Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

In Which I Almost Agreed with Brag Bowling

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on June 22, 2011

My expectations for Brag Bowling’s contributions to the Washington Post‘s A House Divided group blog are, shall we say, not high. But is it too much ask that he not contradict himself in consecutive sentences? Apparently it is.

In answering the question, “how novel was Gen. Butler’s decision to treat escaped slaves as contraband and did he do it for humane or military reasons?”, Bowling launches into predictable tropes about Butler, identifying him as a “political general” in the first clause, and referencing the nickname “Beast” Butler, in the second sentence. Nothing surprising about that, if you’ve read his earlier contributions to the blog, a couple of which I’ve discussed here and here.

The whiplash-inducing contradiction in this new piece comes in the middle of the third paragraph, to wit:

Butler used the novel legal approach of viewing them as “property” and calling them “contraband of war”. This enabled Butler to ignore both the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which would have required that they be returned to their owners.

Did you catch that? Bowling first criticizes Butler as being wrong for recognizing slaves as property, and then wrong again for not returning them to their owners.

More to the point, Bowling seems to forget that Butler’s “novel legal approach of viewing them as ‘property’ ” conforms entirely to their status both under U.S. and Confederate law. Indeed, it was the explicit claim by Southerners of their property rights in the form of slaves that both drove their decision to secede from the Union, and subsequently provided Butler with the rationale to designate those same slaves as “contraband of war” when they were put to work building fortifications. It takes some real chutzpah to deny that slaves are property, then demand their return to you as their owner.

It’s true enough that Ben Butler was never a great battlefield tactician. But his contributions, which Bowling dismisses as being in the political arena, and (presumably) therefore irrelevant to his assessment, were substantial nonetheless. Bowling makes passing reference to Butler’s “ruthless occupation” of New Orleans, but omits that the “political general’s” quarantine and general cleanup of that city almost certainly saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives that would have been lost to that perennial scourge of the Crescent City, yellow fever. He omits Butler’s commitment to African American troops in the Federal army, and his willingness to test them in battle when other, better-known commanders like Sherman, were unwilling to give them a chance. And of course he omits Butler’s postwar career in Congress, when he wrote the first draft of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, a key measure that helped to reign in the abuses of the Ku Klux Klan in the South in the years after the war.

Bowling forgets to acknowledge those things, but you can be certain he remembered to mention the chamber pot with Butler’s picture in the bottom. One has to focus on the important stuff, I guess.

Oh, and that part where I almost agreed with Bowling? It was when I read this:

Northern abolitionists considered contrabands synonymous with emancipation even before Lincoln’s final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. General Butler’s treatment of the contrabands, while mired in legal, political and cultural issues, was closely linked to the role of emancipation. When freedom did come to the slaves still in Confederate territory, the Union lines were flooded with the newly freed causing the U. S. government to implement new policies to provide them shelter, food, clothing and even some health care – all in part – because of Butler’s decisions at the beginning of the Civil War.

Then I looked again and realized I’d scrolled too far, and was reading the end of Frank Williams’ answer to the same question. My bad.
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Image: “Contraband, Fortress Monroe,” Library of Congress