"Fort Monroe Doctrine." Lithograph on paper (1861). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The secession of the Confederate states presented an enormous number of legal issues to the Lincoln administration. With no precedent to draw from, the president and his staff were effectively forced to govern as they went along. (Hostilities with self-declared republics such as Texas and California had occurred, but they were pains of annexation and integration—not secession.) It is within this context that the Union general Benjamin Butler, commander of Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, famously declared runaway slaves to be "contrabands." Butler arrived at Fort Monroe in May 1861. The fort was a critical Union garrison: it was located on the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, a crucial maritime highway, and close to the North Carolina border. Shortly after Butler's arrival, three escaped slaves appeared at the fort asking for asylum. Not long after, a Confederate officer turned up, asking for the return of his property, a request sanctioned under the Fugitive Slave Act. Butler was quickly forced to act. Concluding that Confederate states had abrogated U.S. rule and the Constitution by abandoning the Union, Butler argued that he was no longer required to abide by the Fugitive Slave Act or any laws governing the status of runaway slaves. The slaves, he argued, were now "contrabands"—spoils of war due their guardians. Though politically risky, Butler's ad-hoc directive was quickly assimilated into formal U.S. government policy and formed the basis for the Emancipation Proclamation. More important, with this mandate slaves became emboldened to attempt escape to Union-controlled territory; by July 1861, Fort Monroe was offering protection for nine hundred ex-slaves. While not as dramatic as violent uprisings, escape represented a rebellion against slavery and domination that was just as important. As the above political cartoon illustrates, however coarsely, the new "contraband" policy had an emboldening effect on Virginia slaves, much at the expense of their (former) owners.