The Chicago Tribune Backs Ben Butler

News of the events at Fortress Monroe in late May 1861 quickly spread around the United States, leaving the press to react to what had occurred there. Press opinion would be critical to decide whether the Lincoln administration would back Benjamin Butler, particularly those papers aligned with the Republican Party. A key newspaper in that regard was the Chicago Tribune, from Abraham Lincoln’s home state of Illinois and a major backer of both Lincoln and the Republican Party. When confronted with the news of what had occurred, the Tribune supported General Butler solidly in May 28, 1861 issue, even forcefully. Its editorial on the subject, under the incongruous title “Army Slave Catching,” read:

As long as slaves continue to be employed by the rebels in their service, throwing up fortifications etc., as they were at Charleston and are to-day at Norfolk and Richmond, our commanders should take no trouble to return such of them as are arrested in their attempts to regain their liberty. They are, to use a Crimean word, the natties of the Confederate army; to them will be due most of the work that will be done; and every one that is returned is only adding to the available force of those who are striving to cut our throats. We do not touch the question of humanity; but look at the matter solely in light of expediency. Judging then by military rules alone, we regard all cases of rendition as so many evidences of folly of which our Gen. Butlers and Major Dimmicks must yet be cured. No officer of the Government would, we take it, feel that he was under obligation [illegible] the traitors if they should be caught within our lines. But one strong-armed slave is worth any half-dozen horses in the Southern service. Why, then, send him back? Again, this is not a war of compliments. Pretty soon the shooting of bullets must begin. The object to be attained is to compel the people of the seceding States to acknowledge obedience to the Constitution and the laws. For the present we are bound to do them all the injury in our power. For that our armies are levied. We shall burn their towns, sink their ships and boats, cut off their trade, shut them out of the markets of the world, kill as many of them as we can in battle, and if necessary desolate their fields. This is war. It is horrid work; but it is all implied in rebellion. Why, then, when we are pointing Minie muskets at their breasts should we be called upon to respect their claims to human property? Why are slaves, held in defiance of all law, human and divine, the only property that shall be restored to those who are destroying the value of all property?

The Chicago Tribune represented a significant segment of northern public opinion long fed up with the slave states and–now that the South had embarked on the course of rebellion–determined they should pay in full the price of treason. It also is interesting that the rhetoric in the Tribune editorial anticipated the hard war that would develop over time in the Civil War. The slaves were as yet objects to the Tribune, but at least it recognized their military worth. Acknowledging the difference slaves could make in the war was an important first step for northern public opinion along the long, hard road to emancipation.


About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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