I don’t know if you’ve been following the 150th anniversary writings about the American Civil War in the New York Times, but a few of these have been really good.
This morning I read about General Benjamin Franklin Butler, an otherwise unknown figure to American history.
Butler was the head of Fort Monroe, Virginia, at the time when the South began to secede from America. Almost immediately, there became an issue of what to do about blacks (African Americans) who were fleeing the South to get away from the awful slavery system.
Although President Lincoln was, as we would say today, “personally opposed” to slavery (and he was), the problem had been that Congress–previously tilted in favor of the Southerners–had passed laws saying that blacks who escaped slavery in the South were supposed to be returned to the people who claimed to be their owners.
Even in 1861, this law was still on the books. With the South in open rebellion, Congress wasn’t busy trying to amend laws. They were trying to figure out what to do about the rebel (confederate) states.
Three black men (Baker, Mallory and Townsend) had been pressed to build an artillery encampment for the confederates. They later learned that the plan of their master was to send them to North Carolina to do the same. So instead they made it to Fort Monroe, hoping for what would amount to an asylum.
It was quite a risk, because they had no idea what would happen.
General Butler took the men in for questioning. At that time, he learned the story of what the men had been doing. It made for a sticky situation bureaucratically, because he had no way to know what the Administration (in 1861) would want him to do in a situation where runaway slaves made it to a federal military fort.
Shortly thereafter, one of the rebel officers, named Cary, appeared at Fort Monroe, seeking Baker, Mallory and Townsend.
Cary got down to business. “I am informed,” he said, “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,” Butler said.
“Do you mean, then, to set aside your constitutional obligation to return them?”
Even the dour Butler must have found it hard to suppress a smile. This was, of course, a question he had expected. And he had prepared what he thought was a fairly clever answer.
“I mean to take Virginia at her word,” he said. “I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be.”
“But you say we cannot secede,” Cary retorted, “and so you cannot consistently detain the Negroes.”
“But you say you have seceded,” Butler said, “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.”
Before receiving a military commission, General Butler had been a lawyer in a hustling practice in Massachusetts. (Hustling for cases, because he did not have connections.) To rebuff the confederate officer, he used military law, which says the property seized that is being used against your side can simply be confiscated. You have no duty to give your enemy’s weaponry back.
This little turn of logic meant that the three men were not going to be sent back into the Slave System; and in fact, as the weeks and months went on, many black people escaped the South in the same way.
It’s a piece worth reading. I used to explain to Japanese friends who asked, that to understand America, one of the most important things is to understand the Civil War and, in its aftermath, the Jim Crow System (1877-1970). The Civil War, and the ways the South has eternally sought to undermine America and its Constitution, are very much with us today as general issues. But few Americans really discuss it anymore in that context.
The New York Times went into a paywall sometime last week, but general readers can view 20 articles free. You might only have to register or something.