Actors in Emancipation: Lincoln, the Union Army, and the Slaves

It is too bad for General Benjamin Butler that neither email nor social networks existed in May 1861. Although the telegraph brought instantaneous communications to the United States and revolutionized the conduct of the Civil War (explaining why Lincoln often hung around the War Department telegraph office), it was not suited by cost or logistics for the informal but important written communications that commonly today occur over the internet. Such letters were then still written by hand and went by post or courier, which took time.

Hence, it is not entirely certain when Ben Butler received a personal letter written to him on May 29, 1861, by the Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. But Butler must have been relieved when he read it. For the letter informed Benjamin Butler that Lincoln’s cabinet was moving toward backing his contraband of war policy. Blair’s letter read:

Dear General: Your brother brought me your note. But I suppose by this time you will hardly think my opinion necessary to convince you that you were right when you declared secession niggers contraband of war. The Secessionists have used them to do all their fortifying, and I suppose nobody can doubt that this sort of work at which the Secessionists have applied themselves with immense energy is the essence of their military operations.

The question is to come up in the Cabinet to-morrow, and whilst your brother says that old Scott said he intended ordering you to change your actions, the President told me this morning that he had not seen old Lundy as merry since he had known him, as he was this morning at your decision on the fugitive slave question. He called it Butler’s fugitive slave law. The President seemed to think it a very important subject, however, and one requiring some thought in view of the numbers of negroes we were likely to have on hand in virtue of this new doctrine.

I am inclined to think you might improve the code by restricting its operations to working people, leaving the Secessionists to take care of the non-working classes of these people. The idea which seemed to be put forward by the negroes to you that their masters were going to sell them South is not true, if I am correctly informed. I hear that no price can be got now for them from the far south. A Maryland friend had a runaway whom he tells me he sent to Richmond for sale, and had to bring him back because he could get nothing for him, You can therefore take your pick of the lot and let the rest go, so as not to be required to feed unproductive laborers, or indeed any that you do not require or cannot conveniently manage. With this modification of your system I think it works well, and I have no doubt, too, that you can get your best spies from among them, because they are accustomed to travel in the night time, and can go where no one not accustomed to the sly tricks they practise from infancy to old age could penetrate. My opinion in the Cabinet will be to allow you to use your discretion in this matter, having reference entirely to your condition and the business you are sent upon, which is war not emancipation. I think that Congress should amend the law of treason so as to admit, in the less aggrivated cases, of punishment by fines so as practically to work confiscation. I would like you to read Frank’s speech, which I send you, if you have leisure, as to the solution of the slave question. It is but a renewal of Mr. Jefferson’s idea. I think that we can apply the thought practically now at an early day, and you would find that the non-slaveholders will be best propitiated by that thought. The removal of the negroes from among them will make them all emancipationists. It is the idea of negro equality alone that embitters them against the North. I write hastily and I fear illegibly, but I would like to get your active mind on the Jefferson track, and I am sure you will find opportunities to make it tell.

While Butler would have been elated by Montgomery Blair’s letter, the slaves at Fortress Monroe would have had a more mixed reaction (had they been made aware of its contents). Certainly, they would have been overjoyed that Lincoln’s cabinet likely was going to back what Blair referred to tongue in cheek as “Butler’s fugitive slave law.” However, they would have not liked the Postmaster General’s suggestion to the General that he send dependent contrabands back to their owners to burden the rebels with non-productive slaves. Why else flee with their families in the first place? Nor would they have liked Blair’s allusion to a 1858 speech made by his brother, Francis, where the then congressman had proposed a scheme of emancipation in which freed slaves would be shipped out of the United States to Central America. Yet the contrabands at Fortress Monroe did not know those details. For them it was enough that they were not being returned to their owners and that their desperate journey to the fort had paid off. They likely did not know or care that their actions had initiated a process by which “Butler’s fugitive slave law” would become the law of the land, but they had.

So the Lincoln administration had played a role in the coming of “Butler’s fugitive slave law” by calling for volunteers to suppress rebellion, realizing the military value of slaves, and then approving Ben Butler’s actions in regard to fugitive slaves. The Union army played its role by moving into the Confederate South and becoming a magnet to hopeful slaves wanting to be free, and by having officers like Butler with the will and the legal training to justify seizing slaves of disloyal owners as a war measure. The slaves played a role by acting on their hopes of being free and thereby forcing the hand of the Lincoln administration and the Union army. Emancipation had many actors and the events at Fortress Monroe in late May 1861 illustrate the roles they played with great clarity and power.

Source: Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler During the Period of the Civil War, Vol 1. (Norwood, Mass.: The Plimpton Press, 1917), 116-17.

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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