Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Mississippi State University
The well-known photograph of Benjamin F. Butler, Massachusetts attorney, politician, and army general, shows him practically bulging out of his Union uniform. “Spoons” was his nickname because he allegedly stole silverware from Confederate homes. “Beast” was another name he carried, this one because he treated New Orleans women as ladies of the evening for insulting Union officers and men. When he commanded troops during Ulysses S. Grant’s overland Virginia campaign in 1864, he was a military failure. When told to capture Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1865, he failed again.
Yet, early in the war, on May 23, 1861, the very day that Virginia seceded from the Union, Butler made one of the most fateful decisions of the Civil War. Three local slaves working on Confederate Army fortifications escaped into Fortress Monroe. They had no desire to go back. Yet, the Fugitive Slave Law was still in existence, and the United States government was still handling the South with kid gloves.
A Confederate officer appeared at the fort and fully expected Butler, its commander, to turn over the slaves as other Union officers had been doing since the war’s beginning a few weeks previously. He was shocked at Butler’s refusal. Knowing full well that the slaves were playing an important role in the Confederate war effort, Butler bluntly refused to turn them over, twitting his opposite that, since Virginia claimed to be part of a separate nation, it had no rights under the Fugitive Slave Law. The Confederate was outraged, even more so when Butler said that the slaves had been aiding the South’s war effort, so they were a “contraband of war.”
Butler did not dispute the legality of slavery, but he did say that the slaves had a different legal status during the war --- contraband. The slave population quickly took advantage of this reasoning, and they escaped into Union lines in droves, beginning slavery’s demise.
Butler might have been called “Spoons” and “Beast,” but “Contraband” was a more deserved name. He saw a military opportunity to attack slavery, and he took it --- just like Abraham Lincoln did thirteen months later.