Yesterday morning three negroes came to the picket-guard and gave themselves up. Upon a separate examination of these men it satisfactorily appeared that they were field hands, owned by one Colonel Mallory, a resident of this neighborhood, heretofore a lawyer, and now engaged in the defence [defense] of the soil of Virginia – that’s what they call it – as the commandant of the active militia of this immediate district; that Mallory proposed to take them to Carolina, to be employed in military operations there; that one of them had a wife – a free woman – and several children in the neighborhood; and that they all objected to having anything to do with the fighting. Under these circumstances, General Butler concluded that the property was contraband of war, seized upon it, and turned it over to the Quartermaster’s Department, where labor is much wanted. He proposed to receipt to Colonel Mallory for the men, if desired, as he would for the same number of beeves [beef-cattle] coming into this inclosure under like circumstances…
…But not withstanding his great need of just such labor as had thus providentially fallen into his hands, if Col. Mallory would come into the fortress and take the oath of allegiance to the Government, his negroes should be returned, or hired of him, as he chose. The General further suggested, that in Maryland, a loyal State, fugitives from service had been returned… So closed the first meeting for the discussion of the Slavery question in this camp.
The New York Times Report on General Butler and Runaway Slaves, June 2, 1861.
Abolition In 1861
Yes, some Union soldiers believed in the cause of abolition. Yes, some Southerners were fighting to keep their slaves. However, looking at the average soldiers’ writings from 1861, they were saying “union” and “states rights” were their primary reasons for fighting.
There were abolitionists advocating that the war could be used to free the millions of slaves in the Southern states. For example, Frederick Douglas was writing in his newspaper and to the president, suggesting that the conflict could have redeeming qualities for the oppressed people.
The cause of abolition directly and nationally connected to the Civil War would not happen until 1862, but the ground work was being laid. Pressure on politicians and northern soldiers seeing slavery for the first time were strong influences on the American mind. Additionally – as mentioned in the newspaper excerpt – slaves were running to the Union forces, seeking freedom. Unfortunately, no one seemed to know what to do with the freedmen, but their presence was instrumental to bring the moral and ethical questions of slavery to the forefront of war opinions.
General Butler’s Precedent
General Benjamin Butler was a controversial commander during the Civil War. He would eventually acquire the Southern sobriquet “Beast Butler” for his “mistreatment” of Southern civilians in New Orleans. (The justifications and incriminations of his actions remain in the debate column.)
However, in 1861, General Butler set a precedent that would carry through the entire war. He decided to refer to escaped slaves or slaves liberated by a Union army as “contraband.” With little direction from the Federal government concerning the freedom or fate of these people in 1861, he chose to let them stay free (provided their masters didn’t take a loyalty oath) and allowed them to do menial work for the Union armies.
While it would be inaccurate to view this stance with rose-colored glasses and suppose it was a wonderful experience of freedom, it is important to note that General Butler’s decision and term “contraband” guaranteed that no escaped slave would be returned to a master who was fighting for the Confederacy.
General Butler’s decision did not automatically endorse emancipation. And sadly it would not support freedom if a master changed allegiance back to the United States. Also, as implied in the newspaper report, it did not ensure equality; rather it viewed the escaped slaves as labor which could’ve supported the Confederacy. Thus, it was in the interest of the Union cause not to send the slaves back.
Having acknowledged these harsh realities, it is also important to note that the escaped slaves were free as long as Southern-Union supporter claimed (and very few would). The military would not send an escaped slave back to Southern slavery and would actually extend a level of protection to the new freedman. This was an important step, contrasted to the stance of the Federal Government and military prior to the war, when slave catchers were allowed to pursue an escaped slave anywhere in the north.
The “contraband decision” was not perfect and it didn’t guaranteed freedom, but it was important step toward the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment.
P.S. Note the phrase “the first discussion of slavery in this camp.” The “contraband incident” was bringing slavery to the discussion table in a military camp. How do you think the Union soldiers’ views on slavery were positively or negatively affected by encounters with escaped slaves/contraband of war?
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