Events early in the war quickly forced Northern authorities to address the issue of emancipation.
In May 1861, just a month into the war, three slaves (Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend) owned by Confederate Colonel Charles K. Mallory escaped from Hampton, Virginia, where they had been put to work on behalf of the Confederacy, and sought protection within Union-held Fortress Monroe before their owner sent them further south. When Col. Mallory demanded their return under the Fugitive Slave Law, Union General Benjamin F. Butler instead appropriated the fugitives and their valuable labor as “contraband of war.” The Lincoln administration approved Butler’s action, and soon other fugitive slaves (often referred to as “contrabands”) sought freedom behind Union lines.
The increasing number of fugitives and questions about their status eventually prompted action by the United States Congress.
On August 6, 1861, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, which negated owners’ claims to escaped slaves whose labor had been used on behalf of the Confederacy.
In 1862 Congress also acted against slavery in areas under the jurisdiction of the federal government. Congress abolished slavery in the federal District of Columbia on April 16 with a compensated emancipation program. This action must have been particularly satisfying to President Lincoln, who as Congressman Lincoln had in the late 1840s drafted a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Finding the measure lacking support, Lincoln never introduced it.
Congress further outlawed slavery in federal territories in June 1862.