VIDEO: Dr. Dawne Burke – May 27, 1861 Fortress Monroe – the “Contraband” Loophole
On May 23 1861, General Charles K. Mallory, confederate general, loaned three of his slaves for a construction project for a confederate battery near Hampton, Virginia. Those three slaves, their names were Shepherd Mallory; they were Frank Baker and James Townsend. When the three slaves boarded the john boat on the river, they left with the intention of going to the construction site. Interestingly enough, the three slaves bypassed the construction site and crossed the Chesapeake Bay near Sewell’s Point in order to reach a peninsula stronghold which was known as Fortress Monroe. When the three slaves arrived at the stronghold at Fortress Monroe, they struck up a conversation with the picket guards who were guarding the fort. The guards reported the incident immediately to their newly assigned commander of the Department of Virginia, who was General Benjamin Franklin Butler.
General Butler, newly assigned to Fortress Monroe, was originally from Deerfield, New Hampshire. When he was five months old, his father died of yellow fever. Due to the economic circumstances at that time, he and his siblings were dispersed to other family members until such time as they could rejoin their mother in Lowell, Massachusetts where the mother at that time was operating a boarding house.
Butler had attended Colby College which was, at that time, referred to as Waterville College and he also wanted to attend West Point, but never did. Later on, in the civil war, the fact that he did not receive formal militaristic training may come back to haunt General Butler. However, Butler goes on to study law and become an attorney in Massachusetts and was accepted at the bar in Massachusetts in 1840.
Butler goes on to become a very successful criminal attorney. Butler was 5’4, he was
barrel-chested, had red hair and was also cross-eyed. So, I can only imagine how even by today’s standards General Butler, as a child, may have been what we refer to today as bullyated (sic). But it is his art of argument and critical thought process that would later come in handy at Fortress Monroe.
While back at Fortress Monroe, the three slaves – Butler consented to give them provisional and temporary aid for that night of May 23rd, told them that they could stay in the fort, and the following morning on May 24th, the three, at this point in time, they’re now fugitive slaves. They’re in direct violation of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, but Butler does give them audience. So, they are arraigned in front of Butler the following morning. The three slaves go on and proceed to tell General Butler that the reason why they bypassed the work site that they were to attend to was because they were going to be sold down south.
Now during that time period, the Civil War scholar in California, Kenneth Stamp wrote “That Peculiar Institution” and, in his book, he states that the state of Virginia and the state of South Carolina had a nice little domestic slave trade operation ongoing. So, the slaves were being bred in the state of Virginia and then they were being shipped down south to work in the fields in South Carolina. That is of particular note for us here in this region of the Shenandoah valley, given the fact that those slaves were brought to this county. Jefferson county, Virginia, at that time, and they were held here in this county until such time as they were loaded into boxcars and shipped south for those labor fields. So, Butler hears their story. He is probably a little bit sympathetic. Just as he’s having this conversation with the three slaves, Butler is interrupted by one of his staff officers who claims that there is someone standing outside the fort who claims to be Major John B. Cary, who is a confederate major and he is coming to Fortress Monroe in order to talk to General Butler about these three slaves because General Mallory would like to have his property back. Acting as Mallory’s proxy this major begins to have this, probably, a heated discussion with General Butler about these three slaves and Butler rightly tells him – now here’s the point at which Butler’s legalistic mind and argumentative acumen comes into play: Butler turns to Cary and he says: “I am under no obligation to honor this request promptly because,” and Butler goes on to name four reasons why it is he refuses to turn the slaves back over to the confederate.
He says: “Just last week on May 17th (ratified May 23, 1861-ED), the state of Virginia decided to secede from the union. That, then, clearly makes the statement that Virginia sees itself as an autonomous state sovereignty. As such, the third point is: you’re in direct violation of the United States Constitution and then Virginia” (proceeds to the fourth point he makes is) “you have formed an illegal coalition with other confederate states.”
The argument that Butler creates says very clearly to the major that Butler views both Mallory and Cary and this whole incident, there is enemy collusion in General Butler’s mind. So, Butler then goes on to proclaim that the Old Dominion, then, is a foreign body on federal soil. So, he intends to then treat this incident, as such, that they are now – Virginia is a foreign body in due process of federal occupation. So, then Butler very sagaciously – his word choice here is so very, very, very important – he refers to the slaves, not as property to be returned – and Butler assuredly was not going to remand those slaves to the welfare or aid of any foreign entity, but he refers to those slaves as “contraband of war.” Now, this is very important – his word choice is extremely important here. Because of his word choice at that moment in time, the positive social fallout from that, the positive social trends that would follow – that the essence of the use of that term here, particularly in the lower Shenandoah valley, is very important, the culmination of those events up to that point.
The three fugitive slaves, in combination with General Butler’s response to Major Cary, really is a pivotal point and I argue that in my book entitled in “American Phoenix” that Butler’s critical legalistic abilities at that time came together so that he could create an effective argument with the confederates.
So, the combination of those events: the following morning when Butler awakes, he wakes up to such numbers – exponential numbers of slaves, runaways, freedmen, vagabonds who were seeking sustenance and protection at Fortress Monroe.
I can’t imagine what it might be like for us to go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow morning and when we look out the window of our homes, we would see people just standing all around in mass numbers – 10, 12 as much as probably 75 feet deep – you know? – they were coming and gathering around the fort (and) had been coming all night long through the night.
Because of this situation and these circumstances and Butler is also still confronted with this issue of property. He dispatches several messengers to Washington D.C to get the opinion and directives from his supervisors. Butler had been deferred. He was not getting a response.
So, because of this, he did receive some immediate aid from an organization that was organized in Albany, New York in 1846 (that) called itself the American Missionary Association. Now, there were several organizations that were helping during this war effort. The American Missionary Association was one. There was the United States Christian Commission, the United States Sanitation Commission, but it’s the AMA that responds to General Butler’s request.
The AMA having been organized in ’46 was automatically for the elimination of slavery. This organization was also for education educating the dispossessed and the disenfranchised the organization also worked for the promotion of civility and most assuredly for the dissemination of Christian values.
The AMA is responsible for either directly founding or assisting with the founding of over 500 colleges and universities throughout the United States, some of which are Hampton Institute, Atlanta, Dillard, Talladega, just to mention a few. They also, with the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau – and they often worked in concert also with the Freedmen’s Bureau – they also founded Howard University in our nation’s capital. Howard University was named for General Oliver Otis Howard because it was General Howard that directly managed the operations for all of the activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
So, consequently, when the AMA arrives back at Fortress Monroe, they hear Butler’s call and they answer that call. Counted among their numbers was a New England denomination commonly and collectively referred to as New Lights and or, Separatist and or, Free Wills.