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.

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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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Giving Thanks, by Harry Herman Roseland

Jubilo! The Emancipation Century

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Source: Liveauctioneers.com

This painting, titled Giving Thanks, is the work of Brooklyn, New York artist Harry Herman Roseland (c.1867—1950). He was a noted painter who received many awards for his work in his lifetime. According to Wikipedia, “Roseland was primarily known for paintings centered on poor African-Americans.”

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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Tragic Mulatto: Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s The Price of Blood


The Price of Blood, by Thomas Satterwhite Noble (1835–1907); 1868; Oil on canvas
Image Source: Morris Museum of Art

This is how these men, born in the 19th century, remembered their fathers:

Frederick Douglass wrote, “My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me. My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.” [1]

William Wells Brown wrote “I was born in Lexington, Ky. The man who stole me as soon as I was born, recorded the births of all the infants which he claimed to be born his property, in a book which he kept for that purpose. My mother’s name was Elizabeth. She had seven children, viz.: Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Millford, Elizabeth, and myself. No two of us were children of the same father. My father’s name, as I learned from my mother, was George Higgins. He was a white man, a relative of my master, and connected with some of the first families in Kentucky.” [2]

• Henry Bibb wrote

I was born May 1815, of a slave mother, in Shelby County, Kentucky, and was claimed as the property of David White Esq. He came into possession of my mother long before I was born. I was brought up in the Counties of Shelby, Henry, Oldham, and Trimble. Or, more correctly speaking, in the above counties, I may safely say, I was flogged up; for where I should have received moral, mental, and religious instruction, I received stripes without number, the object of which was to degrade and keep me in subordination. I can truly say, that I drank deeply of the bitter cup of suffering and woe. I have been dragged down to the lowest depths of human degradation and wretchedness, by Slaveholders.

My mother was known by the name of Milldred Jackson. She is the mother of seven slaves only, all being sons, of whom I am the eldest. She was also so fortunate or unfortunate, as to have some of what is called the slaveholding blood flowing in her veins. I know not how much; but not enough to prevent her children though fathered by slaveholders, from being bought and sold in the slave markets of the South. It is almost impossible for slaves to give a correct account of their male parentage. All that I know about it is, that my mother informed me that my fathers name was James Bibb. He was doubtless one of the present Bibb family of Kentucky; but I have no personal knowledge of him at all, for he, died before my recollection. [3]

Henry Bibb’s father was Kentucky state senator James Bibb.

3 Abolitionists Douglass Brown Bibb
African American Abolitionists Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Henry Bibb
Image Source: From their Narratives; see book citations at the bottom of this post
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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

Free Blacks in Baltimore, circa late 1850s, by Thomas Waterman Wood

Thomas_Waterman_Wood_-_Market_Woman_-_Google_Art_Project copy
Detail from “Market Woman” by Thomas Waterman Wood, circa 1858; go here to see a full image of the painting.
From the book Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860, by Christopher Philips: “Wood’s 1858 oil painting ‘Market Woman’ portray(s) a free black street vendor in Baltimore. Many African American women were vendors, or ‘hucksters,’ in the antebellum years.”
Image Source: From Wikimedia Commons via the Google Art Project

Thomas-Waterman-Wood-xx-Moses,-The-Baltimore-News-Vendor Dupe
Detail from “Moses, The Baltimore News Vendor” by Thomas Waterman Wood, circa 1858; go here to see a full image of the painting.
From the Art Project of the Google Cultural Institute/de Young Museum: “This painting depicts the freed slave Moses Small, who was a well-known Baltimore newspaper vendor. Dressed in elegant but worn attire, Moses holds a stack of Baltimore Patriot newspapers in his left arm as he tips his hat to greet the next customer. (For some whites,) Moses may have symbolized the virtues of capitalism, which provided economic opportunities for many Americans. However, the selling of newspapers was one of a limited number of jobs available to free blacks in the pre–Civil War era.
Image Source: Artclon.com

Maryland in the late 1850s was, to use a phrase made popular by Abraham Lincoln, half slave and half free: 51% of the state’s African Americans were enslaved, while 49% were free. This post is about the artist Thomas Waterman Wood whose paintings gave vibrancy and dignity to African Americans in the part of the state that was half-free.

But first, some background: prior to the Civil War, Maryland had a split personality. Free labor and slave labor were prominent in different parts of the state. In the southern part of the state that bordered Virginiaand the District of Columbia, slavery had a large presence. In the northern part of the state that was adjacent to Pennsylvania, it was mostly a free labor society.

In the late 1850s, the Maryland municipalities with the largest enslaved and free black populations, respectively, were Prince George’s County and Baltimore City. Perhaps fittingly, these two places were a mere 25 miles away from each other. Prince George’s County (PG County), which borders Washington, DC (DC was created from land that PG County donated) had the state’s largest enslaved population, with around 12,500 people held in bondage. The county has changed much over the years. Today PG County has one of the highest, if not the highest, per capita incomes of any majority-black county in the United States.

Time has not been as kind to the city of Baltimore. In 1860, it had almost 25,700 free blacks; this was the largest free black population of any city North or South. The city had a number of prominent social and civic institutions for African Americans, and industrial and shipping businesses would enjoy a boom there. But black and white middle-class flight in the second half of the 20th century has taken its toll on the city, whose urban dysfunction was cataloged in the HBO series The Wire. Recently, the city erupted into violence after a black man died while in police custody.

But in an earlier time, Thomas Waterman Wood found beautiful things in black Baltimore. A resident of the city in the late 1850s, the Vermont-born Wood became a prominent 19th century artist, known for his figure and portrait work. Several of his paintings from his stay in Baltimore stand out for their dignified treatment of the African-Americans who lived there. Recollect that, this was a time when African Americans were seen as degraded and even subhuman. Caricatured images of people of African descent were not uncommon in American art. But Wood’s art was not like that at all.

Two of his pictures are displayed above. The first picture, a portrait of a female street vendor, is delightful. The woman in the picture is smartly and vibrantly dressed. She poses for the picture with an air of confidence and a smile. Perhaps she is simply self-assured, or maybe she is flattered to be painted by this white artist. Her posture is straight and comfortable; she seems to feel good in her own skin. Is this picture merely portraiture, or a political statement? Regardless, a viewer with sensitivity to such things might say that for her, freedom is becoming.

The second picture features a newspaper vendor and former slave named Moses Small. His attire is “elegant but worn.” He gracefully doffs his hat for the artist, a gesture he made to his many street customers. The former slave has an air of dignity about him. Perhaps he is not getting rich from his work, but he is is own man, and making an honest living. From his place on the streets of Baltimore, he could no doubt see the changes in the society around him, changes which gave liberties and opportunities, such as they were, to free man and women like himself. In several years, the American Civil War would come, and even more dramatic and substantial change would come to the streets of his hometown, and in America at large. I wonder if Moses Small was there when his city erupted into a riot in 1861, as residents attacked Union soldiers from the North who were on their way south to protect the District of Columbia and fight the Confederates.

Wood produced several other humane, dignified, and non-stereotypical paintings of 19th century African Americans; these are available for viewing with a quick search on Google (or other search engine). Not too many artists were doing such work at the time, and this makes us savor his work all the more.