What’s in a word? by Warren Bull
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The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning. ATTRIBUTION: MARK TWAIN
As Adam Goodheart the author of “1861: The Civil War Awakening” wrote on April 1, 2011, wrote in the New York Times Magazine, the right word can make the difference between freedom and enslavement.
Although it seemed like a minor event at the time, On May 23, 1861, of the American Civil War, three young black men, Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend who had been pressed into service by the Confederacy to build on artillery emplacement stole a boat and rowed across the James River to claim asylum in Fort Monroe, Va. They reached the place where, in 1619, when a Dutch ship landed with some 20 African captives for the fledgling Virginia Colony and slavery first arrived in the colonies.
President Abraham Lincoln had begun his inaugural address with the words “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
At that time Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland where slavery was legal had not yet chosen sides in the war. There was a real possibility of some or all might join the Confederacy.
Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler arrived at the fort only a day ahead of the fugitive slaves. He had been a General for all of four weeks. Before that he had come from a background nearly as impoverished as Lincoln and, despite being even uglier than the sixteenth President he had become a very successful lawyer with a reputation for nitpicking, quibbling and knowing obscure common law. He had also been a popular politician. He interviewed the black men, but before he could report to Washington, D.C. Major A Confederate officer, John Baytop Cary, appeared and demanded the return of the escaped slaves.
Adam Goodheart describes what happened then:
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.”
Whatever else he may have been, Butler was an expert on the details of the law. He knew from his studies that he could have seized a shipment of shovels that could be used to construct a gun emplacement. If the Confederates declared these men were property, as they did, he could equally well seize the men using the shovels.
Butler finally wrote the report and sent it to Washington, D.C. by which time it was already out of date. One day 8 more fugitives arrived. 47 came the next day including an elderly man and a babe in arms. One soldier wrote home that fugitives arrived “hourly.”
The Lincoln Administration’s response was worthy of bureaucracy’s highest honor. It considered the issue with due deliberation and serious study. Then it took no action and made no official statement. “Contraband” quickly became the description of all formerly enslaved people who showed up seeking asylum with northern forces.
Somehow the ironic term proved acceptable. People who hated “emancipated’ accepted “confiscated.” The Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 accepted the twisted logic Butler concocted. It was a temporary war document that supposedly deprived the parts of the Confederacy still in rebellion of a war resource - slaves. What many people then did not notice was that at least 20,000 people were immediately freed from slavery.
Contrabands embraced the term. Long before the rest of the population figured it out, people knew that, once freed, they would never be enslaved again.