Select Page



by William H. Benson

May 26, 2011

     On Wednesday, May 22, 1861, Major General Benjamin F. Butler arrived at his new command at Fort Monroe, Virginia, a fortress under Union control and located at the mouth of the James River in the Chesapeake Bay. A lawyer from Lowell, Massachusetts, but not an abolitionist, Butler was known as one who could find his way around a legal problem.

     The next day three young men—actually slaves named Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend—rowed a boat north across the James River in the hope of finding freedom at Fort Monroe. Their owner, a Confederate colonel named Charles Mallory, had pulled them from field work and forced them to assist in building an artillery post that was aimed directly at Fort Monroe.

     On Friday, the three men were escorted into Butler’s office for questioning, and they understood that their fate, their future, and their very lives depended upon what Butler decided that day, May 24, 1861. If returned to their master, they would receive a beating, most likely be sold, and then shipped south.

     The war, North versus South, had begun just weeks before, on April 12, with the firing on Fort Sumter. Slavery had bitterly divided the Republic for decades, and with the election of Abraham Lincoln the previous November and the rapid secession from the Union of several Southern states in the weeks afterwords, the two regions had accelerated rapidly toward war. It was now upon everyone.

     As Butler quizzed the three slaves’, his legal mind was racing through the implications of each alternative decision. Return them, or keep them? Either decision would make him enemies. The Constitution, and also the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 emphatically stated that the slaves must be returned. But, he reasoned, they were helping to build a battery with guns aimed at his own fort.

     Still, the new President, Abraham Lincoln, had said, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

     While Butler was deciding, a Major in the Confederate States army, John Baytop Cary, was knocking at Fort Monroe’s front gate, carrying a flag of truce, and he wanted the three slaves back.

     Adam Goodheart, a historian, has recently published a new book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening, in which he describes the poignant scene of Butler and Cary, each seated on a horse, meandering away from the fort into rebel territory, and each stating their respective legal positions.

     “I intend to hold them,” Butler said to Cary.

     “Do you mean, then, to set aside your constitutional obligation to return them?” Cary asked.

     “I mean to take Virginia at her word,” Butler 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 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.”

     Union forces would use the word “contraband” throughout the war as a practical solution to the problem of what status to give to the runaways. Like a fire, word swept among the slaves that Major General Butler would not return them. On Sunday eight more showed up, on Monday another forty-seven, and by Wednesday, they were arriving hourly: men, women, children, the young, and the old.

     What most shocked everyone was the former slaves’ reaction to life once living beyond the iron grip of slavery: there was no bloodbath, no wild-eyed vindictiveness, which for centuries the whites in the South had predicted would happen if the slaves were suddenly freed. Instead, these fugitives worked, they cooked, they built, and completed those jobs expected of people living in a fort.

     A soldier watched and said, “There is a universal desire among the slaves to be free.” 

     One Northern visitor to the fort observed them. “I have watched them with deep interest, as they filed off to their work, or labored steadily through the long, hot day. Somehow there was to my eye a solemn aspect to them, as they walked slowly along, as if they, the victims, had become the judges in this awful contest, or as if they were . . . spinning, unknown to all, the destinies of the great Republic.”

     This trickle of slaves became a flood as tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands sought sanctuary among the Union’s forts.

     Goodheart noted that Fort Monroe, Virginia, “this spot where the slaves took refuge was also, by remarkable coincidence, the same spot where slavery first took root, one summer day in 1619, when a Dutch ship landed with some 20 African captives for the fledgling Virginia colony.”


     Last month, April 12, marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and once it concluded, exactly four years later, slavery was gone from the American Republic.