The war was not even a month old when federal troops entered and occupied Confederate territory. On 22 May 1861, a force led by Ma- jor General Benjamin F. Butler sailed into Hampton Roads at the mouth of the James River in Virginia and established a base at Fort Monroe. Before many days had elapsed, slaves from the nearby plan- tations began to arrive at Butler's headquarters seeking sanctuary, thus forcing him to make a decision fraught with immense implica- tions. Lincoln had repeatedly reassured southerners before war broke out that the federal government would not interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed. Furthermore, the government had made it quite clear that the war was being conducted purely as a mili- tary action to put down secession; it was not therefore intended to bring about the liberation of the slaves.
So Butler faced a dilemma. He had no intention of returning the slaves to their Confederate masters, but he had no authority to free them. As a way out of this impasse, he hit upon the idea of calling them “contraband of war.” This linguistic obfuscation was ingenious, since it left their status as slave or free undecided, even though they