HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF VIRGINIA,
May 27, 1861.
SIR: The expedition (of which I gave you information in my former dispatch) to Newport News got off in fine style this morning about 7 o’clock. I have added to the expedition the Eighth New York Regiment, 780 strong, which came here on board the Empire City on Sunday afternoon, and they proceeded without debarking. I also added two 6-pounder and two 12-pounder guns, with a detachment of twenty-five men from Colonel Dimick’s command, who are intended to act as drill-masters to the volunteers in the exercise of the guns. My purpose is to intrench and hold that point, and ultimately to mount a few heavy guns, which will command that channel of approach to James River.
Since I wrote my last dispatch the question in regard to slave property is becoming one of very serious magnitude. the inhabitants of Virginia are using their negroes in the batteries, and are preparing to send their women and children South. The escapes from them are very numerous, and a squad has come in this morning to my pickets, bringing with them their women and children. Of course these cannot be dealt with upon the theory on which I designed to treat the services of able bodied men and women who might come within my lines, and of which I gave you a detailed account in my last dispatch. I am, in the utmost doubt what to do with this species of property. Up to this time I have had come within my lines men and women with their children-entire families-each family belonging to the same owner. I have therefore determined to employ, as I can do very profitably, the able-bodied persons in the party, issuing proper good for the support of all, and charging against their services the expense of care and sustenance of the non laborers, keeping a strict and accurate account as well of the services as of the expenditures, having the worth of the services and the cost of the expenditures determined by a board of survey, hereafter to be detailed. I know of no other manner in which to dispose of this subject and be questions connected therewith. As a matter of property to the insurgents it will be of very great moment, the number I now have amounting, as I am informed, to what in good times would be of the value of $60,000. Twelve of these negroes, I am informed, have escaped from the erection of batteries on Sewell’s Point, which this morning fired upon my expedition as it passed by out of range. As a means of offense, therefore, in the enemy’s hands, these negroes, when able-bodied, are of the last importance. Without them the batteries could not have been erected, at least for many weeks. As a military question, it would seem to be a measure of necessity to deprive their masters of their services. How can this be done? As a political question and a question of humanity, can I receive the services of the father and mother and not take the children: of the humanitarian aspect I have no doubt. Of the political one I have no right to judge. I therefore submit all this to your better judgment; and as these questions have a political aspect, I have ventured-and I trust I am not wrong in so doing-to duplicate have parts of my dispatches relating to this subject, and forward them to the Secretary of War.
It was understood when I left Washington that the three Massachusetts regiments, two of which are at the Relay House, should be forwarded to me here, and also Cook’s light battery, of which I have the utmost need, if I am expected even to occupy an extended camp with safety. May I ask the attention of the Commanding General to this subject, and inquire if the exigencies of the service will permit these troops to be sent to me immediately? I have to report the arrival of no more troops except the New York Eighth since my last dispatch. The steamship Wabash, which was expected here to take the place of the Minnesota, has not yet reported herself. The Harriet Lane has reported herself here from Charleston, and is employed in convoying the Newport News expedition. I find myself extremely short of ammunition, having but a total in magazine of 85,000 rounds, of which 5,000 rounds only are for the smooth-bore musket, and the major part of my command are provided with that arm. May I desire the attention of the Lieutenant-General to this state of facts, and ask that a large amount of ammunition for that arm–I would suggest “buck and ball”–be ordered forward from the Ordnance Department? The assistant adjutant-general has made a requisition, for this purpose. I will endeavor to keep the Lieutenant-General informed daily of any occurrences of interest, provided I am not interfered with by the irregularity of the mails and modes of conveyance.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
BENJ. F. BUTLER,
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Vol. II. With additions and corrections. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1902.