May 22, 1861: Butler take command of Fort Monroe

On this date 150 years ago, Lowell’s Benjamin Butler took command of Fort Monroe, a massive installation at the southern tip of Hampton, Virginia that remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War.

Very early in his tenure at Fort Monroe, Butler was confronted with the novel problem of what to do with three slaves who had escaped from Confederate lines and who sought asylum inside the Union fort. Butler’s impromptu by well-reasoned decision, to treat them as “contraband of war”, inadvertently shaped the policy towards escaped slaves for the entire Union Army and accelerated the movement towards emancipation.

Butler’s transfer to command of Fort Monroe was born of controversy. Just nine days earlier as commander of the Department of Annapolis, Butler had slipped the Lowell-based Sixth Regiment into Baltimore on a rainy night, occupied some strategic high ground, and began arresting many of the city’s leading citizens for treason. Butler’s bold move had secured Baltimore for the Union for the duration of the war, but it also infuriated General-in-Chief Winnfield Scott who thought it a reckless risk in violation of orders. Scott summonsed Butler to Washington for a dressing-down. President Lincoln’s thoughts on the subject are unclear, but after meeting with General Scott, Butler called upon the president. We don’t know what was said between them, but when Butler entered the White House, he was a one star general of the Massachusetts Volunteers; when he departed, he was a two star general of the Regular Army en route to Fort Monroe.