This Day (Contemptibly Patriotic Edition)

Published:May 27, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day 150 years ago Union general Benjamin Franklin Butler announced that three fugitive slaves who had shown up at Fort Monroe were “contraband of war” and would not be returned to their owners. This sounds like the beginning of the end of that “peculiar institution,” and, indeed, an early Butler biographer declared it “one of the wisest, grandest, and most patriotic measures of that stormy but wonderfully educative era.” And yet certain Radical Republicans in Washington—the ones who should have been most happy—spat on the very word “contraband,” calling it “an evasion,” “a wretched indirection,” and “a bad word.”

Can no one ever be happy with anything? Short answer: No.

Here’s the long answer: Butler had no authority to just go around freeing slaves willy-nilly.* But he knew that these three in particular—their names were Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Malloy—had escaped the clutches of a Confederate officer who planned to ship them south to work on fortifications. If their labor were directly aiding the enemy, Butler reasoned, then it should be confiscated and used to aid the Union. The Fugitive Slave Act be damned.

“Do you mean, then, to set aside your constitutional obligations?” a representative of the aggrieved Confederate colonel supposedly asked General Butler.

“I mean to abide by the decision of Virginia, as expressed in her ordinance of secession passed day before yesterday. I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be.”

“But you say we can’t secede, and so you can’t consistently detain the negroes.”

“But you say you have seceded, hence you can’t consistently claim them.”

At which point someone called in the lawyers, and in August, Congress passed the First Conscription Act, making it all official. The point, though, is that even then, the slaves were still property, not people. “Contemptible,” Frederick Douglass complained. And so it was. But perhaps it also was wise and grand, at least in retrospect.

* Nor did he want to. The slaves, though, were happy to take matters into their own hands. In many important respects, they freed themselves.

IMAGE: Group of “contrabands” at Foller’s house, Cumberland Landing, Virginia, 1862 (Library of Congress)