Civil War Contraband Art

Note: An updated version of this article is here.

Contraband, Changing Quarters copy
Figure 1: “Contraband, Changing Quarters” In this image, a determined-looking slave exercises his agency and escapes from his master in the Confederate army to seek freedom with the Union army. Presumably, the fine white stallion belongs to his master; so the Union has gotten two properties for the price of one. The cap, I guess, is a fashion statement.
Image Source: The Philadelphia Print Shop, section on Civil War images of Blacks / “Contraband”

You must understand this: Civil War era northerners were intrigued, perhaps even fascinated, by the very idea of “contrabands”: enslaved men and women who were “confiscated” from Confederates, and given asylum from bondage, in return for supporting the Union war effort. That intrigue and fascination played out in the art of the era, as shown in this post.

First, some background. The official Union policy at the start of the war was to do nothing to slavery where it stood. The goal of the Union was to end secession, not to end slavery. Men like Abraham Lincoln were uncompromising that slavery not spread into the territories west of the Mississippi River, but they believed that free persons in the slave states had the right to keep chattel property.

Enslaved people had a different idea. They immediately saw the conflict between Union and Confederacy as an opportunity for freedom. In March 1861 – several weeks before the attack on Fort Sumter ignited the Civil War – two groups of slaves fled bondage and sought refuge at Fort Pickens, a Union occupied ports in northwest Florida. Their hopes for freedom were dashed. First Lieutenant A. J. Slemmer, a commander at the fort, reported to his superiors that “(o)n the morning of the 12th… four negroes (runaways) came to the fort entertaining the idea that we were placed here to protect them and grant them their freedom. I did what I could to teach them the contrary. In the afternoon I took them to Pensacola and delivered them to the city marshal to be returned to their owners. That same night four more made their appearance. They were also turned over to the authorities next morning.”

But just two months later, another group of runaway slaves got a different reception. On May 23, 1861, Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory fled bondage and sought asylum at a Union occupied fort outside of Hampton, Virginia, named Fort Monroe. Per Union policy, the fort’s commander, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, should have returned them to their master. But he reasoned that because the slaves were property being used by Confederate insurrectionists, it was within his rights to confiscate that property and use it for the Union’s purposes. This was the beginning of the Union’s contraband policy. The Lincoln administration, and then legislation passed by the Congress and signed by Lincoln, gave official sanction to the contraband policy. Soon, all across the Confederate States, the Union was enabling the freedom of former slaves.

The Fort Monroe Three: Runaway slaves Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory meet with Union General Benjamin Butler at Fort Monroe, Virginia, May 1861, seeking freedom from bondage. Butler will decide that this “contraband property” should be confiscated from the Confederates, and re-purposed for Union use.
Image Source: From The New York Public Library Digital Collections

This new policy created a sensation among northerners. Recollect that less than 2% of people living in the free states were of African descent. Millions of northern white Americans went their entire lives without ever seeing a real live African-American, much less a slave. What they did know of slaves was through a popular culture that commonly depicted slaves in a negative way, by, for example, using caricatures that exaggerated and “animalized” their appearance.

What were northerners thinking and feeling about this contraband policy? They might have thought about their Yankee ingenuity, in making what Southerners thought to be a strength – the unencumbered use of slave labor – into a weakness; and in finding a way to legally use the slaves for the Union’s war aims. They might have thought about the irony, and the justice, of slaves gaining freedom just at the time when their masters needed them the most. Some northerners – such as Frederick Douglass – wondered why African Americans were called by a name that reinforced the idea of human beings as property.

They might have wondered: just who were these people, anyway? Who were these enslaved people with dark skin, whom very few northerners had ever seen, but were at the crux of the divisions that caused the war, and were now being seen as being as a key to ending the war successfully for the Union? They might have wondered how the slaves felt about all of this… what did the slaves feel about their masters, the Union, and “freedom?”

And then there was the ultimate question: what did it mean for the Union to ask the support of, and give their support to, a class of people who were seen as ignorant, inferior, docile (when under control of their enslavers) yet savage (when uncontrolled), perhaps sub-human, but surely degraded?

These types of questions informed the popular art of the Civil War and post-war eras, the vast majority of which was produced by white men. Let’s take a look at some of those works:

Butler and slave contraband
Figure 2: Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “One of the F. F. V’s after his Contraband. General Butler “can’t see it.” Image Reference is to General Benjamin Butler; see text in the blog entry. F.F.V is short for ‘First Families of Virginia,’ a name given to the state’s elite class
Image Source: Encyclopedia Virginia; entry titled “Escaped Slaves at Fort Monroe”; image courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

During the Civil War era, illustrated envelopes were a kind of social media. People used the mails to send these pre-printed envelopes which had artistic, political, or social content. During 1861 and 1862 – that is, right after the contraband policy started, but before the final Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863 – several printers made envelopes which addressed the “contraband” Issue.

The image above portrays a Virginia enslaver, bloodhound in hand, going after his runaway. The groveling bondsman is protected at the point of a sword by Union General Benjamin Butler. Butler, as mentioned above, originated the contraband policy at Fort Monroe. The image is based on an actual event: a Confederate officer, under flag of truce, met with Butler at the fort to retrieve a runaway slave. Butler responded that the slave would be returned, if the Confederate officer would take an oath of loyalty to the Union. Which, of course, the officer did not do.

Fort Monroe Doctrine cartoon
Figure 3: The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine, 1861. From the Library of Congress description: On May 27, 1861, Benjamin Butler, commander of the Union army in Virginia and North Carolina, decreed that slaves who fled to Union lines were legitimate “contraband of war,” and were not subject to return to their Confederate owners. The declaration precipitated scores of escapes to Union lines around Fortress Monroe, Butler’s headquarters in Virginia. In this crudely drawn caricature, a slave stands before the Union fort taunting his plantation master. The planter (right) waves his whip and cries, “Come back you black rascal.” The slave replies, “Can’t come back nohow massa Dis chile’s contraban”
Image Source:  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-36161; above image is from the Virginia Memory website.

This illustration depicts a runaway slave “thumbing his nose” ~ a gesture of contempt that, thankfully, has fallen into disuse ~ at an enslaver as he runs for shelter at Fort Monroe. Behind him, other slaves make a mad dash toward freedom. In fact, hundreds of slaves escaped and found shelter around the fort, which gained the nickname “Freedom Fortress.”

Contraband camps sprang up not only around this fort, but in places as close as coastal North Carolina, as far west as Arkansas, and as far south as Florida. Gaining freedom was not an easy, giddy task for the slaves: images like this do not relate the physical hardships that many slaves suffered as they liberated themselves from their masters and then navigated to the Union lines. On the other hand, the fact that so many slaves did successfully escape underscores how much the South’s slave patrol and control mechanisms crumbled under the pressure of war.

Of note is that the slave who is the central figure of the image calls himself “contraban.” Although the term “contraband” became popular in the northern lexicon, it is not clear to me that enslaved men or women actually applied that name to themselves.

Figure 4: Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Secession.” Image descriptions per the Library of Congress: “illustration of black mother and child; mother has animal-like head.”
Image Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-11328

The female character in this image is depicted with an almost hideous caricature. The face of the child is not shown; maybe it’s just as well.

But this image may not have been so much about mocking African Americans, as it was satire and irony at the expense of slaveholders and the Confederacy; and a statement concerning the desire of the enslaved to be free. Either way, it sends the message that the goal of southern independence had a whole ‘nother meaning for bondsmen and bondswomen. That it is a gendered and family depiction of the contrabands adds to its poignancy… if you can get past the awful imagery of the mother.

Call Number: oversize A 5 .34 (1861) Title: Leslie’s illustrated weekly newspaper. Published: New York. Physical Description: v. illus. 42 cm. Publication History: v. 1 (Dec. 15, 1855)- Subject (LCSH): Kansas --History. Other Name: Leslie, Frank, 1821-1880. Sleicher, John Albert, 1848-1921, ed. C. Frederick Kittle Collection of Doyleana (Newberry Library). Core Materials. Notes: Editors: 1898-Mar. 19, 1921, J.A. Sleicher.--Mar. 26, 1921-June 1922, J.N. Young and others. Merged into Judge.
Figure 5: “Morning Mustering of the ‘Contraband’ at Fortress Monroe, on Their Way to Their Day’s Work, under the Pay and Direction of the U.S.—from a Sketch by Our Artist at Fortress Monroe.” Published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, November 2, 1861, page 373
Image Source: The Newberry: Chicago’s Independent Research Library; from the series Home Front: The Visual Culture of the Civil War North; Call number oversize A 5 .34

This  illustration shows a group of contraband men on their way to work duty at Fort Monroe. The men are described as working “under the Pay… of the U.S.” This emphasizes that they are “free laborers” who are being fairly compensated by the federal government, as opposed to slaves who are being exploited by their enslavers. The drawing was made by “Our Artist at Fortress Monroe”; the contrabands had generated enough interest that Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, an important publication of the era, sent reporters to survey the scene and describe it to readers. The faces of the black men are somewhat caricatured, but not grossly so.

The importance of the labor that former slaves provided to the Union is under-appreciated, I believe. During the war, tens of thousands, perhaps over a hundred thousand, of African Americans provided direct or indirect support for the Union war effort at one time or another. As noted in an earlier blog post, Union general William Sherman at one point said, “I must have (negro) labor and a large quantity of it.” Although many of us today don’t understand the value of black labor, Union men of the time certainly did.

Contraband Barricade copy
Figure 6: Close-up view of Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Contraband Barricade. Come and get Your property.” circa 1861
Image Source: Digital Georgetown, Georgetown University; Roosevelt Civil War Envelopes Collection, file we_006_01.jpg, “Contraband Barricade. Come and Get Your Property.”

This is a close-up on a curious Civil War era envelope. It depicts Union and Confederate soldiers, arrayed against each other and at battle. But look at the Union men: in front of them, colored in grey, is a row of contrabands, wielding tools, such as shovels and pickaxes. The title signals a defiant tone: the Confederates are told, “come and get your slave property” if you dare, but you’ll have to deal with the Union army if you try. The Union, thus, has become the protectors of the former slaves, who, in turn, are supporting the Union with their labor.

The picture strikes me as an odd positioning of its characters. The contrabands are placed directly in front of the Union men; one might interpret this to mean that contrabands were used as human shields for the Union soldiers. That’s what it looks like, but I don’t think that was the artist’s intention. Alternatively: slaves were used to build forts and fortification which shielded military garrisons. The slaves in the picture could be a symbol of the physical barricades that contrabands constructed to protect Union men. Or it could just be a poorly executed piece of art by its creator.

This images predates the Emancipation Proclamation. Note that the slaves are depicted strictly as laborers, not as soldiers. The importance of blacks as laborers was a major theme for a time, but it was overshadowed by the nation’s new-found fascination with black soldiers. That new fascination occurred after the United States allowed black men to enlist in the army in mid-1862, and then announced the enlistment and deployment of black soldiers in the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863.

contrabands and cats
Figure 7: “The Great Remedy,” (Hartford: E.B. and E.C. Kellogg, 245 Main Street; New York: Phelps and Watson, 18 Beekman Street and F.P. Whiting, 87 Fulton Street, {ca. 1863})
Image Source: The American Antiquarian Society; section on the Emancipation Proclamation

This is a fascinating, awesome image. It features three cats, two white, and one black. The white cat on the right has a dark collar with the word “Jeff”, symbolizing Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. The black cat has a red collar, a strand of which reads “Contraband” (you can see it if you click on the image to see it at full size). The other white cat, presumably, is Abraham Lincoln. Note that the black Contraband cat has a growling, savage look as he eyes the white Jeff cat. The white Jeff cat, meanwhile, is trying to get at the white Lincoln cat, who seems to be barely holding on.

On the table is a bottle ~ perhaps it resembles a bottle of snake oil ~ that reads in part “Lincoln Blackstrap: Directions: One dose immediately; another after January 1st, 1863.” This refers to the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln issued in September 1862, and the final version of the Proclamation he issued on January 1, 1863. Also on the table is a set of dice; the inference is that the Emancipation Proclamation is as much a gamble as cure.

Recollect that, the contraband policy was about using escaped slaves, or slaves in occupied territory,  as laborers. The Proclamation offered freedom to slaves who weren’t yet “in the custody” of the Union. Many people in both the South and the North saw the Proclamation as encouraging slaves to engage in violent insurrection against their enslavers. The Proclamation, then, was taking the use of African Americans by the Union to a next, more frightening level. The white cat would have to cross the path of the black cat… everybody wondered what would happen. But that’s a story for another post.

Contraband Winslow Homer
Figure 8: Contraband, by Winslow Homer. Watercolor, 1875
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons. Click here for larger size.

A decade after the end of the Civil War, American artist Winslow Homer crafted this thoughtful, poignant watercolor painting of a U.S. soldier in Zouave garb, and young contraband boy. In this romanticized, but plausible, meeting between two previously separate cultures – the free labor society of the North, the slave labor society of the South – both characters try to understand the nature of the other.

The white solider might never have seen a black child in his life. If he did, it was probably in a press illustration that represented slaves as big-lipped, dark-skinned grotesques. But as this soldier gazed upon the boy, who is rendered realistically in the painting, 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 way of talking? Having survived his family’s sojourn from bondage, the thirsty and exhausted boy with the curious and trepidatious look may have seen the soldier as not just offering water, but hope. Perhaps the boy would be inspired to become a solider himself. In a world where a white man could give hope to the black enslaved, perhaps a contraband boy could dream of becoming a free man and defending a free country.

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