April 2, 2011 2:23 PM Subscribe
How Slavery Really Ended in America On May 23, 1861, little more than a month into the Civil War, three young black men rowed across the James River in Virginia and claimed asylum in a Union-held citadel.... [T]the laws of the United States were clear: all fugitives must be returned to their masters. The founding fathers enshrined this in the Constitution; Congress reinforced it in 1850 with the Fugitive Slave Act; and it was still the law of the land — including, as far as the federal government was concerned, within the so-called Confederate states. The war had done nothing to change it. Most important, noninterference with slavery was the very cornerstone of the Union’s war policy. President Abraham Lincoln had begun his inaugural address by making this clear, pointedly and repeatedly. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists,” the president said. “I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”Yet to Fort Monroe’s new commander, the fugitives who turned up at his own front gate seemed like a novel case. The enemy had been deploying them to construct a battery aimed directly at his fort — and no doubt would put them straight back to work if recaptured, with time off only for a sound beating....Whatever Butler’s decision on the three fugitives’ fate, he would have to reach it quickly. He had barely picked up his pen to finally begin that report before an adjutant interrupted with another message: a rebel officer, under flag of truce, had approached the causeway of Fort Monroe. The Virginians wanted their slaves back.
posted by caddis (95 comments total)
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Waiting before the front gate was a man on horseback: Maj. John Baytop Cary of the 115th. With his silver gray whiskers and haughtily tilted chin, he appeared every inch the Southern cavalier.
Butler, also on horseback, went out to meet him. The men rode, side by side, off federal property and into rebel Virginia. They must have seemed an odd pair: the dumpy Yankee, unaccustomed to the saddle, slouching along like a sack of potatoes; the trim, upright Virginian, in perfect control of himself and his mount.
Cary got down to business. “I am informed,” he said, “that three Negroes belonging to Colonel Mallory have escaped within your lines. I am Colonel Mallory’s agent and have charge of his property. What do you mean to do with those Negroes?”
“I intend to hold them,” Butler said.
“Do you mean, then, to set aside your constitutional obligation to return them?”
Even the dour Butler must have found it hard to suppress a smile. This was, of course, a question he had expected. And he had prepared what he thought was a fairly clever answer.
“I mean to take Virginia at her word,” he said. “I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be.”
“But you say we cannot secede,” Cary retorted, “and so you cannot consistently detain the Negroes.”
“But you say you have seceded,” Butler said, “so you cannot consistently claim them. I shall hold these Negroes as contraband of war, since they are engaged in the construction of your battery and are claimed as your property.”
Ever the diligent litigator, Butler had been reading up on his military law. In time of war, he knew, a commander had a right to seize any enemy property that was being used for hostile purposes. The three fugitive slaves, before their escape, were helping build a Confederate gun emplacement. Very well, then — if the Southerners insisted on treating blacks as property, this Yankee lawyer would treat them as property, too. Legally speaking, he had as much justification to confiscate Baker, Mallory and Townsend as to intercept a shipment of muskets or swords.
This action was met with approval in an editorial soon after in the Harper's Weekly
. However, it would still be some time until the Emancipation Proclamation
. Neverthelss, General Butler's decision may well have helped steer Lincoln in that direction.
[It is with some hesitation that I post a NYT article so soon after they implement their paywall. Hopefully, it being the beginning of the month, most folks who are not paying have not exhausted their monthly limit. Some of this information can be found in this article
on the Contrabands and the article in the Times is excerpted from "1861: The Civil War Awakening
" by Adam Goodhear.]