How the Civil War Unravelled Slavery
from The Guardian website -- May 17, 2011

One hundred fifty years ago this week, one month into the American civil war, three slave men made their way to Fortress Monroe, Virginia, where General Benjamin F Butler commanded Union forces. The three fugitives told Butler that they were about to be sent "to Carolina" to build fortifications for the Confederate army. Needing manpower himself, Butler decided not to return them; instead, he put them to work. Shortly thereafter, an agent of Colonel Charles K Mallory, their owner and the Confederate commander in the area, arrived under a flag of truce asking for the return of his human property. Butler refused.

When Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, inaugurating the civil war, Charles Sumner, the radical senator from Massachusetts, rushed to the White House to tell President Lincoln that, under the Constitution's "war power", he now had the right to emancipate the south's slaves. But Lincoln, seeking the broadest base of popular support in the north, insisted that the war's purpose was to restore national unity. Indeed, he promised that the "utmost care" would be taken to avoid interference with property rights in the seceded states. In the first weeks of the war, military commanders returned to their owners slaves who sought refuge with the Union army.

War, however, destabilises slavery. It strips away its constitutional protections. Contending sides make slavery a military target to weaken their opponents. They enlist slave soldiers. This happened many times in the western hemisphere, including during the American Revolution, and it would happen during the civil war.

Butler called the three escaped slaves "contrabands of war". He claimed to be drawing on international law, even though the term "contraband" means goods used for military purposes that a neutral country ships to one side in a conflict, and which the other combatant may lawfully seize. Nonetheless, Butler had introduced a new word into the political vocabulary. Soon, there would be "contraband camps" for fugitive slaves, "contraband schools" and extended debate about the status and future of "the contrabands". Butler's actions did not imply a broad attack on slavery. He recognised the fugitives as property but used that very status to release them from service to their owners.

But word of his action spread quickly among local slaves. On 27 May, 47 more, including a three-month-old infant, arrived at what blacks now called the "freedom fort".

Butler at that point requested instructions from Washington. Lincoln privately supported what Butler had done. He laughingly called his action "Butler's fugitive slave law". On 30 May 1861, after a cabinet meeting, the secretary of war informed Butler that his policy "is approved". But no public announcement was issued – and other army officers continued to return fugitive slaves.

By the end of July, there were nearly 1,000 fugitives at Fortress Monroe. "Are these men, women, and children slaves?" Butler wondered. "Are they free?" For the moment, no answer was forthcoming. But together, the actions of runaway slaves and of a Union army commander had initiated the long, complex process of wartime emancipation.