“It all began on a quiet May night in 1861 near Fort Monroe in Virginia. Three slaves, hired out as laborers on a Confederate fortifications project, slipped away from quarters, commandeered a canoe, and paddled into Union lines. The following morning, a Confederate officer approached the fort under a flag of truce. He came, he stated, to claim the runaways based on the fugitive slave law. The Federal commander Brig. Gen. Benjamin Butler refused to hand over the slaves. A shrewd courtroom lawyer and prominent politician before the war, Butler insisted that since Virginia had seceded from the Union, the fugitive slave law was inapplicable. Furthermore, since the Confederates had used these men for strictly military purposes, they were contraband of war and therefore subject to confiscation. Then, without much thought, Butler hired them for pay to construct a bakery for Federal soldiers. In one eventful day, Butler had, in effect, freed three slaves and then employed them to work for the Union army. The secretary of war promptly endorsed Butler’s rationale, and two months later Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, which converted policy into law. Together these three slaves and Benjamin Butler had stuck a monstrous blow for freedom and the Federal war effort. They carved out the first path for wartime emancipation and set a precedent for military employment. Once the Federal government granted tacit freedom to runaways hire to labor for the Confederate military, it opened the door for all sorts of other cases and set the Lincoln administration on the rocky trail toward emancipation. And once the War Department began hiring blacks for wages, the practice initiated the breakdown of opposition to the use of blacks in other military capacities. First it was the construction of a bakery, then the erection of fortifications, and later labor as teamsters and cargo handlers. In each instance, blacks filled jobs traditionally performed by soldiers, which enabled military authorities to place more troops in combat commands as early as 1861.”
— Why the Confederacy Lost, 1992