The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln HTML version

Freedom For The Slaves
By no means the least of the evils of slavery was a dread which had haunted every
southern household from the beginning of the government that the slaves might one day
rise in revolt and take sudden vengeance upon their masters. This vague terror was
greatly increased by the outbreak of the Civil War. It stands to the lasting credit of the
negro race that the wrongs of their long bondage provoked them to no such crime, and
that the war seems not to have suggested, much less started any such attempt. Indeed,
even when urged to violence by white leaders, as the slaves of Maryland had been in
1859 during John Browns s raid at Harper's Ferry, they had refused to respond.
Nevertheless it was plain from the first that slavery was to play an important part in the
Civil War. Not only were the people of the South battling for the principle of slavery;
their slaves were a great source of military strength. They were used by the Confederates
in building forts, hauling supplies, and in a hundred ways that added to the effectiveness
of their armies in the field. On the other hand the very first result of the war was to give
adventurous or discontented slaves a chance to escape into Union camps, where, even
against orders to the contrary, they found protection for the sake of the help they could
give as cooks, servants, or teamsters, the information they brought about the movements
of the enemy, or the great service they were able to render as guides. Practically
therefore, at the very start, the war created a bond of mutual sympathy between the
southern negro and the Union volunteer; and as fast as Union troops advanced and
secession masters fled, a certain number found freedom in Union camps.
At some points this became a positive embarrassment to Union commanders. A few days
after General Butler took command of the Union troops at Fortress Monroe in May, 1861,
the agent of a rebel master came to insist on the return of three slaves, demanding them
under the fugitive-slave law. Butler replied that since their master claimed Virginia to be
a foreign country and no longer a part of the United States, he could not at the same time
claim that the fugitive slave law was in force, and that his slaves would not be given up
unless he returned and took the oath of allegiance to the United States. In reporting this, a
newspaper pointed out that as the breastworks and batteries which had risen so rapidly for
Confederate defense were built by slave labor, negroes were undoubtedly "contraband of
war," like powder and shot, and other military supplies, and should no more be given
back to the rebels than so many cannon or guns. The idea was so pertinent, and the justice
of it so plain that the name "contraband" sprang at once into use. But while this happy
explanation had more convincing effect on popular thought than a volume of discussion,
it did not solve the whole question. By the end of July General Butler had on his hands
900 "contrabands," men, women and children of all ages, and he wrote to inquire what
was their real condition. Were they slaves or free? Could they be considered fugitive
slaves when their masters had run away and left them? How should they be disposed of?
It was a knotty problem, and upon its solution might depend the loyalty or secession of
the border slave States of Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri, which, up to
that time, had not decided whether to remain in the Union or to cast their fortunes with
the South.