Education from LVA

The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine

  • The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine, Cartoon, 1861
During the Civil War slaves fled to Fort Monroe where they were treated as contraband property instead of being returned to their Confederate owners.
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    Dunmore's Proclamation, November 7, 1775
  • Fording the Rappahannock
    African Americans Fording the Rappahannock, Photograph, August 1862
  • Emancipation Proclamation
    Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863
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The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine, Cartoon, 1861

Fort Monroe in Hampton was the headquarters of General Benjamin F. Butler, the commander of the United States Army in Virginia and North Carolina during the first months of the Civil War. Early in his command, Butler was confronted by a significant problem: what should be done with the increasing numbers of enslaved African Americans who were flocking to Union encampment in search of freedom? On May 27, 1861, he announced that his troops would not enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and that slaves belonging to Confederate owners who fled to Union lines be treated as “contraband of war” and not be returned. This decision influenced thousands of enslaved African Americans to flee from their owners to Fort Monroe and thousands more to Union army encampments throughout the South. In July 1861, Union soldier Edward Whitaker remarked, “Runaway slaves come into camp every day.” By the end of the war in 1865, there were more than 10,000 refugees at Fort Monroe or the “Freedom Fort,” as it became known. Congress validated Butler's decree on August 6, 1861, by passing the First Confiscation Act, which prohibited Union military officers from returning to their masters runaway or captured slaves who had been used in the Confederate war effort. The Second Confiscation Act, passed on July 17, 1862, emancipated all slaves coming under Union military jurisdiction who were owned by Confederate masters.

This cartoon, entitled “The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine” highlights the movement of enslaved African Americans from lives in bondage to the hope of freedom as Union “contraband.” Second from the right is a figure of a white slaveholder brandishing a whip and yelling, “Come back here you black rascal.” An enslaved man running toward a fort, along with a number of other African Americans seen in the background, yells back to the slaveholder: “Can't come back now nohow massa Dis chile's contraban.” The poignancy of this cartoon comes from juxtaposing Butler's decision with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, when President James Monroe forbade European countries from colonization in the western hemisphere, promising retaliation if the doctrine was broken. This foreign policy decision established the United States as the protector of the hemisphere. Similarly, Butler's decree and Congress' Confiscation Acts clearly established the Union forces as a protector of the runaway slaves. The unknown artist of this cartoon used easily recognizable stereotypes as symbols, thereby allowing for the point to be made with pictures and a few words of text.

Other Union generals tried to take stances with regards to slavery in the Confederacy, but did not achieve the same results. In August 1861, General John C. Frémont issued an order emancipating slaves in Missouri whose owners refused to pledge allegiance to the United States, but President Abraham Lincoln invalidated it on September 11. Lincoln feared that the proclamation would drive Missouri and the other border slave states into the Confederacy. Lincoln encouraged the leaders in those states to emancipate their slaves on their own, including offering financial incentives to do so. A similar instance occurred nine months later when General David Hunter attempted to free the slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Hunter issued his order on May 9, 1862, but Lincoln repudiated on May 19. Lincoln made it clear that the ability to free the Confederacy's slaves was a power that only he as commander-in-chief could wield, and he continued to encourage the states permitting slavery to abolish it on their own terms with the benefit of government money. This was, in effect, a final warning to accept gradual and compensated emancipation before Lincoln took further measured towards full emancipation.

For Educators


1. Describe the caricatures featured in this cartoon. What can you determine from the way the people are dressed? What other symbols did the artist use?

2. Why did African Americans flee to Fort Monroe? What did they hope to achieve?

Further Discussion

1. Why did Lincoln issue the Emancipation Proclamation? Did he accomplish his goals?

2. Why didn't Lincoln refute General Butler's decree as he did with General Frémont and General Hunter?


Library of Congress Bibliographic Information-The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine

Suggested Reading

Engs, Robert Francis. Freedom's First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia, 1861–1890. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979.

Morgan, Lynda J. Emancipation in Virginia's Tobacco Belt, 1850–1870. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Vorenberg, Michael. Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.