April 16, 2016 – Emancipation Day, Washington DC

Celebration of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia by the colored people, in Washington, April 19, 1866 / Harper’s Weekly, v. 10, no. 489 (1866 May 12), p. 300 / sketched by F. Dielman.
Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-33937

Today marks the 154th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Washington, DC. Hallelujah, hallelujah!

The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, passed by the 37th Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862, abolished slavery in Washington, D.C. by paying slave owners for freeing their bondsmen. Some 3100 slaves were freed at a cost of just under $1 million in 1862 dollars. The Act represented one of many steps the Union government took toward an active antislavery policy during the war.

Emancipation Day is now an official holiday in Washington, DC. Celebratory, commemorative and educational events have been held in Washington, DC and environs for the past two weeks. Below is a partial list of events planned for today; click this link to discover other events:

DC Emancipation Day Events

> I wonder what the Emancipation Day Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon (scheduled for 9 PM) is about.

Voting with their feet: “This day ran away from my premises, servants…”

Voting with their feet: document from Virginia’s Nancy Rowe, dated June 1862, which lists African Americans who fled her enslavement during the Civil War. Per the blog Spotsylvania Memory, “Rowe filed an affidavit with the Corporation Court of Fredericksburg documenting the loss of her slave property. Slave owners throughout the south routinely filed such paperwork in the hope of some day being compensated for their loss. In her affidavit, Nancy listed the names, ages and values of those who ran away and did not come back.”
Image Source: From the blog Spotsylvania Memory

During the American Civil War, tens of thousands of enslaved people gained their freedom by fleeing their slave quarters and escaping to the Union lines. In the blog Spotsylvania Memory, Pat Sullivan discusses the story of a group of southerners who fled captivity in June 1862, south of the area that is famous as the location of the battles of Bull Run (see here and here). Sullivan goes on to discuss how some of these freedom rebels lived after the war. It is a wonderful read and you can see it by going here.

Sullivan’s research fleshes-out the stories of African Americans who liberated themselves during the war and gained refuge with the Union army. One of the most famous pictures of slave liberation during the war is this one, which shows a group of runaways entering Union lines along the Rappahannock River, southwest of the Bull Run battles. This picture was apparently taken a month or so after the slaves mentioned above made their escape.

Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock River, VA; July-August 1862; Timothy H O’Sullivan photographer; taken in the vicinity of the Battle 2nd Battle of of Bull Run, Virginia., 1862, .
Source for Image, description: Library of Congress, Reproduction Numbers LC-DIG-cwpb-00218 (digital file from original neg.) LC-B8171-518 (b&w film neg.)

The fact that so many enslaved people – thousands of them – were able to flee to freedom in this part of Virginia is an illustration of how the war disturbed and stymied the local slave patrol and control machinery; and also, of how enslaved people were coming to see the Union as an ally for freedom. Recollect that a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation was not announced until September 1862, and the final version of the proclamation was not issued until January 1, 1863. But by this time, the so-called Contraband policy, which gave asylum to slaves so they could labor for the Union army, had been established in Hampton Roads and was certainly known by many enslaved people in northern Virginia. Additionally, the Union had by then abolished slavery in Washington, DC (on April 15, 1862); the city of Washington was just  65 miles from Spotsylvania, and of course Union soldiers had been in the area. For many enslaved people, it probably appeared that the time of Jubilee was at hand.

Current map of Northern Virginia. The Bull Run Battles, AKA the Battles of Manassas, were fought in Prince William County. Note that Fredericksburg City and Spotsylvania County are further south of Prince William County.
Image Source: YardiMatrix.com

Current map of the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, and counties in northern Virginia.
Image Source: Shared Vision Planning.com 


The War is Over; We Won; Time to Go Home – Victory and Freedom in Little Rock, Arkansas

African American soldiers mustered out at Little Rock, Arkansas, April 20, 1865; by Alfred Waud; published in Harper’s Weekly, v. 10, 1866 May 19, p. 308.
Image Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-21005 (digital file from original item) LC-DIG-ppmsca-13485 (digital file from original item) 

To some, it seemed that the Civil War would never end. But end it did.

How sweet the taste of victory and freedom must have been, for the Union’s black military men! Perhaps as many as 70% or more of the 200,000 or so African Americans who served in the Union army and navy had been enslaved before the war. They understood the stakes: victory meant freedom; defeat meant the continuation of slavery, perhaps a harsher slavery in light of how many slaves supported the Union war effort.

On April 9, 1865, Confederate Gen Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union Gen Ulysses S. Grant. That surrender ushered in the end of the American Civil War. Union men all over were ecstatic from the news.

Alfred Waud’s drawing captures the exuberance of the Little Rock, Arkansas, African American community as the U. S. Colored Troops returned home from war; over 5,000 men from the state of Arkansas enlisted in the Union army.  The victorious soldiers are joyously greeted by women and children, who no doubt had their own stories of travail to tell, as black civilians in the Civil War South.

An uncertain future awaited them all. But for now, they could finally go about their way, ushered on the wings of a new birth of freedom, ushered on the winds of victory that had earned.

December 18, 1865: It’s official – slavery is dead with the ratification of the 13th Amendment

It was 150 years ago, December 18, 1865, that the United States Secretary of State, William Seward, announced that the 13th Amendment had been ratified and had “become valid, to all intents and purposes, as part of the Constitution of the United States.” Officially and constitutionally, slavery in the United States was dead.

From: A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875, pages 774-775:

13th amendment Seward part 1

13th amendment Seward part 2

The 13th Amendment was passed by Congress January 31, 1865, and was ratified by the states at December 6, 1865. The Amendment states:

Amendment XIII


Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.


Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Some people ask, why was the 13th Amendment needed, given that Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation (the “EP”)? For one thing, the Proclamation did not abolish slavery. Emancipation and abolition are not the same thing. The EP only applied to a set of people who were enslaved at a point in time, namely, January 1, 1863. Thus, there was nothing to legally prevent children who were born after the EP from being enslaved. The EP forestalled the possibility of the enslavement of future generations.

Additionally, slavery was still legal in Delaware and Kentucky. The EP did not apply to Union slave states; it was only effective for states that were in rebellion, i.e., the Confederate States. The Union slave states of Maryland and Missouri, for example, were exempted from the EP, but they passed laws/amendments in their states which abolished slavery before the end of the Civil War. Delaware and Kentucky, two other Union slave states, did not vote to ratify the 13th Amendment; however,  the Amendment did have the necessary votes for ratification, and so slavery ended in those  two states.

There was also the possibility that the Emancipation Proclamation would face legal challenges after the end of the war. The 13th Amendment made the matter of the legality and constitutionality of the EP moot.

Fighting over Freedom in Post-war South Carolina, Part 1: Keep the Negro “as near to the condition of slavery as possible”

Negro quarters on Fripp Place, St. Helena Is. [i.e. Island], S.C. 2a
Negro quarters on Fripp Place, St. Helena Island, S.C.; circa 1863-mid 1866; Hubbard & Mix, photographers; a group of African Americans gathered outside of their living quarters, possibly on Thomas James Fripp place on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina.
Note: Edmund Rhett, Jr’s post-Civil War proposal for the “preservation of… our social system,” as described below, would prohibit African Americans from owning land and restrict their ability to move. Thus, they would be forced to live in housing quarters like this into perpetuity, if their master so desired.
Image Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-stereo-1s03955 (digital file from original item, front) LC-DIG-stereo-2s03955 (digital file from original item, back)

What, exactly, was freedom supposed to look like? This was a subject of much debate in late 1865, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War (and for some time after that, as it turned out). The Union promised that slavery would end, and ongoing efforts to pass the 13th Amendment, whose ratification at the end of the year constitutionally abolished slavery, gave good reason to believe that the peculiar institution was truly in its death throes.

But it was still an open question as to how far freedom would go. Emancipation did not necessarily mean economic independence, or political or social equality. Over the course of the Reconstruction era – when the former Confederate States were re-integrated into the United States – there would be a battle between blacks and whites, northerners and southerners, and Republicans and Democrats, about the rights, privileges, and opportunities that African Americans would have in the South.

Edmund Rhett, Jr, had his own vision of emancipation: keep the Negro “as near to the condition of slavery as possible.” Rhett, from the prominent Rhett family of South Carolina, was an editor of the Charleston Mercury newspaper, and served as an officer in Confederate Army. In mid-October, 1865, he wrote a letter to former U.S. Representative Armistead Burke, which detailed his ideas for dealing with the freepeople in the post-war South. [1] These are excerpts:

Edmund Rhett, Jr, letter to Armistead Burt, October 14, 1865.

Dear Sir:

With great diffidence and some hesitation I venture to enclose you certain propositions relative to the negro-discipline and negro-labor questions, Which have occurred to me, and impressed me as essential to the preservation of our labor system, and, indeed, our social system. As one of the Commission Appointed to suggest such laws as are advisable for the regulation and the protection of the Negro, I venture to submit these propositions to your consideration.

…[T]he sudden and entire overthrow of that system which has taken place is unwise, injurious, and dangerous to our whole system, pecuniary and social… it must follow as a natural sequence, it appears to me, that, sudden and abrupt abolition having taken place by force of arms, it should be to the utmost extent practicable be limited, controlled, and surrounded with such safeguards, as will make the change as slight as possible both to the white man and the negro, the planter and of the workmen, the capitalist and the laborer.

In other words, that the general interest of both the white man and the Negro requires that he should be kept as near to his former condition as Law can keep him and that he should be kept as near to the condition of slavery as possible, and as far from the condition of the white man as practicable. Continue reading

Major Martin Delany to the Freedpeople of SC: “(W)e would not have become free, had we not armed ourselves and fought out our independence.”

Major Martin Delaney
US Army Major Martin R. Delany: Delany was a free born “African American abolitionist, journalist, physician, and writer.” (per Wikipedia.com) Among other activities, he was co-publisher of the North Star newspaper along with Frederick Douglass. During the Civil War, “Delany recruited thousands of men for the Union Army. In February 1865, after meeting with President Abraham Lincoln to persuade the administration to create an all-black Corps led by African American officers, Delaney was commissioned a Major” in the US Colored Troops (per Blackpast.org).
Image Source: US Military History Institute, via The Senator John Heinz History Center

Edward M. Stoeber, a lieutenant in the 104th US Colored Troops, US Army, was shocked. He had just attended a “lecture” in St. Helena Island, SC, given by army Major Martin Robinson Delany to a group of fellow African Americans in July 1865, as the American Civil War was coming to an end. Delany’s audience had been enslaved, but were now unbound. Delany – who was commissioned an army major by Abraham Lincoln after appealing for the creation of black regiments led by black officers – gave the freedmen and women advice for how to move forward, advice which drove the white Lieutenant Stoeber to disgust.

Why was Stoeber so upset? For one, Delany told the freedmen that they had had freed themselves by enlisting and fighting in the Union army. Stoeber disagreed, evidently unable or unwilling to acknowledge African American agency, or perhaps, angry that the martyred Abraham Lincoln was not getting enough credit. “This is a falsehood and a misrepresentation. Our President Abraham Lincoln declared the colored race free, before there was even an idea of arming colored men,” said Stoeber in a letter to his superiors. “This (talk from Delaney) is decidedly calculated to create bad feeling against the Government,” he insisted.

Additionally, Stoeber was concerned that in “acquaint(ing) (the freedmen) with the fact that slavery was absolutely abolished,” Delany had thrown “thunders of damnations and maledictions on all the former slaveowners and people of the South, and almost condemned their souls to hell.” Stoeber might not have been aware that jeremiads against slavery and the South were not uncommon for black abolitionists, perhaps even some white ones.

Stoeber was also alarmed that Delany warned the freedmen to beware of white “ministers, schoolteachers, Emissaries, (and others who would come South to help the freedmen) because they never tell you the truth.” Such talk, said Stoeber, “is only to bring distrust against all, and gives them to understand that they shall believe men of their own race. He openly acts and speaks contrary to the policy of the Government, advising them not to work for any man, but for themselves.” Such talk was dangerous, according to Stoeber: “In my opinion of this discourse he was trying to encourage them to break the peace of society and force their way by insurrection to a position he is ambitious they should attain to.” Delany’s views were informed  by a lifetime of prejudice against himself and other African Americans living in the North; this included his dismissal from Harvard Medical School after just a month of attendance, when white students wrote of their objection to the presence of blacks at the school.

Delany and Stoeber seemed to have irreconcilable views of the past, present, and future. Major Delany, an activist African American from the North, had his own ideas about the role of African Americans in building the South and winning the Civil War, and in charting their own future as free people. For him, self-pride, self-worth, economic self-sufficiency, and a healthy dose of skepticism concerning the intentions of, and advice from, whites were key for black progress. But as far as Lt. Stoeber was concerned, Delany was a “a thorough hater of the white race (who) excites the colored people unnecessarily” and horrified white onlookers. Stoeber was also concerned that Delany gave incorrect information about the Union government’s land and labor policies, information that he feared would create false expectations and eventually result in anger among the freedpeople.

Delany was not the first to speak to what some might call a “black” (others might say “correct”) understanding of the war, emancipation, and permanent freedom, nor would he be the last. Stoeber’s reaction to his comments underscores that the memory and interpretation of the Civil War, as well as the strategies and policies for African American independence, would be contested, even among those who were on the Union side, and lead to outcomes that no one could predict.

This (partial) text of Delany’s July 1865 speech to former slaves in Beaufort, South Carolina, is based on the recollection of Lt. Stoeber, as written in letter to Brevet Maj. S. M. Taylor, Assistant Adjutant General with the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (AKA the Freedmen’s Bureau). There was some fear among (white) government officials that Delaney might be using inappropriate language or giving improper instruction and advice to the freedmen, hence Stoeber’s presence at the speech.

Partial text of letter from Lt Edward M. Stoeber, dated July 24th, 1865, written to the Freedmen’s Bureau, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida (For the full text, including more of the white reaction to the speech, see the source: Columbia University):


In obedience to your request, I proceeded to St. Helena Island, yesterday morning for the purpose of listening to the public delivery of a lecture by Major Delany 104th Ne[gro] S.C. Troops. I was accompanied by Lieut. A. Whyte Jr. 128th Ne[gro] S.C. Troops, Com[an]d’g Post. The meeting was held near “Brick Church,” the congregation numbering from 500 to 600.

As introduction Maj. Delany made them acquainted with the fact, that slavery is absolutely abolished, throwing thunders of damnations and maledictions on all the former slaveowners and people of the South, and almost condemned their souls to hell.

He says “It was only a War policy of the Government, to declare the slaves of the South free, knowing that the whole power of the South, laid in the possession of the Slaves. But I want you to understand, that we would not have become free, had we not armed ourselves and fought out our independence” (this he repeated twice). Continue reading

Request to the Confederate Army: Treat runaway slaves as traitors – so they can be summarily executed

On to Liberty, Edited
On to Liberty, Theodor Kaufmann, oil painting, 1867; see here for a higher resolution image. (Highly recommended)
Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 1982.443.3, Gift of Erving and Joyce Wolf, in memory of Diane R. Wolf, 1982
Source Description: Before coming to the United States in 1850, the German-born Kaufmann studied painting in Düsseldorf and Munich and fought in the 1848 popular uprisings in favor of national unity for Germany. As a Union soldier in the American Civil War, he may have seen retreating Confederate troops take their adult male slaves with them, leaving behind the women and children. Here, his portrayal of a group of fleeing figures suggests the lack of a clear route to liberty. They emerge from darkness into light but must traverse a rockstrewn path before arriving on the smooth road leading to the Stars and Stripes, which, however, remains frighteningly close to the ongoing battle.

In November 1860, on the eve of secession and Civil War, Georgia governor Joseph Brown confidently predicted that “we (white southerners) have… little cause of apprehension from a rebellion of our slaves.” He was responding to concerns that a civil war might provide opportunities for slaves to rebel for their freedom.

Governor Brown, who strongly advocated for secession and a confederacy of slave states, was undaunted. Second, he cited what I call the “anti-insurrection infrastructure,” that is, the policies and practices used to prevent an effective slave resistance movement: “The slaves,” he argued, “are usually under the eye of their masters or overseers. Few of them can read or write. They are not permitted to travel on our Railroads, or other public conveyances, without the consent of those having the control of them. They have no mail facilities… and no means of communication with each other at a distance. They are entirely unarmed, and unskilled in the use of arms.” Brown concluded that a “general revolt would therefore be impossible.”

Additionally, he noted, “nine-tenths of them are truly and devotedly attached to their masters and mistresses, and would shed in their defense, the last drop of their blood.” For all to these reasons, Brown saw no reason to worry about the slaves. That was in November 1860, six months before the Civil War began at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina.

A year and six months after the attack on Ft. Sumter, during which the Confederacy and the Union were engaged in a bloody war, a group of Georgians sent a letter to the Confederate government that, if he saw it, would certainly have caused governor Brown great concern. Writing from Liberty County, which is positioned along the Atlantic coast near Savannah, the concerned citizens complained that by August 1862, 20,000 slaves had fled to Union lines. The runaways were giving “aid and comfort” to the enemy by “erecting fortifications and raising provisions” for the Union, acting as spies and guides, even by being “pilots to their vessels on the waters of our inlets and rivers.” This was not only a loss of labor and assets, but it “demoralized” the remaining slave population.

One problem as some whites saw it was that laws for the protection of slave property and the slaves’ lives made it difficult to appropriately punish these fugitives from labor. So, they proposed a solution: the Confederate military should treat these runaways as traitors, and summarily execute them. Continue reading

Civil War Contraband Art

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 Daily Press, Newport News, Virginia

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. Continue reading

Would You Choose Freedom or Your Wife?

John Boston Letter to enslaved wife
Letter from runaway slave/freedman John Boston to his wife Elizabeth. John tells his wife he has escaped to freedom with the Union army — and might never see her again.
Image Source: National Archives

Would you leave your wife and family to gain freedom for yourself?

That dilemma was faced by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of slaves during the Civil War. Many enslaved Southerners fled their masters and sought freedom behind Union lines. But the chance for escape did not always afford the opportunity to take all the family along. [1]

This was apparently the case for John Boston, who escaped enslavement in Owensville, MD, by taking refuge with a New York regiment that was heading south. Boston wrote a letter to his wife, transcribed below, where he exclaims his joy at being free, and expresses his regret that he has left his wife (and perhaps a child named Daniel) behind. It is not clear if Boston wrote the letter himself, or if one of the regiment’s soldiers wrote it.

John Boston says in the letter “i trust the time Will Come When We Shal meet again And if We dont met on earth We Will Meet in heven Whare Jesas ranes.” He has no certainty about what the future holds; for now, he has cast his lot with the Union army, and all he can do is hope that God will take care of the rest. It is worth noting that the letter was written in January 1862. The legislation authorizing the Emancipation Proclamation was not passed by the US Congress until July 1862; and Lincoln did not issue the final version of the Proclamation until January 1, 1863. The notion of emancipating the slaves was not yet Union policy.

(In any event, the final version of the Proclamation did not apply to Boston’s home state of Maryland; it was only effective for states that had seceded and joined the Confederacy. Maryland did finally abolish slavery in November 1864 – notably, this was more than a year before the 13th Amendment was ratified.)

Envelope for the letter from runaway slave/freedman John Boston to his wife Elizabeth.
Image Source: National Archives

It does not appear that Elizabeth Boston ever received this letter. It was intercepted and eventually forwarded to US Secretary of War Edwin Stanton by a group of Marylanders who wanted something to be done about runaway slaves who were being harbored in Union army camps. At the time, The War department wrote back that the situation would be handled when “time permitted.”

This is the content of the letter[2]: Continue reading