The Civil War Connections Blog

Contrabands of War

Escaped slaves were referred to as contrabands of the war. Many escaped slaves in Hampton Roads made their way to Fort Monroe. Here, General Benjamin Butler struggled with the deciding what to do with these slaves. The Fugitive Slave Law required that they be returned to their owners. Naturally, this would not be the case as they were now in the early stages of war. Below is an excerpt from a letter written by Butler requesting further guidance on this issue.

 

From General Butler
Headquarters, Department of Virginia, Fortress Monroe, July 30th, 1861
Hon. Simon Cameron, Secretary of War

 …In the village of Hampton there were a large number of negroes, composed in a great measure of women and children of the men who had fled thither within my lines for protection, who had escaped from marauding parties of rebels, who had been gathering up able-bodied blacks to aid them in constructing their batteries on the James and York Rivers. I had employed the men in Hampton in throwing up intrenchments, and they were working zealously and efficiently at that duty, saving our soldiers from that labor under the gleam of the mid-day sun. The women were earning substantially their own subsistence in washing, marketing, and taking care of the clothes of the soldiers, and rations were being served out to the men who worked for the support of the children. But by the evacuation of Hampton, rendered necessary by the withdrawal of troops, leaving me scarcely five thousand men outside the fort including the force at Newport News, all these black people were obliged to break up their homes at Hampton, fleeing across the creek within my lines for protection and support. Indeed, it was a most distressing sight to see these poor creatures, who had trusted to the protection of the arms of the United States, and who aided the troops of the United States in their enterprise, to be thus obliged to flee from their homes, and the homes of their masters who had deserted them, and become fugitives from fear of the return of the rebel soldiery, who had threatened to shoot the men who had wrought for us, and to carry off the women who had served us to a worse than Egyptian bondage. I have, therefore, now within the peninsula, this side of Hampton Creek, nine hundred negroes, three hundred of whom are able-bodied men, thirty of whom are men substantially past hard labor, one hundred and seventy-five women, two hundred and twenty-five children under the age of ten years, and one hundred and seventy between ten and eighteen years, and many more coming in. The questions which this state of facts present are very embarrassing.

    First. What shall be done with them? and, Second. What is their state and condition? Upon these questions I desire the instructions of the department.

    The first question, however, may perhaps be answered by considering the last. Are these men, women, and children slaves? Are they free? Is their condition that of men, women, and children, or of property, or is it a mixed relation? What their status was under the constitution and laws, we all know. What has been the effect of a rebellion and a state of war upon that status?… No longer under ownership of any kind, the fearful relicts of fugitive masters, have they not by their master’s acts, and the state of war, assumed the condition, which we hold to be the normal one, of those made in God’s image? Is not every constitutional, legal, and normal requirement, as well to the runaway master as their relinquished slaves, thus answered? I confess that my own mind is compelled by this reasoning to look upon them as men and women. If not free born, yet free, manumitted, sent forth from the hand that held them, never to be reclaimed…

    In a loyal state, I would put down a servile insurrection. In a state of rebellion I would confiscate that which was used to oppose my arms—and take all that property which constituted the wealth of that state, and furnished the means by which the war is prosecuted, besides being the cause of the war; and if, in so doing, it should be objected that human beings were brought to the free enjoyment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, such objection might not require much consideration.

    Pardon me for addressing the secretary of war directly upon this question, as it involves some political considerations as well as propriety of military action.

(Benj. F. Butler)