Saturday, September 8, 2018
Southern Contraband of War Fleeing North -- Gen. Butler's Account of the Contraband Tag being Applied to Runaway Slaves
Major General Benjamin Butler gives this account of his inspiration to classify escaping southern slaves as "contraband":
On the day after my arrival at the fort [Fort Monroe}, May 23 , three negroes were reported coming in a boat from Sewall's Point, where the enemy was building a battery. Thinking that some information as to that work might be got from them, I had them before me. I learned that they were employed on the battery on the Point, which as yet was a trifling affair. There were only two guns there, though the work was laid out to be much larger and to be heavily mounted with guns captured from the navy-yard. The negroes said they belonged to Colonel Mallory, who commanded the Virginia troops around Hampton, and that he was now making preparation to take all his negroes to Florida soon, and that not wanting to go away from home they had escaped to the fort. I directed that they should be fed and set to work.
On the next day I was notified by an officer in charge of the picket line next Hampton that an officer bearing a flag of truce desired to be admitted to the fort to see me. As I did not wish to allow offices of the enemy to come inside the fort just then and see us piling up sandbags to protect the weak points there, I directed the bearer of the flag to be informed that I would be at the picket line in the course of an hour. Accompanied by two gentlemen of my staff, Major Fay and Captain Haggerty, neither now living, I rode out to the picket line and met the flag of truce there. It was under charge of Major Carey, who introduced himself, at the same time pleasantly calling to mind that we last met at the Charleston convention.
Major Carey opened the conversation by saying: "I have sought to see you for the purpose of ascertaining upon what principles you intend to conduct the war in this neighborhood. . . ."
"I am informed," said Major Carey, "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," said I.
"Do you mean, then, to set aside your constitutional obligations to return them?"
"I mean to take Virginia at her word, as declared in the ordinance of secession passed yesterday. I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be."
"But you say we cannot secede," he answered, "and so you cannot consistently detain the negroes."
"But you say you have seceded, 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. The question is simply whether they shall be used for or against the Government of the United States. Yet, though I greatly need the labor which has providentially come to my hands, if Colonel Mallroy will come into the fort and take the oath of allegiance to the United States, he shall have his Negroes, and I will endeavor to hire them from him."
"Colonel Mallory is absent," was Major Carey's answer.
We courteously parted.
Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major General Benj. F. Butler: A Review of
His Legal, Political, and Military Career (Boston: A.M.Thayer & Co. 1892. p256-58)
In the pages which follow this summary of how he came up with the "contraband" tag Gen. Butler gives a rebuttal of those who suggest it really didn't originate with him.
The Union cover "Secession's Moving Foundation" pictured above reflects the reality that came out of Butler's decision to not return the slaves to their owner. Many other slaves followed and were taken in by Northern forces. Their exact status of slave/free would remain undetermined until later in the war after more formal policy was established. But the artist of this cover catches the fact that things are changing, that Southern culture as it was is being challenged.
I don't know if I'd class this cover as an "abolitionist" cover. Probably I'd see it more along the lines of cheering the fact that the South is being weakened both economically and structurally with each escaping "worker". By this I mean, if we view patriotic covers as 1860s bumper stickers declaring political opinions of those who use them, then I do not think this covers's use would be limited only to strict abolitionists.