North meets South, Zouave meets boy: Winslow Homer’s Contraband

Contraband Winslow Homer
Contraband, by Winslow Homer. Watercolor, 1875
Source: Wikipedia Commons. Click here for larger size.

The American Civil War made for new and unexpected encounters between North and South. One of those is captured in Winslow Homer’s poignant 1875 watercolor painting Contraband, which features a Union soldier in a Zouave uniform and a runaway slave boy.

What did these two see in each other’s faces? This might be the first time that the white soldier sees a slave in the flesh. Understand that in 1860, less than 2% of the North’s population was of African descent; millions of northerners went their entire lives without ever seeing a negro. Slaves had been much talked about, but hardly seen except for press illustrations which typically represented them as big-lipped, dark-skinned caricatures. But as this soldier gazed upon the boy, he may have seen, not a cartoon image, but rather, the face of humanity. And so he was moved to this act of kindness, of sharing his water with the boy.

And what did the child, whose enslaved family had sought refuge behind Union lines, make of this man with the garish uniform and the funny accent? During the war, thousands of slaves heeded the advice of the grapevine telegraph that the United States army offered them freedom, if they could escape to Union lines. Having survived his family’s sojourn from bondage, the thirsty and exhausted boy with the curious and almost trepidatious look may have tasted not just water, but also, liberation and hope. Perhaps the boy thought that he might be a soldier himself one day. (Many black men who escaped bondage did become soldiers, and maybe even some boys.)

As noted in Wikipedia, “Winslow Homer (February 24, 1836 – September 29, 1910) was an American landscape painter and printmaker, best known for his marine subjects. He is considered one of the foremost painters in 19th-century America and a preeminent figure in American art.” Early in his career, “Harper’s (magazine) sent Homer to the front lines of the American Civil War (1861–1865), where he sketched battle scenes and camp life, the quiet moments as well as the chaotic ones.” His experiences during the war were the basis of many of his paintings, several of which featured African Americans subjects.

Winslow’s painting Contraband depicts a common occurrence during the war: first time meeting between white northern soldiers and southern black slaves.

The picture’s title takes its name from the term “contraband.” Contraband was a name given to chattel property – slaves – that was “confiscated” by Union soldiers from Confederate slave owners. The contraband confiscation policy was started in May 1861 by Union general Benjamin Butler in southeastern Virginia, when three runaway slaves seeking asylum fled to a Union fort under his command. Butler reasoned that since slave labor was being used by Confederates to build fortifications, transport war supplies, and otherwise aid their war effort, it was fair for the Union to confiscate that property – just as it would confiscate weapons, horses, or any other property used by the enemy. Note that, at the time these “contrabands” were not legally free – it was illegal for the government or army to free slaves – but they could be, and were, confiscated.

Butler’s policy soon became Union policy. By the end of the war, several hundred thousand slaves had escaped bondage by fleeing to Union lines, or by residing in territory the Union army had occupied. And the Union’s policy toward the slaves evolved over time: laws passed in July 1862, followed by the emancipation proclamation in January 1863, offered legal freedom to Confederate slaves, to gain their support for the Union war effort. But among northern whites, the term contraband would stick, and be used often.

The boy in the picture is probably part of a family that escaped from their master and found refuge with a group of Union soldiers. His tattered clothing indicates not merely the harsh conditions of slavery, but also, the physical wear and tear of leaving their former homes and traveling many miles overland to gain freedom. As the slaves met with the Union soldiers, they may well have thought, we would never have believed that our freedom would come from an army of white men.

The man in the picture is a Union soldier wearing a Zouave-style uniform. Zouave uniforms were popular in various parts of the North. The style was based on uniforms worn by “certain light infantry regiments in the French Army, normally serving in French North Africa between 1831 and 1962. The name was also adopted during the 19th century by units in other armies, such as volunteer regiments raised for service in the American Civil War and Brazilian free black volunteers in the Paraguayan War. The distinctive appearance of such units was given by the zouave uniform, which included short open-fronted jackets, baggy trousers (serouel), and often sashes and oriental head gear.”

Most northerners wore these uniforms as members of state and local militia units, and kept them when they joined the Union army. As the war lengthened in time, standard uniforms with navy blue jackets and sky blue pants were mass-produced for newer enlistees.

For many northern men, the negro boy would have made for a curious sight. As mentioned earlier, less than 2% of persons living on the North were of African descent. (North = states where slavery had been abolished prior to the Civil War.) And this was a time with no television, no internet, and limited geographic mobility. So, millions of white millions grew up in the North who had never seen a negro in real life, much less an enslaved negro. One can imagine the white soldier thinking, is this what the war is about?

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