Reading James McPherson on the Civil War is always an enjoyable experience because of the ways in which he takes many of the sources of conventional wisdom and throws new light on them. This is particularly evident in his review of five new books, published in conjunction with the beginning of the sesquicentennial of the War itself, in the latest issue of The New York Review. Most important is yet another examination of why war was declared in the first place.
McPherson makes it clear that there was a sharp distinction to be made between going to war to preserve the Union and going to war over the abolition of slavery. He reminds readers gently, but consistently, that the Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until January 1, 1863, over a year and a half after the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Much of this had to do with politics. Restoring the Union was not a hot-button issue in the north the way abolition was.
However, war is often a time when the sensibilities of generals prevail over those of politicians (assuming, graciously, that politicians have any sensibilities at all). One such individual was Major General Benjamin Butler, who commanded Fort Munroe, a Union garrison based at Hampton Roads in Virginia. On May 24, 1861 three slaves sought asylum in the garrison and were admitted by Butler. Butler was then approached by the Confederate Major John Carey, who came under a flag of truce to request the return of the slaves. Butler’s response was that he would “hold these negroes as contraband of war, since they are engaged in the construction of your battery and are claimed as your property.”
Theodore Winthrop, who served on Butler’s staff, would later write of this event:
An epigraph abolished slavery in the United States.
McPherson himself called it “the thin edge of a wedge driven into the heart of slavery.” The irony is that Butler’s grounds for holding the slaves was as depersonalizing as the concept of slavery itself. He said nothing about the humanity of the three individuals seeking refuge. Rather, they were a valuable resource for the Confederacy (by virtue of their involvement in engineering on the battle site), which justified their being held.
Nevertheless, this was a camel’s nose under the tent; and even slaves seeking freedom embraced the power of the word “contraband.” As the Wikipedia entry for the Emancipation Proclamation makes clear, Abraham Lincoln himself did not promote this idea of contraband; but Lincoln’s actions were always limited by constraints of politics, one of those hard truths that every President with a reformist agenda must confront. Generals, on the other hand, have to deal with taking action in the immediacy of a prevailing situation. By putting the need for action in front of the constraints of politics, Butler (perhaps knowingly) made a clear assertion that slavery was as relevant to the grounds for Civil War as the preservation of the Union was.