One major problem facing Abraham Lincoln at the start of the American Civil War was how to deal with escaped slaves who sought protection from Union armies in the south. Although as a Republican he was opposed to slavery, he was not yet ready to move towards emancipation. His first concern was to restore the Union, and he was well aware than any early move towards emancipation would make that job much harder and run the risk of pushing Kentucky and possibly even Maryland into the Confederate camp.
Some of his military commanders were less concerned with the political consequences of their actions. General Fremont went as far as issuing his own emancipation proclamation for Missouri on 30 August, although this was quickly overturned by Lincoln.
A more satisfactory short term solution was arrived at by General Benjamin Butler. He was in command at Fort Monroe, Virginia, a Union held enclave at the tip of the peninsula between the James and York rivers. In May 1861 three slaves escaped into his lines. Astonishingly, the next day their owner, a Confederate Colonel, appeared at Fort Monroe demanding their return under the terms of the fugitive slave law! Butler replied that since Virginia was claiming to have left the Union, the law no longer applied. He borrowed a concept from naval warfare, that of ‘contraband of war’. This term applied to goods that could not be traded to a warring country without running the risk of seizure by their enemies.
This appealed to Lincoln. While many moderate Unionists claimed that the government had no right to abolish slavery, all admitted that it could confiscate the property of traitors. On 6 August Congress passed a confiscation act. Escaped slaves were no longer slaves if they had been used directly by the Confederate armed forces. Exactly what their new status would be was not made clear, but the act provided a legal framework within which Union generals could begin to act.
Butler had not waited for the act. By the end of July he had nearly 1,000 ‘contrabands’ in his camp at Fort Monroe. In return for his protection, he put them to work in the camps. Not every escaped slave was legally protected by the confiscation act. Those who escaped from loyal owners in Union border states were not legally protected at all, although many did escape in this way. That protect finally appeared on 13 March 1862 when a new article of war was created, forbidding military officers from returning escaped slaves to their owners. By now the contrabands were providing a huge pool of labour for Union armies across conquered parts of the Confederacy. It was now widely accepted that all slaves in southern hands contributed to their war effort, if only by allowing more white men to enlist in the Confederate armies.