between the parties when McClellan challenged Lincoln as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1864.
To be fair to McClellan, his position on slavery in late May 1861 was essentially the same as that of Abraham Lincoln. Like Lincoln, he was concerned with holding the allegiance of the border states, and reassuring slaveholders there that slavery was more secure in the Union than in the Confederacy was integral to this task. Benjamin Butler had made similar assurances to Marylanders the previous month when his Massachusetts troops entered the state en route to Washington, D.C. However, by this time, Butler, like McClellan a Democrat, was beginning to see the military value of the slaves and experiencing the first intimations that protecting slaveholders, especially rebel slaveholders, was not the best way to save the Union. McClellan would never come around to that position but soon the North would be electrified by Ben Butler’s term, “contraband of war.”