The First Battles: April 1861 to February 1862

One Special Young Man

When and where was the first controversy over black slaves in the Union forces?

In May 1861, a Confederate colonel called at the gates of Fortress Monroe, asking for the return of three of his slaves. They had escaped his nearby plantation and made their way to the federal fortress. Just a few days earlier, Brigadier General Benjamin Butler (1818–1893), of the Massachusetts volunteers, had arrived to take the command. Butler took a few minutes, then responded that he would not return the escaped slaves. When the Confederate colonel persisted, saying that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 remained on the books, Butler neatly returned that Virginia had seceded from the Union and could therefore claim no special protections. But when the Confederate continued to argue, Butler answered with the simple and effective: “I mean to hold them.”

Brigadier General Benjamin Butler set an important precedent in 1861 when he refused to return a number of slaves to a Confederate colonel, asserting that the Compromise of 1850 no longer applied since the South had seceded.


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