The Washington Post

Frank Williams: How novel was Gen. Butler’s decision to treat escaped slaves as contraband and did he do it for humane or military reasons?

Chairman of The Lincoln Forum

Major General Benjamin F. Butler, in command at Fort Monroe at the tip of the Virginia peninsular and surrounded by Confederate territory, set a precedent when he classified as “contraband of war” slaves who escaped to Federal lines for safety within six weeks of the firing on Fort Sumter. To lawyer Butler, as with Abraham Lincoln a year later, the slaves were property and could be treated as contraband taken from the enemy in war time. But what should Butler do with them as the influx of these contrabands would tax him and the federal government.

These African-American slaves, in the absence of and before any emancipation, were in legal limbo and constituted logistical as well as humane challenges. Butler, known for his impetuosity, was not afraid to take the initiative so he put these escaped slaves to work building fortifications and picking cotton, receiving minimal wages of 25 cents a day plus rations.

Contrabands becoming free men became increasingly common after Congress passed the first Confiscation Act on August 6, 1861 even though the requirement that a federal court adjudicate the African-American’s status was rarely - if ever - followed. While not considered legally emancipated, they were effectively free as Butler refused to return them to their owners, telling one slaveholder, that he would return his slaves if the owner took a loyalty oath to the Union and the Constitution. None would do so.

Northern abolitionists considered contrabands synonymous with emancipation even before Lincoln’s final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. General Butler’s treatment of the contrabands, while mired in legal, political and cultural issues, was closely linked to the role of emancipation. When freedom did come to the slaves still in Confederate territory, the Union lines were flooded with the newly freed causing the U. S. government to implement new policies to provide them shelter, food, clothing and even some health care - all in part - because of Butler’s decisions at the beginning of the Civil War.


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