May 25, 1862: What to do with the “Negroes”?

A group of "contrabands"

Ben Butler was the originator of the term “contrabands” as applied to escaped slaves, and of the legal theory that, as property of insurrectionists that would be otherwise put to use against the Union, they should be confiscated. Once he found himself governing a large area of southern Louisiana, though, he was overwhelmed with contrabands and had to write to the secretary of war to ask for instructions. And in fact, for permission to return slaves to the planters so they could get the crops in.


HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF THE GULF,
New Orleans, May 25, 1862.
Hon. E. M. STANTON,
Secretary of War:

SIR: In matters pertaining to the conduct of affairs in my own department which affect that alone I will trouble you for instructions as little as possible, put in those which affect the administrative policy of the country I beg leave to refer to the head of the War Department for advice and direction. The question now pressing me is the state of negro property here and the condition of the negroes as men. It has a gravity as regards both write and black appalling as the mind follows out the logical necessities of different lines of action. Ethnological in its proportions and demands for investigation, it requires active administrative operations immediately upon the individual in his daily life, his social, political, and religious status as a human being, while some of the larger deductions of political economy are to be at once worked out by any course of conduct. It cannot be solved therefore without thought or discussion by a phrase or a paragraph. The question now comes to me in a different form that in which it has presented itself to any other military commander.

At Fortress Monroe during the last summer I found the negro deserted by his master or having been forced by him into the fortification as the builder and thus made to aid in the rebellion. The rights of property under that condition of things could be easily settled. The man was to be treated as a human being wrecked upon a civilized coast, all his social ties and means of living gone, to be cared for because he was a man. My action thereupon is well known and was approved by the Government.

At Port Royal the same condition of things substantially obtained and I suppose will be dealt with in like manner. Here, however, an entirely different state of the question is disclosed.

The general commanding finds himself in possession of a tract of country larger than some States of the Union. This has submitted to the Government of the United States; a community with whom by proclamation the President is about opening commercial relations with all the word except for that which is contraband of war; rich in fertile lands; in it a city of the first class, wherein its inhabitants by a large majority are attending to their usual avocations and endeavoring in good faith to live quietly under the laws of the Union, and whoever does not do so is speedily punished and his compeers thereby admonished.

To this city and vicinage has been pledged the governmental protection and inviolability of the rights of property under the laws of the Unites States so long as these conditions of peace and quiet shall be preserved, and that pledge has been accepted by the good, loyal, and peaceful, and the power of the Union is respected by the wicked, so that they have become peaceful, if not loyal. It is found that a large portion of property held is in slaves. They till the soil, raise the sugar, corn, and cotton, load and unload the ships; they perform every domestic office, and are permeated through every branch of industry and peaceful calling. In a large degree the owners of the soil, planters, farmers, mechanics, and small trades have been passive rather than active in the rebellion. All that had real property at stake have been the led rather than the leaders int his outbreak against law and order, In the destruction of cotton and sugar even, which was been so largely effected, the owners and procurers have not been the destroyers, but in many cases the resistant of destruction.

There is still another class. Those actively in arms and those who for motives of gain or worse have aided the rebellion in their several spheres.

The property of these I am hunting out and holding for confiscation under the laws. There is in most cases no military necessity for its immediate confiscation. Such act, if done, would in many instances work injustice to the bona fide loyal creditor, whose interest the Government will doubtless consider. I am only confiscating in fact in cases where there is a breach of a positive order, for the purpose of punishment and example. In all these cases I have no hesitation as to the hinds of property or rights of property which shall be confiscated, and make no distinctions, save that where that property consists in the services of slaves I shall not sell it until so ordered.

Now, many negroes (slaves) have come within my lines. Many have sought to be kept, fed, and to live in the quarters with my troops. Loyal and disloyal masters have lost them alike. I have caused as many to be employed as I have use for. I have directed all not employed to be sent out my lines, leaving them subject to the ordinary laws of the community in that behalf.

I annex all orders and communication to my officers upon this matter up to the date of the transmission of this dispatch.

Now, what am I to do? Unless all personal property of all rebels is to be confiscated (of the policy of which a military commander has no right to an opinion) it is manifestly unjust to make a virtual confiscation of this particular species of property. Indeed it makes and actual confiscation of all property, both real and personal, of the planter if we take away or allow to run away his negroes as his crop is just growing, it being impossible to supply the labor necessary to preserve it. Again, if a portion of these slaves only are to be taken within my lines, and if to be so taken is a benefit to them, it s unjust to those that are not taken. Those that come early, to us are no means the best men and woman. With them, as with the whites, it is the worse class that rebel against and evade the laws that govern them.

The vicious and unthrifty have left punishment of their masters as a rule, the exception being where the cruel master abuses the industrious and well-behaved slave, and the first to some are those that feel particular grievances.

It is a physical impossibly to take all. I cannot feed the white men within my lines. Woman and children are actually starving in spite of all that I can do. Any, and they too without fault on their part. What would be the state of things if I allowed all the slaves from the plantations to quit their employment and come within the lines is not to be conceived by the imagination.

Am I then to take of these blacks only the adventures, the shiftless, and wicked, to the exclusion of the good and quiet? If coming within our lines is equivalent to freedom, and liberty is a boom, is it to be obtained only by the first that apply?

I had written thus far when by the Ocean Queen I received a copy of an orders of Major-General Hunter upon this subject in the Department of the south. Whether I assent or dissent from the course of action therein taken it is not my province to criticize it.

I desire, however, to call attention to the grounds upon which it seems to be based and to examine how far they may be applicable here.

The military necessity does not exist here for the employment of negroes in arms, in order that we may have an acclimated force. If the War Department desires, and will permit, I can have 5,000 able bodied white citizens enlisted within 60 days, all of whom have lived here many years, and many of them drilled soldiers, to be commanded by intelligent loyal officers. Besides, I hope and believe that this war will be ended before any body of negroes could be organized, armed, and drilled so as to be efficient.

The negro here, by long habit and training, has acquired a great horror of fire-arms, sometimes ludicrous in the extreme when the weapon in is his own hand. I am inclined to the opinion that John Brown was right in his idea of arming the negro with a pike or spear instead of a musket, of they are to be armed at all. Of this I say nothing, because a measure of governmental policy is not to be discussed in the dispatch of a subordinate military officer.

In this connection it might not be inopportune to call to mind the fact that a main cause of the failure of the British in their attack on New Orleans was the employment of a regiment of blacks brought with them from the West Indies. This regiment was charged with the duty of carrying the facines with which the ditch in front of Jackson’s line was to be filled up and the ladders for scaling the embarkment. When the attacking column reached the point of assault the facines and ladders were not there. Upon looking around for them it was found that their black guardians had very prudently laid themselves down upon the plain in the rear and protected their heads from the whistling shot with the facines which should have been to the front in a different sense.

I am further inclined to believe that the idea that our men here cannot stand the climate, and thereof the negroes must be freed and armed as an acclimated force, admits of serious debate.

My command has been either here or on the way here from Ship Island since the 1st of May; some of them on shipboard in the river since the 17th of April. All the deaths in the general hospital in this city since we have been here are only 13 from all causes, 2 of these being accidental, as will appear from Surgeon Smith’s report, herewith submitted. From diseases at all peculiar to the climate I do not believe we have lost in the last thirty days one-fifth of one per cent. in the whole command; taking into the account also the infirm and debilitated, who ought never to have passed the surgeon’s examination and come here.

Certain it is, if we admit the proposition that white men cannot be soldiers in this climate, we go very far toward asserting the dogma that white men cannot labor here, and therefore establish the necessity for exclusively black labor, which has ever been the corner-stone of African slavery.

We have heard much in the newspapers of the free-negro corps of this city organized for the defense of the South. From this a very erroneous idea may have been derived. The officers of that company called upon me the other day upon the question of the continuance of their organization and to earn what disposition they would be required to make of their arms; and in color, nay, also in conduct, they had much more the appearance of white gentleman than some of those who have favored me with their presence claiming to be the “chivalry of the South.”

I have satisfied myself, if I have failed to satisfy the Department, that no military necessity exists to change the policy of the Government in this respect within my command.

I have given hurriedly admits the press of other cares some of the consideration that seem to me to bear upon the question. I only add as a fact that those well-disposed to the Union here represented that the supposed policy of the Government, as indicated by General Hunter’s order, is used by our enemies to paralyze all the efforts to co-operate with us.

Reared in the full belief that slavery is a curse to a nation, which my further acquaintance with it only deepens and sides, from its baleful effects upon the master, because as under it he cannot lift the negro up in the scale of humanity thereof the negro drags him down, I have no fear that my views will be anywhere misunderstood. I only accept the fact of its present existence, “tares among the wheat,” and have asked the direction of the Department, “lest while I gather up the tares I root up also the wheat with them,” or shall I “let both grow together till the harvest?”

Respectfully, &c.,
BENJ. F. BUTLER,
Major-General, Commanding.

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