With all the controversy in September 1861 over Gen. John C. Frémont’s martial law proclamation in Missouri, it was easy to miss the quiet revolution that ultimately would make it meaningless. While leading white Northerners argued with each other whether Frémont was right to free the slaves of disloyal Missourians, they ignored that the slaves had an opinion on the future of slavery in the United States–that it must end so they could be free–and were beginning to act on that opinion–by fleeing their owners and seeking sanctuary with Union forces.
As has been seen, the first to flee were impetuous slaves convinced that since their owners and other white Southerners regarded the Lincoln administration as a mortal threat to slavery’s future that Abraham Lincoln meant to give them their freedom. So a small number fled to Fort Sumter in South Carolina or Fort Pickens in Florida in March 1861 and were rebuffed. The Fugitive Slave Act was still the law and the Lincoln respected the law. Then the war broke out and overnight things changed. Union leaders quickly realized slaves had military value and that their owners’ rebellion justified seizing them. So when three slaves sought sanctuary at Virginia’s Fortress Monroe in May 1861, they found its commander, Gen. Benjamin Butler, willing to grant it. Other slaves soon followed and by end of July, Butler found himself writing his superiors in Washington, D.C., seeking guidance for what to with the nearly 1,000 escaped slaves under his protection.
And the slaves kept coming seeking freedom. A Richmond paper reported on September 9, “The contraband slaves at Old Point now number 1,800 souls, including women and children.” So it is not surprising that on September 18, Gen. John E. Wool, wrote from Fortress Monroe asking Secretary of War Simon Cameron essentially the same question as Ben Butler had in late July. His letter read:
SIR: … I would be much gratified if you would tell me what I am to do with the negro slaves that are almost daily arriving at this post from the interior. Am I to find food and shelter for the women and children who can do nothing for themselves? Thus far we have been able to employ in various ways most of the adults. It appears to me some positive instructions should be given in regard to what shall be done for the number that will be accumulated in and about this post during the approaching winter. I hope you will give me instructions on this very important subject. Humanity requires that they should be taken care of.
The phenomenon was beginning to spread. Slaves near the Virginia coast sought refuge on vessels of the Atlantic Blocking Squadron on repeated occasions over the summer of 1861 (getting it), and Maryland slaves escaped into Union army camps causing trouble for President Lincoln with loyal slaveholders in the border states. The trend of slaves escaping to Union lines would mushroom over Fall 1861 as Union forces began establishing coastal enclaves as bases in Confederate territory to facilitate its naval blockade of southern ports.
So scholars like Gary Gallagher have a point when they assert Union military force was essential to emancipation in the Civil War. But it is also the case that the Union army and navy likely would never have become a force for freedom if the slaves had not pressed the issue to begin with. Ben Butler is a good example. In April 1861, he was promising Maryland slaveholders he would use his Massachusetts troops to suppress a feared slave uprising. A month later, he refused to return slaves to their Confederate owners in Virginia. Butler would not have been placed into a position to make such a decision if not for the initiative of the slaves fleeing into his lines. So the slaves played an active role in their own liberation, and that role would only grow as the war progressed. Certainly, they did not free themselves on their own, but neither were they passive bystanders being granted freedom by others. By voting with their feet they made themselves an issue and ultimately made it impossible for Union leaders to ignore their desire for freedom–that was the reality of what some scholars today like to call “self-emancipation.”