Slave into Soldier

Albert E. Cowdrey records the enlistment of runaway slaves by the North during the American Civil War.

On May 24th, 1861 a revolution whose end is not yet in sight began when three nameless men appeared at the pickets of Fort Monroe, a Federal enclave in secessionist Virginia. The men were black, runaway slaves of a rebel colonel named Mallory.

The new commandant of the fortress was a fat, sly, Shakespearean rogue named Benjamin Butler, and his career to date had not been one to inspire hope in a black fugitive. Behind him lay a long association with the Democratic Party; a political alliance with Jefferson Davis; a record of support for John Breckinridge, the South’s presidential candidate in 1860.

But at the outbreak of rebellion Butler had immediately sought an appointment as brigadier-general of volunteers, and he had already performed a service for the North when he seized Baltimore and secured Washington’s line of communications. His promotion to major-general had come with his transfer to Fort Monroe and, though the transfer had displeased him, he was not blind to the fact that a whole new career was opening for him.

Instead of being sent back to their master—a common practice of Federal commanders in the early days of the war—the fugitives were escorted into Fort Monroe. What was in the wind became apparent next day, when a Confederate officer appeared to demand their return under the fugitive slave laws. Ben Butler himself met the emissary.

‘I mean,’ he said, ‘to abide by the decision of Virginia as expressed in her ordinance of secession. I am under no obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be.

To read this article in full you need to be either a print + archive subscriber, or else have purchased access to the online archive.

If you are already a subscriber, please ensure you are logged in. 

Buy Subscription | Buy Online Access | Log In

If you are logged in and still cannot read the article, please email

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week