A dispossessed slave master: “I have always treated my negroes kindly. I supposed they loved me.”

From the Library of Congress:Title: The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine, 1861. On May 27, 1861, Benjamin Butler, commander of the Union army in Virginia and North Carolina, decreed that slaves who fled to Union lines were legitimate “contraband of war,” and were not subject to return to their Confederate owners. The declaration precipitated scores of escapes to Union lines around Fortress Monroe, Butler’s headquarters in Virginia. In this crudely drawn caricature, a slave stands before the Union fort taunting his plantation master. The planter (right) waves his whip and cries, “Come back you black rascal.” The slave replies, “Can’t come back nohow massa Dis chile’s contraban”
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-36161; above image is from the Virginia Memory website.

The shooting war between the Union and the Confederacy – what we call the American Civil War – began in April 1861. The Union government made it clear at the beginning that abolition – freedom for the slaves – was not its goal; the goal was to preserve the Union. But almost immediately, the Union took acts which imperiled the institution, and ultimately destroyed it.

In May 1861, Union General Benjamin Franklin Butler, who was then commanding Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA, initiated the so-called “contraband policy.” This called for the confiscation of slaves who were used as laborers for the Confederate military. Eventually hundreds of slaves from the Hampton Roads area and even beyond would flee bondage to gain freedom in and around what would be called the “Freedom Fort.”

In 1864, James Parton wrote “General Butler in New Orleans,” a “History of the Administration of the Department of the Gulf in Year 1862, with an Account of the Capture of New Orleans, and a Sketch of the General, Civil and Military.” In this bio-text of Butler, a story is told of an unnamed slave master who lost all of his slaves after their escape to Fort Monroe. The dispossessed slave master goes to the Fort to see if he can get just one of those slaves – one particular slave – back in his possession.

The account of this slave master has a touch of schadenfreude to it. (“Schadenfreude” is pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. The word is taken from German and literally means “harm-joy”. It is the feeling of joy or pleasure when one sees another fail or suffer misfortune.) The Union men who receive the master are clearly no fans of slavery or enslavers, and seem to find his situation more pathetic than sympathetic. They find an ironic humor in his situation that, understandably, he does not.

Meanwhile, it is clear that the owner is hurt, shaken, perhaps devastated by the departure and loss of his slaves. The slave patriarch says “I have always treated my negroes kindly. I supposed they loved me.” But just when the war “came home” to him in earnest, just when he needed his slaves the most, they abandoned him. Clearly, the master had feelings for at least some of his slaves that went beyond mere property ownership. He lost people that he cared for, and that he presumed cared for him. At the end of the story, the feelings of the master are written true: “He had fallen upon evil times.”

This is from Parton’s book (p 131-133):

Many strange scenes occurred in connection with this flight of the negroes to “Freedom Fort,” as they styled it; for one of which, perhaps, space may be spared here. It gives us a glimpse into one of those ancient Virginia homes suddenly desolated by the war.

Major (Theodore Winthrop) (an officer who lost his life during the war), I should premise, had now arrived at the fortress. He came just in time to take the place of military secretary to the general commanding, which had been vacant only a day or two, and was now a happy member of the general’s family, winning his rapid way to all hearts. I mention him here because his comrades remember how intensely amused he was at the interview about to be described. If he had lived a few days longer than he did, he would probably have told it himself, in his brief, bright, graphic manner. The office of the general at head-quarters was the place where the scene occurred.

Enter, an elderly, grave, church-warden looking gentleman, apparently oppressed with care or grief. He was recognized as a respectable farmer of the neighborhood, the owner, so called, of thirty or forty negroes, and a farm-house in the dilapidated style of architecture, which might be named the Virginian Order.

Advancing to the table, he announced his name and business. He said he had come to ask the officer commanding the post for the return of one of his negroes — only one; and he proceeded to relate the circumstances upon which he based his modest request. But he told his tale in a manner so measured and woful, revealing such a curious ignorance of any other world than the little circle of ideas and persons in which he had moved all his life, with such naive and comic simplicity, that the hearers found it impossible to take a serious view of his really lamentable situation. He proceeded in something like these words: —

“I have always treated my negroes kindly. I supposed they loved me. Last Sunday, I went to church. When I returned from church, and entered into my house, I called Mary to take off my coat and hang it up. But Mary did not come. And again I called Mary in a louder voice, but I received no answer. Then I went into the room to find Mary, but I found her not. There was no one in the room. I went into the kitchen. There was no one in the kitchen. I went into the garden. There was no one in the garden. I went to the negro quarters. There was no one at the negro quarters.

“All my negroes had departed, sir, while I was at the house of God. Then I went back again into my house. And soon there came to me James, who has been my body-servant for many years. And I said to James: “‘James, what has happened?’
“And James said, ‘All the people have gone to the fort.’
“‘While I was gone to the house of God, James ?’
“And James said, ‘Yes, master; they’re all gone.’
“And I said to James, ‘Why didn’t you go too, James?’
“And James said, ‘Master, I’ll never leave you.’

“‘Well James,’ said I, ‘as there’s nobody to cook, see if you can get me some cold victuals and some whisky.’
“So James got me some cold victuals, and I ate them with a heavy heart. And when I had eaten, I said to James:
“‘James, it is of no use for us to stay here. Let us go to your mistress.’
“His mistress, sir, had gone away from her home, eleven miles, fleeing from the dangers of the war.
“‘And, so, James,’ said I, ‘harness the best horse to the cart, and put into the cart our best bed, and some bacon, and some corn meal, and, James, some whisky, and we will go unto your mistress.’

“And James did even as I told him, and some few necessaries besides. And we started. It was a heavy load for the horse. I trudged along on foot, and James led the horse. It was late at night, sir, when we arrived, and I said to James
“‘James, it is of no use to unload the cart tonight. Put the horse into the barn, and unload the cart in the morning.’
“And James said, ‘Yes, master.’

“I met my wife, sir ; I embraced her, and went to bed; and, not-withstanding my troubles, I slept soundly. The next morning, James was gone! Then I came here, and the first thing I saw, when I got here, was James peddling cabbages to your men out of that very cart.”

Up to this point, the listeners had managed to keep their countenances under tolerable control. But the climax to the story was drawled out in a manner so lugubriously comic, that neither the general nor the staff could longer conceal their laughter. The poor old gentleman, unconscious of any but the serious aspects of his case, gave them one sad, reproachful look, and left the fort without uttering another word. He had fallen upon evil times.


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