Posted at 06/20/2011

How novel was Gen. Butler’s decision to treat escaped slaves as contraband and did he do it for humane or military reasons?
By Brag Bowling
Director of the Stephen D. Lee Institute

The problem with political generals is that, well–they tend to be political. There can be few finer examples of political generals than Benjamin “Beast” Butler, the beau ideal of pragmatic opportunists. Butler never showed any great ability as a military leader but as a politician, he fared better. He understood where his bread was buttered and was found all over the board politically. Prior to the war, attorney Butler served in the Massachusetts legislature as a Democrat. At the 1860 Democratic Convention, he even supported Jefferson Davis for president. A somewhat moderate Democrat, he became a strident abolitionist and Republican as the war progressed. By wars end, Butler was firmly in the Radical Republican wing of the party, a 180 degree turn around.

Today, there is very little about Butler’s memory that is positive. As a military leader, he was an abject failure. But, as a lawyer and politician, with an eye to advancing his own self interest, he was superb. President Lincoln’s government, faced with the problem of violating its own Fugitive Slave Law when dealing with newly liberated slaves, found a hero in Butler who devised the legal stratagem which became known as “confiscation” and actually provided the first real wartime opportunity to free slaves in occupied enemy territory. Of course, this was in actual opposition to the policies of Lincoln and Congress but it did relieve the problem posed by the Fugitive Slave Act.

Fresh off a stinging military defeat at Big Bethel, Butler was forced back into the safe confines of Ft. Monroe. Three escaped slaves from a neighboring plantation sought haven at Ft. Monroe. Butler discovered that they had been used in constructing fortifications for the Confederate Army. Butler used the novel legal approach of viewing them as “property” and calling them “contraband of war”. This enabled Butler to ignore both the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which would have required that they be returned to their owners. It was his theory that the escaped slaves had given or could give aid and comfort to the Confederacy, which he chose to view as a nation and not as states in rebellion which was Lincoln’s position.

Butler obviously had not consulted with his Congress or his Commander-in-Chief. Lincoln had made it abundantly clear that his war aims did not include abolition. In both his First Inaugural Address and subsequent speeches and writings, Lincoln sought foremost to preserve the Union. He was not pleased with Butler but allowed it to happen. Other generals were not so fortunate. Lincoln overrode John C. Fremont and David Hunter who issued general emancipation proclamations in their respective Departments. Lincoln disavowed their actions and even fired former Presidential candidate Fremont, dismaying the Radical Republicans and European nations.

On July 22, 1861, the Johnson-Crittenden Joint Resolution was overwhelmingly passed in both the Senate and House giving a sense of the Congress. The resolution emphatically declared the war was not fought over slavery, or to subjugate the South, but to preserve the Union.

As late as 1863, Butler wrote that he and Lincoln discussed Lincoln’s idea of colonizing the slaves. A new book, “Colonization after Emancipation,” proves that Butler and Lincoln were planning on deporting freed slaves even up to three days before Lincoln’s death. Butler is perhaps best known for his nicknames -”Beast Butler” and “Spoons Butler” for his ruthless occupation of the City of New Orleans. He was so unpopular with Southern citizens that Jefferson Davis branded him a “felon” deserving of capital punishment and that he should be hanged immediately.

A popular item selling in New Orleans at that time were chamber pots with Butler’s image inside the pot.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company

On the web: