But events control. The Northern armies ran against slavery immediately. Almost in the very hours when the resolution of Mr. Crittenden was gliding so easily through the House, thousands of slaves at Manassas were doing the work of laborers and servants, and rendering all the whites of the Southern army available for fighting. The handicap was so severe and obvious that it immediately provoked the introduction of a bill freeing slaves belonging to rebels and used for carrying on the war. The Democrats and the men of the Border States generally opposed the measure, with very strong feeling. No matter how plausible the reason, they did not wish slavery to be touched at all. They could not say that this especial bill was wrong, but they felt that it was dangerous. Their protests against it, however, were of no avail, and it became law on August 6. The extreme anti-slavery men somewhat sophistically twisted it into an assistance to the South.
The principle of this legislation had already been published to the country in a very fortunate way by General Butler. In May, 1861, being in command at Fortress Monroe, he had refused, under instructions from Cameron, to return three fugitive slaves to their rebel owner, and he had ingeniously put his refusal on the ground that they were “contraband of war.” The phrase instantly became popular. General Butler says that, “as a lawyer, [he] was never very proud of it;” but technical inaccuracy does not hurt the force of an epigram which expresses a sound principle. “Contraband” underlay the Emancipation Proclamation.
Thus the slaves themselves were forcing the issue, regardless of polities and diplomacy. With a perfectly correct instinctive insight into the true meaning of the war, they felt that a Union camp ought to be a place of refuge, and they sought it eagerly and in considerable numbers. Then, however, their logical owners came and reclaimed them, and other commanders were not so apt at retort as General Butler was. Thus it came to pass that each general, being without instructions, carried out his own ideas, and confusion ensued. Democratic commanders returned slaves; Abolitionist commanders refused to do so; many were sadly puzzled what to do. All alike created embarrassing situations for the administration.
General Fremont led off. On August 30, being then in command of the Western Department, he issued an order, in which he declared that he would “assume the administrative powers of the State.” Then, on the basis of this bold assumption, he established martial law, and pronounced the slaves of militant or active rebels to be “free men.” The mischief of this ill-advised proceeding was aggravated by the “fires of popular enthusiasm which it kindled.” The President wrote to Fremont, expressing his fear that the general’s action would “alarm our Southern Union friends, and turn them against us; perhaps ruin our rather fair prospect in Kentucky.” Very considerately