There were many forts up and down the coast that had been taken by the Confederates; and there were others, still held by the United States Government, which the Confederates were equally anxious to get into their power.
To one of these, Fortress Monroe, Butler had been sent with troops. As soon as he had settled in his new quarters, Butler began to make short marches here and there about the country, that, by and by, when the people round about should rise against him, he might have some sort of an idea what kind of a place he was in,—where the roads were, where they led to, where the villages were, and how many people were in the villages.
Everywhere he went, he was met by negroes, who, when they saw his Union soldiers, would come up to them singing the funniest old songs, all about freedom, bondage, and the year of jubilee. Negroes, you know, are always a jolly class among themselves, always dancing, and singing their strange old tunes. These negroes, too, in spite of all their years of slavery, were still full of noise and music. Some of their songs are very funny, both in words and tune; others are so sad and weary; they speak to you of those dark, dark days when these poor men and women worked like cattle through the long hot days, were whipped and driven like cattle, and were bought and sold like cattle in the market place.
It began to be a serious question what to do with these negroes. The object of the war was not to free the slaves, but to preserve the Union. Many a soldier, many an officer in the Union ranks, believed yet in the right of the South to keep slaves if she wanted to. They were fighting only to save the Union. Others there were, who declared slavery a wicked sin; and these men claimed the right to save these slaves and free them.
But now the slaves themselves began to ask, "Are you coming to free us, or are you not?" And no one was quite ready to say.
The negroes supposed they were to be freed; and frequently slaves came into the Union camp, begging to be carried away somewhere, anywhere, only to be free. What to do with them was getting every day to be a puzzle.
Again General Butler came forward. "What shall we do with these negroes!" said he; "why, it's plain enough. The Southerners have always said these slaves are their property just as their horses and their cows, their tobacco and their cotton are their property. Very well! then we are to treat them just as we would treat the cows and the horses, the tobacco and the cotton—that is, we will take them for our own use. That is the rule in war, that on entering an enemy's country, the army shall take everything it needs for its own use. Those things which the enemy takes are called "contraband goods." Therefore, since the negro is the property of the Confederate, we may take him just as we would take a Confederate Barrel of flour. He is, like the flour, contraband goods."
Nobody could find any fault with this, certainly. It was true enough. And after that the negro was called the "Contraband."