General Benjamin F. Butler Reacts to Self-Emancipating People, 1861
Self-emancipation posed a dilemma for the Union military. Soldiers were forbidden to interfere with slavery or assist runaways, but many soldiers disobeyed the policy. In May 1861, General Benjamin F. Butler went over his superiors’ heads and began accepting fredom-seekers who came to Fortress Monroe in Virginia. In order to avoid the issue of their freedom, Butler reasoned that these people “contraband of war,” and he had as much a right to seize them as he did to seize enemy horses or cannons. Later that summer Congress affirmed Butler’s policy in the First Confiscation Act.
Since I wrote my last dispatch the question in regard to slave property is becoming one of very serious magnitude. The inhabitants of Virginia are using their negroes in the batteries, and are preparing to send the women and children South. The escapes from them are very numerous, and a squad has come in this morning to my pickets bringing their women and children. Of course these cannot be dealt with upon the Theory on which I designed to treat the services of able bodied men and women who might come within my lines and of which I gave you a detailed account in my last dispatch. I am in the utmost doubt what to do with this species of property. Up to this time I have had come within my lines men and women with their children–entire families–each family belonging to the same owner. I have therefore determined to employ, as I can do very profitably, the able-bodied persons in the party, issuing proper food for the support of all, and charging against their services the expense of care and sustenance of the non- laborers, keeping a strict and accurate account as well of the services as of the expenditure having the worth of the services and the cost of the expenditure determined by a board of Survey hereafter to be detailed. I know of no other manner in which to dispose of this subject and the questions connected therewith. As a matter of property to the insurgents it will be of very great moment, the number that I now have amounting as I am informed to what in good times would be of the value of sixty thousand dollars. Twelve of these negroes I am informed have escaped from the erection of the batteries on Sewall’s point which this morning fired upon my expedition as it passed by out of range. As a means of offence therefore in the enemy’s hands these negroes when able bodied are of the last importance. Without them the batteries could not have been erected at least for many weeks As a military question it would seem to be a measure of necessity to deprive their masters of their services How can this be done? As a political question and a question of humanity can I receive the services of a Father and a Mother and not take the children? Of the humanitarian aspect I have no doubt. Of the political one I have no right to judge. I therefore submit all this to your better judgement, and as these questions have a political aspect, I have ventured–and I trust I am not wrong in so doing–to duplicate the parts of my dispatch relating to this subject and forward them to the Secretary of War.
Benj. F. Butler
Benj. F. Butler to Lieutenant Genl. Scott, 27 May 1861, B-99 1861, Letters Received Irregular, Secretary of War, Record Group 107, National Archives.
Available through the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at University of Maryland