Associate professor of history at Georgetown University

Armies are not and do not behave as humanitarian organizations, but they can be momentous forces for change. When a slave-holding Confederate officer approached General Benjamin Butler for return of slave “property” under terms of the Fugitive Slave Law, Butler did not resolve the question of escaped slaves’ status, but rather realized that no simple resolution of that question was possible for a U.S. Army officer in 1861, who had taken an oath promising defend the U.S. and uphold its “rules and articles,” which in 1861 included a Fugitive Slave Law and a Constitution that recognized slaveholders’ rights to slave property.

There was no question that Butler had to be perceived as proceeding from military necessity, a truism that held throughout the conflict, sometimes aiding and sometimes impeding emancipation. Recall the military situation on May 23, 1861: North Carolina had left the Union just three days earlier. Retaining the slave states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, (Delaware less so) loomed large among Union war objectives in 1861 because doing so was necessary to winning the war. For Union forces to appear to disturb slavery as white citizens of the Border States contemplated secession could tip the balance. Whatever Butler’s innermost reasons (unknowable, given Butler’s distinctive opportunism, but unlikely to have been humanitarian), no U.S. Army officer acting as an officer could interfere with slavery for “humane” reasons in 1861. Instead, Butler used the very ambiguity that would frustrate abolitionists throughout the war to deprive a Confederate officer of useful laborers and in so doing used the power of the U.S. government against rather than in support of slavery. In 1861, that was novel.

Two groups of people bypassed debate over motives to focus on the opening thereby created. The first were African American fugitive slaves who flocked to Fort Monroe and named it Freedom’s Fort, along with additional thousands who ran to Union lines throughout the occupied South. The fates those refugees met varied widely, but whatever they were, they were not ownership by another human being and slaves recognized the difference. The second group consisted of enlisted Union soldiers, many of whom, regardless of their attitudes toward slavery before the war, were changed by their experiences of war and their interactions with slave refugees so dramatically that they concluded that the only way to save the Union was to destroy the problem that caused secession in the first place; if Butler’s plan of treating escaped slaves as “contraband” helped, motives mattered little to them.