Contraband Art: the White View of the Black Exodus

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”

First and foremost, you must understand this: Civil War era northerners were intrigued, perhaps even fascinated, by the very idea of “contrabands”: human property that was “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.

Some background is in order. 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.

image.png
Figure 2: An enslaved person caricature with an impish grin says “I’se de INNOCENT CAUSE Ob All Dis War Trouble”
Image Description: This Civil War era envelope image shows an African American enslaved person slyly casting himself as the “innocent cause of all this war trouble.” Many African Americans no doubt agreed with this, but most likely, this reflects the sentiment of the illustrator and many white northerners. But the exigencies of war would transform the Negro from a mere trickster into a freedom seeker that the Union would embrace as “contraband.”
Image Source: Indiana State Library, Civil War Envelope Exhibit

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 that was 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.


Figure 3: 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 also, in finding a way to legally use enslaved peoples 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. Meanwhile, some northerners – such as Frederick Douglass – wondered why African Americans were called by a name that reinforced the idea of human beings as property.

Many white northerners no doubt wondered, just who were these people, anyway? Who were these 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 important to the Union’s success? They might also 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 4: 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 printed envelopes which had artistic, political, or social content. During 1861 and 1862 – that is, 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 5: 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.
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American Esoterica: African Americans and Oxen

Slaves Fording River
Rappahannock River, Virginia; African Americans who escaped bondage ford the Rappahannock during the Civil War, 1862
• Image Source: Library of Congress
• Created / Published: 1862 August.
• Photograph from the main eastern theater of the Civil War, Bull Run, 2nd Battle of, Va., 1862, July-August 1862.
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This post is filed under the category “Esoterica”: humans have more than one four-legged friend, as we can see:

Plowing-in-South-Carolina,-by-Jame-E.-Taylor,-is-from-Frank-Leslie's-Illustrated-Newspaper,-dated-October-20,-1866
Plowing in South Carolina, from a sketch by Jas. E. Taylor; James E.Taylor artist; 1866; Illus. in: Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, v. 23, no. 577 (1866 October 20), p. 76.
• Image Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-134227; Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
•  Created/Published: 1866 Oct. 20.
• Print shows a freedman plowing with a primitive plow.

Couple-with-Ox-2
African American man and woman seated in wooden ox-drawn cart, circa 1880
• Image Source: Loewentheil Collection of African-American Photographs, #08043, accessed 2 October 2018. Continue reading

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.

The Innocent Cause of All this War Trouble

These are three Civil War era envelopes, of undoubtedly Union origin, which make a statement about the role of enslaved persons in causing or contributing to the war. Note that, 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. The envelopes represent a kind of pop culture treatment of the issues of the day, such as, in this case, war and slavery.

Innocent cause of war envelope
Figure 1: “Innocent Cause of War” envelope cover, circa American Civil War (1861-1865). A caricatured enslaved person, with what appears (to me) to be an impish grin, says “I’se De INNOCENT CAUSE ob all dis WAR TRUBBLE.”
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, from the Civil War Envelope Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.

Innocent cause of war envelope 2
Figure 2: “Innocent Cause of War” envelope cover, circa American Civil War (1861-1865). This is similar to the envelope in Figure 1, but without the use of caricatured dialect, and with less of the grin.
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, from the Civil War Envelope Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.

Cornerstones envelope
Figure 3: “Cornerstones” envelope cover, circa American Civil War (1861-1865). This uses the enslaved person image seen in Figure 1. A bust of George Washington is at the top left. Washington is called the ‘Corner Stone of the Federal Union’ while the slave is called the ‘Corner Stone of the “Southern Confederacy.”‘ Published by James Gates, Cincinnati.
Note: In March 1861, Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederate States, made a now famous oration that has been called the “Cornerstone Speech.” In it, Stephens is said to have stated “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, from the Civil War Envelope Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.

Caption This (Nanny and Child)

Dixons carburet of iron stove polish copy
“Dixon’s carburet of iron stove polish,” circa 1885; printers and engravers include Major & Knapp Engraving, Manufacturing & Lithographic Co. (New York) and A. Gast & Co. (New York and St. Louis).
Description: From a “series of illustrated trade cards depicting an African American woman affectionately playing in the kitchen with a young girl, who is partially covered in Dixon’s carburet of iron stove polish. The little girl stands on the kitchen table and grabs the woman’s cheek as a kettle boils on the stove in the background. Joseph Dixon produced his carburet of iron stove polish in 1827.”
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, African Americana Collection – African American Graphics Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.
(Carburet: car·bu·ret [kär′bə-rāt′, -rĕt′] To combine or mix (a gas, for example) with volatile hydrocarbons, so as to increase available fuel energy.)

OK, what’s your caption for this image?

Dick, sketched on the 6th of May, on return to camp

Dick in Camp in Virginia
This is a portrait of a young man in a Union Army camp during the Civil War, circa May 1863, in Virginia. He is probably a former slave who found work with the army. A high-resolution version of the image is here. The caption at the bottom of the picture reads “Dick Sketched on the 6th of May, the afternoon of Gen. Hookers retreat across the Rappahannock.” This was after the Battle of Chancellorsville, where forces led by Union General Joseph Hooker were beaten by Confederate forces led by Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

This picture is from the Prints and Photographs collection of the Library of Congress (LOC), and is titled “Dick, sketched on the 6th of May, on return to camp / E.F.” The drawing, of an African American man holding a mule by a rope, is by artist Edwin Forbes (1839-1895), and was done in May, 1863. The LOC Reproduction Numbers for the image are: LC-DIG-ppmsca-20539 (digital file from original item), LC-USZC4-4219 (color film copy transparency), LC-USZ62-21374 (b&w film copy neg.). The LOC Call Number is DRWG/US – Forbes, no. 64 (A size).

Politics, 1868: “Would You Marry Your Daughter to a N******?”

Would you want your daughter to marry a...
“Would You Marry Your Daughter to a Nigger?” Harper’s Weekly, July 1, 1868.
Supreme Court Justice Salmon Chase joins a negro man and an Irish woman in miscegenation marital bliss while Democratic Party politicos look on.

This is how they rolled in 1868.

The political cartoon above is taboo in today’s polite political society. But in 1868, racial and ethnic prejudice was out front and in your face. And the message here is a little more complicated than you might think at first.

Before, during, and after the Civil War, the Democratic Party openly used racial prejudice as a way to appeal to and galvanize white voters. Miscegenation – race mixing – was one of the Party’s favorite themes.

The image from Harper’s Weekly is a somewhat complex satire of that theme and of the man depicted in it, Salmon Chase. (The bald-headed man in the center of the picture is Chase.) Chase was a member of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, and was made Chief Justice of the Supreme Court via Lincoln’s nomination. Chase was known as an anti-slavery man, but in 1868 the Democratic Party – which had been a pro-slavery party before the war – considered nominating him for president, and it seems Chase was interested.

Harper’s Weekly, which supported the Republican Party, decided to have a little fun at the expense of Chase, the Democrats, and also, Irish Americans, who were part of the Democratic Party’s electoral coalition. Irish Americans in New York City had gained some infamy in the wake of the Draft/race riot of 1863.

Basically, Harper’s is chiding Democrats for politically miscegenating with a presumably pro-miscegenation Chase; and is chiding Chase for politically miscegenating with men that Harper’s considered Democratic scoundrels. The other persons in the cartoon include northern Democrats, some associated with New York City’s Tammany Hall political machine; and others such as despised Copperhead Clement Vallandingham and Nathan Bedford Forrest of Fort Pillow fame.

This particular image is made even more lurid by its simian-like depiction of an Irish woman with the “Democratic Party” veil. Even whites from the British Isles could be subjected to nativist caricature and ridicule. Interestingly, the African-American in the picture is not caricatured.

Because of the acrimonious partisanship of US politics today, some people have expressed a desire to return to the good old days of American civics. But as the above cartoon shows, the old days were not necessarily all that good.

A list of men in the picture is here:

The other figures in the cartoon are leading Democratic politicians. On the left side (l-r): John Hoffman, New York gubernatorial candidate; John Morrissey, Tammany Hall associate and former prize-fighter; Fernando Wood (background), former New York City mayor; Manton Marble, New York World editor; Senator Thomas Hendricks of Indiana, a presidential candidate; and, James Gordon Bennett Sr., former New York Herald editor.

On the right side (l-r): Horatio Seymour, former New York governor and eventual 1868 presidential nominee; Representative James Brooks of New York; Clement Vallandingham, former leader of the Peace Democrats; Senator James Doolittle of Wisconsin (background), a presidential candidate; George Pendleton, 1864 vice presidential nominee and the leading 1868 presidential candidate; Raphael Semmes (background), famed Confederate admiral; and Nathan Bedford Forrest, former Confederate general of Fort Pillow infamy.

The 1868 presidential election was won by Republicans Ulysses S. Grant, President, and Schuyler Colfax, Vice President.

A different view of secession


Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Secession.” Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-11328

Ah, you can’t beat that old time humor. This is a Civil War era envelope that I saw in the Library of Congress (LOC) online archives. This is from the LOC description of the item:

Date Created/Published:[between 1861 and 1865]
Medium: 1 print : wood engraving on envelope ; image and text 5 x 4.5 cm, on envelope 8 x 14 cm.
Summary: Picture shows an African American boy and mother with a bundle running.
Notes: Title from item.
Gladstone’s inventory code and notes: Envelope 20; illustration of black mother and child; mother has animal-like head.

The characters in the image are, to say the least, unflatteringly depicted as stereotypical caricatures. Of course we of today find this outrageously offensive. But this is how they rolled back in the day. Note that, the face of the child in this picture is not shown; maybe it’s just as well.

But I suggest that observers not get too hung-up about the picture’s visual vulgarity. This image wasn’t so much about mocking African Americans. It was about satire and irony at the expense of slaveholders and the Confederacy, and secondarily, 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 (a term used in the North to describe runaway slaves) adds to its poignancy.

There were tens of thousands of enslaved people who liberated themselves during the war, and their story is not well known or understood in American memory. But as this tiny bit of humor indicates, it was on the minds of wartime Americans. As we commemorate and consider this 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation, it’s something that should be on our minds as well. But I’m not sure if people have focused on this much as we reach the halfway point of the Sesquicentennial.

Perhaps it’s because the process of emancipation was not always a pretty sight. But we can’t look away at truth and insight, simply because it’s ugly.

The Confederate soldier’s view of the colored soldier, Part 2: Sketches from Prison (“De’ Bottom Rails on Top Now”)


Drawing of a US Colored Troop prison guard and a Confederate prisoner at Point Lookout, Maryland. The guard tells the prisoner: “Git away from dat dar fence white man or I’ll make Old Abe’s Gun smoke at you I can hardly hold de ball back now. De bottom rails on top now.”
Source: “Guard challenging Prisoner,” from Point Lookout Sketches

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In antebellum America, and in the American South in particular, the black male slave had no honor or manhood. He was considered “degraded,” lacking any rights that a white man was bound to respect, and lacking any dignity that a white man was bound to recognize.

And then the Union decided to arm the slaves in its war against the Confederacy. And everything changed.

What a sight it must have been for Confederate soldiers to see: former slaves on the battlefield, armed, dangerous, and fighting for a different vision of the South. It was one of the Confederate soldier’s worst fears, come to life.

Imagine how much worse it must have been for a Confederate soldier to be taken prisoner, and having those former slaves as his prison guards. Now, it was the black man who was keeping the white man from freedom. Just imagine…


A USCT guard warns a Confederate prisoner, “You little Reb wid de red shirt double quick into line or I’ll pop a cap at you.” First prisoner: “Oh I’m nearly broke down.” Second prisoner (with red shirt): “Oh me! I’m nearly froze.”
Source: “On a cold night in January,” from Point Lookout Sketches

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