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

Monuments to the Civil War-era Freedom Colonies in coastal North Carolina: the Hotel De Afrique

Outer Banks History Hatteras Island’s Hotel De Afrique
Monument to the Hatteras Island’s Hotel De Afrique, a freedom colony in North Carolina; Image was taken during the dedication of the monument in July 2013.
Image Source: Blog for

The role of African American soldiers in the American Civil War has received a goodly amount of attention in the past several decades. The 1989 movie Glory, about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment, and the recent four-year Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, cast a spotlight on black soldiery that was practically a forgotten memory when I grew up in the 1950s-1970s.

The experience and role of African American civilians during the war has, unfortunately, garnered much less attention. But in North Carolina, at least, they are getting the attention they deserve. Two monuments in the state commemorate “freedom” communities that were created after the Union occupation of several portions of the Carolina coast. It is wonderful to see this remembrance of our history in public spaces.

This post focuses on the monument at Hatteras Island, NC, which commemorates the interestingly (dubiously?) named “Hotel De Afrique” freedom colony.

Early in the war, military operations by its navy and army enabled the Union to seize ground in areas with sizable populations of slaves along the Atlantic coast. In May 1861, in Hampton, Virginia, General Benjamin Butler implemented the so-called “contraband” policy, under which the Union government offered asylum to thousands of runaway slaves in southeastern Virginia. The formerly enslaved men and women formed communities which some called contraband camps; others referred to them as “freedom colonies” or “freedom villages.” (Some people – such as Frederick Douglass – objected to calling these men and women “contraband”; it was a name that reinforced the idea of human beings as property.) Butler’s contraband policy was soon authorized by the Union government, and other freedom refuges sprung up throughout the South, filled with escaped/self-liberated slaves.

In North Carolina, Hatteras Island was an early site of freedom. As noted by Drew Pullen, writing at the web site Emerging Civil War,

The capture of the Confederate forts located at Hatteras Inlet on August 29, 1861, provided the first Union victory of the Civil War. Almost immediately fugitive slaves began arriving on Hatteras Island in search of freedom. In a letter to U.S. Secretary of War Cameron, dated September 18, 1861, General John Wool inquired, “tell me what I am to do with the negro slaves that are almost arriving daily at this post [Hatteras]…” Union occupancy and control of the island provided for the beginning of the creation of a haven or colonies for fugitive slaves seeking that freedom. Hotel De’ Afrique goes down in history as the first of such encampments in North Carolina.

Hotel D'Afrique Image Edited
Drawing from the February 15, 1862 issue issue of Harper’s Weekly. This image is displayed on the front face of the monument which is noted above.
Image Source: From the website Under Both Flags: Civil War in the Albemarle North Carolina, courtesy of the Outer Banks History Center Continue reading

At the Dedication of the Freedmans Village Bridge, Arlington, Virginia

IMG_1128 copy 2
Civil War reenactors/living historians Ed Gantt, Marquett Milton, and Michael Schaffner at the dedication of Freedmans Village Bridge in Arlington, Virginia. Milton is holding the regimental flag of the XXV Army Corps of the United States army. The XXV Corps, which was created during the American Civil War, was composed entirely of soldiers from the United States Colored Troops.

Image Source: Courtesy Ed Gasaway of the African American Civil War Museum 

Northern Virginia, which is part of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, was awash with freedom during the American Civil War. A combination of events – the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia in April, 1862; the Emancipation Proclamation, in January 1863; the presence of federal troops throughout the area; and the movements of slaves themselves – caused the DC area to be flooded with former bondsmen and bondswomen, looking to start new lives as free people. On September 10, 2015, a bridge in Arlington, Virginia was dedicated to the memory of the community they created, which was named Freedmans Village.

Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, US Congressman Jim Moran, and other state and local officials were on hand to commemorate Freedmans Village Bridge, in Arlington. The crowd included descendants of Freedman’s Village residents. The new bridge replaces an aging structure that was in dire need of repair. Public officials and community members used the new bridge as an opportunity to commemorate the African Americans who made homes and a neighborhood for themselves across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital.

Freedmans Village Harpers
Freedmans Village, Arlington, Virginia, circa 1863-1865; from Harper’s Magazine

Created in 1863, at the midpoint of the the Civil War, Freedmans Village was the home of hundreds of former slaves, from Washington, DC (which was less than ten miles away), northern Virginia, and perhaps even nearby Maryland. The site is notable in part for having been created from land that was inherited by Mary Anna Randolph Custis, a descendant of Martha Washington (husband of George Washington). Mary Anna was also the wife of Robert E. Lee, who became general in chief of the Confederate army during the Civil War.

This YouTube video, produced in 2009 by Arlington County, discusses the history of the Village:

Freedman’s Village was built on land that is now part of Arlington National Cemetery. According to the Arlington Public Library, “more than 28,000 residents of Freedman’s Village are buried in Section 27 of Arlington National Cemetery.”

Today, Freedmans Village is referred to as Freedmans Village. More history of the Freedman’s Village is here:
• Another YouTube video from Arlington County about the Village
Freedman’s Village
Remembering Freedman’s Village
• Freedman’s Village: a lost chapter of Arlington’s Black History

Freedmans Village Bridge 2
Civil War reenactors/living historians Ed Gantt, Marquett Milton, Michael Schaffner and Alan Skerrett at the dedication of the Freedmans Village Bridge in Arlington, Virginia.

The Forgotten: The Contraband of America and the Road to Freedom

This video, from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, talks about the “contrabands” of the Civil War – slaves who escaped their masters or otherwise found asylum from bondage behind Union lines during the Civil War. From YouTube

“As we celebrate the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, it is important that we not just focus on the heroic tales of generals and battlefield strategy, but on the full story of that historic conflict. One hundred fifty years ago, three enslaved men risked everything for their freedom, escaping on a small boat to a Union-controlled outposts in Virginia. Rather than return the runaways, Gen. Benjamin Butler seized the men at Fort Monroe as contraband — a decision that encouraged approximately half a million enslaved people and other African American refugees to seek protection behind enemy lines by the end of the war. Not only did these contraband, as they became known, make slavery a central issue of the war, they helped secure their freedom by aiding the Union cause. This video explores two sites near the nation’s capital with links to contraband heritage, as well as an interview with a descendant of one of the original escaped slaves who fled to Fort Monroe. To learn more, visit”

Street Scene – Savannah, Georgia circa 1880s

Street Scene Savannah Georgia 1880s
“The lightening express, Savannah, Georgia”; African American with bull-drawn wagon; by photographer George Baker, 1886.
Image Source: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The lightening express, Savannah, Georgia.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections, retrieved from “” on September 3, 2015.

The American Civil War and the end of slavery wrought a sweeping transformation upon Savannah, Georgia, as they did on almost all the South. In her book Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War, pages 347-8, historian Jacqueline Jones writes about how African Americans in Savannah experienced their new-found freedom by making reference to records from the 1870 Census. Her text gives an insight into the world that the man above entered in the wake of Jubilee in the post-war South: Continue reading

Outmanned and Outgunned: African Americans’ Separate and Unequal Experience with the Right to Bear Arms and Gun Control

African American Union Soldier with Pistol
African American Union Soldier with Pistol, circa Civil War era (1860s). It was very common for Civil War soldiers to take pictures with their firearms, or props of firearms.
Image Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-11298; see more information about the photo here.


A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
– Second Amendment to the US Constitution

“The great object is, that every man be armed. […] Every one who is able may have a gun.”
– Patrick Henry

“[if negroes were] entitled to the privileges and immunities of [white] citizens, …it would give persons of the Negro race… the right… to keep and bear arms wherever they want… inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the state…”
– Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision

“Remember that the musket – the United States musket with its bayonet of steel – is better than all mere parchment guarantees of liberty. In your hands that musket means liberty; and should your constitutional rights at the close of this war be denied, which in the nature of things, it cannot be, your brethren are safe while you have a Constitution which proclaims your right to keep and bear arms.”
– Frederick Douglass, in an 1863 recruitment speech imploring black to join the Union army during the Civil War


[This is a re-blog of a post that I published in 2012.]

The current debate about gun control, spurred by incidents such as the Newtown Tragedy of December, 2012, and more recent shootings that can be found via Internet search (such as here), gives me pause me to reflect on the history of firearms access for African Americans. This history does not paint a pretty picture, but it adds a new perspective on our discussion of the right to bear arms.

A review of the history indicates that for over two centuries, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the national, state, and local governments have been engaged in a project to limit African Americans’ access to guns. This project was not conducted in secret; the people involved made it unequivocally clear that they did not want people of African descent to have firearms. Blacks with guns were seen as a threat to the safety, politics, and domination of the white majority, and the law was used to remove that threat. For African Americans, “gun control” has almost always been synonymous with “keep African Americans from getting guns.”

To be clear: I am not taking any position regarding gun access policy. I hope that no one who reads this piece will assume that I am advocating a particular viewpoint concerning gun rights and gun control issues.

What I do want to do, is provide an abridged and slightly selective timeline of African Americans’ experience with bearing arms. There is so much to this story, it’s impossible to contain it all within one blog post – and this post is somewhat lengthy as it is. But for those who are not familiar with the subject, this will be informative and useful.

There is a sadly ironic, perhaps tragic aspect to this history. Guns have become the scourge of the urban landscape. So-called “black on black” crime has become endemic in certain communities, and guns are an unfortunate aspect of this. During the slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, laws left blacks relatively defenseless against a tide of racial terrorism; African Americans were outmanned and outgunned. But now many black communities are awash in guns, and instead of firearms being used for self-defense, they are being used for self-destruction. Sometimes the arc of history bends in the wrong direction.

For more information on this subject, two good “starter” pieces on this topic are here and here. Two useful books on the subject is Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, 1866-1876 by Stephen P. Halbrook, and Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms, by Nicholas Johnson. But there are many other journal articles, books, and other references that are available via Internet search for those who want to really get in depth on this subject.

I will begin at the middle of the 18th century, and go forward to the 21st century.

1779 During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress – which represents American colonists seeking independence from Britain – offers slave masters in South Carolina and Georgia $1,000 for each slave they provide to the Continental army. However, the legislatures of both states refused the offer. Apparently, the risk of arming slaves, who might want or demand freedom in exchange for their service, is more threatening than the British Army.

1792 Congress passes the Militia Acts, which limit service in militias to free white males. This restriction is prompted in part by fears that, as in the case of the Haitian slave revolt, free blacks will unite with slaves and use their guns and military training to mount an armed insurrection against slaveholders. The measures are interpreted as meaning that blacks cannot join the United States army.

1811 Hundreds of slaves, armed with guns, knives, and axes, become part of the largest slave rebellion on American soil, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The importance of taking arms is noted in the book American Uprising: American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen,

Baptized with the blood of his former master, Charles (the leader of the slave rebellion) and his men broke into the stores in the basement (of his master’s) mansion, taking muskets and militia uniforms, stockpiled in case of domestic insurrection. Many of the slaves had learned to shoot muskets in African civil wars, while others would fight mor effectively with tha cane knives and axes they wielded in the hot Louisiana sun. As his men gathered weapons and shoved ammunition in bags, Charles and several of his fellow slaves cast off the distinctive cheap cotton slave clothes and put on the (master’s) uniforms.

Unfortunately for the slaves, their revolt was beaten back by the superior force of local authorities, and they suffered a horrible punishment after the smoke cleared.

1831 Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. The rebels kill over 50 white people, the highest number of fatalities caused by slave uprisings in the South. The rebellion was put down within a few days, but Turner survived in hiding for over two months.

After the rebellion, legislatures in the slave states passed new laws prohibiting the education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services.

1831 Three states – Florida, Maryland and Virginia – enact laws which ban black ownership of guns.

Continue reading

Gen W T Sherman: Stop recruiting for soldiers from my black laborers; “I must have (negro) labor and a large quantity of it.”

Union General William T. Sherman
Image Source: Old

On June 21, 1864, Union General William T. Sherman was in a foul mood. The cause of his exasperation this day was the loss of black labor due to the aggressive soldier recruitment efforts of Union General Lorenzo Thomas. Thomas had been tasked with enlisting former slaves into the Union army along the Mississippi River and Mississippi Valley, and he was doing too good a job as far as Sherman was concerned.

In the following communication, Sherman makes it clear: “I must have (negro) labor and a large quantity of it.” The fact that the army needed the support of African Americans was not up for debate. Sherman wanted them as laborers, whereas Thomas wanted them as soldiers.

Sherman complained that slaveowners were fleeing north Georgia, for example, and taking their slaves with them. That created a problem for Sherman because he seemed to expect that he could use those slaves as laborers to support his military operations. Although Sherman had his doubts about the viability of negroes as soldiers, he is explicit that he doesn’t mind blacks being enlisted, per se… as long as he could get all the black laborers he needed first.

So great is the value of these laborers that Sherman orders a halt Lorenzo Thomas’ recruiting efforts:

Hdqrs. Military Division Of The Mississippi,
In the Field, Big Shanty, June 21, 1864.

General Lorenzo Thomas,

It has repeatedly come to my knowledge, on the Mississippi, and recently Colonel Beckwith, my chief commissary, reported officially that his negro cattle drivers and gangs for unloading cars were stampeded and broken up by recruiting officers who actually used their authority to carry them off by a species of force. I had to stop it at once.

I am receiving no negroes now, because their owners have driven them to Southwest Georgia. I believe that negroes better serve the Army as teamsters, pioneers, and servants, and have no objection to the surplus, if any, being enlisted as soldiers, but I must have labor and a large quantity of it. I confess I would prefer 300 negroes armed with spades and axes than 1,000 as soldiers.

Still I repeat I have no objection to the enlistment of negroes if my working parties are not interfered with, and if they are interfered with I must put a summary stop to it. For God’s sake let the negro question develop itself slowly and naturally, and not by premature cultivation make it a weak element in our policy. I think I understand the negro as well as anybody, and profess as much conviction in the fact of his certain freedom as you or any one, but he, like all other of the genus homo, must pass through a probationary state before he is qualified for utter and complete freedom. As soldiers it is still an open question, which I am perfectly willing should be fairly and honestly tested. Negroes are as scarce in North Georgia as in Ohio. All are at and below Macon and Columbus, Ga.

W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General, Commanding.


What are we to make of Sherman’s remarks? I have a few thoughts:

o Sherman’s comments highlight an unappreciated fact: that African American labor was an essential part of the Union war effort. We know a lot about the black sailors and soldiers who numbered over 200,000, and were a part of the Union’s war machine. But there were tens of thousands, perhaps over a hundred thousand, African Americans who acted as servants, cooks, teamsters, pioneers, construction workers, medical aides, animal caretakers, etc, and were key parts of the civilian population that directly supported the Union efforts. I don’t think this gets enough recognition or attention.

It might be too strong to say the Union would have lost without the support of black civilians. But at the least, African American laborers enabled tens of thousands more soldiers to be dedicated to combat and other duties. By fulfilling various logistical and operational functions, these black men and women helped to, sometimes literally, pave the way for Union army in the South. Continue reading