When General Benjamin Butler decided to give sanctuary to three fugitive slaves in late May 1861, in essence he removed the finger from the proverbial dike. Federal policy had since the origin of the republic treated slaves as property and by not returning three Virginia slaves to their owners, Butler certainly was not trying to change that paradigm. He simply sought to deny a valuable military asset (slave labor) to an enemy.
But although classed essentially as livestock, slaves were people–people who desperately wanted to be free. When news soon reached the slaves communities around Fortress Monroe that the Yankees had refused to return three runaways, within days hundreds of slaves decided to follow their example by seeking sanctuary at the fort. These included not only military-valuable laborers, but also their dependents.
This pattern would be repeated over and over across the American South in the months and years that followed, but in May 1861 was disturbingly unprecedented. As with the three original slaves, Benjamin Butler was forced to deal with the problem extemporaneously and hope his superiors in Washington backed his decision. On May 27, 1861, Butler wrote Winfield Scott:
Since I wrote my last despatch the question in regard to slave property is becoming one of very serious magnitude. The inhabitants of Virginia are using their negroes in the batteries, and are preparing to send the women and children South. The escapes from them are very numerous, and a squad has come in this morning to my pickets bringing their women and children. Of course these cannot be dealt with upon the Theory on which I designed to treat the services of able bodied men and women who might come within my lines and of which I gave you a detailed account in my last dispatch. I am in the utmost doubt what to do with this species of property. Up to this time I have had come within my lines men and women and their children—entire families—each family belonging to the same owner. I have therefore determined to employ, as I can do very profitably, the able-bodied persons in the party, issuing proper food for the support of all, and charging against their services the expense of care and sustenance of the non-laborers, keeping a strict and accurate account as well of the services as of the expenditure having the worth of the services and the cost of the expenditure determined by a board of Survey hereafter to be detailed. I know of no other manner in which to dispose of this subject and the questions connected therewith. As a matter of property to the insurgents it will be of very great moment, the number that I now have amounting as I am informed to what in good times would be of the value of sixty thousand dollars. Twelve of these negroes I am informed have escaped from the erection of the batteries on Sewall’s point which this morning fired upon my expedition as it passed by out of range. As a means of offence therefore in the enemy’s hands these negroes when able bodied are of the last importance. Without them the batteries could not have been erected at least for many weeks As a military question it would seem to be a measure of necessity to deprive their masters of their services How can this be done? As a political question and a question of humanity can I receive the services of a Father and a Mother and not take the children? Of the humanitarian aspect I have no doubt. Of the political one I have no right to judge. I therefore submit all this to your better judgement, and as these questions have a political aspect, I have ventured—and I trust I am not wrong in so doing—to duplicate the parts of my despatches relating to this subject and forward them to the Secretary of War.
It is fascinating in reading Benjamin Butler’s letters to see him beginning to grapple with slaves as people. In Maryland, the month before, dealing with slaves in the abstract, he could easily pledge to put down a feared slave insurrection by force. But now, in Virginia, forced to see the slaves up close as they flocked by the hundreds to his fort, he was forced to confront their humanity and begin to treat them not just as property but as people. Once federal policy was forced to confront slaves on a humanitarian basis, as people rather than simply as livestock, slavery’s days were numbered.
Source: http://www.learner.org/workshops/primarysources/emancipation/docs/bbutler.html and Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler During the Period of the Civil War, Vol 1. (Norwood, Mass.: The Plimpton Press, 1917), 112-13.