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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Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers”

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 1
From the 1901 book Candle-Lightin’ Time by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, photographer Leigh Richmond Miner, and illustrator Margaret Armstrong. The book is available at Archive.org.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African-American poet who gained national prominence in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Born in 1872, he was raised in Dayton, Ohio, where he was the lone black student in his high school. His father was an escaped slave from Kentucky who served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War.

In 1901, Dunbar published Candle-Lightin’ Time. The book was an artistic calloboration, featuring poems by Dunbar, photographs by Leigh Richmond Miner of the Hampton Institute Camera Club, and illustrated decorations by Margaret Armstrong. The work includes an ode to African American Civil War soldiers titled When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers, which is presented further below along with photographs from the book. The poem was no doubt inspired by his father.

The poem is interesting in that, while centering on the suffering and loss of a black mother for her son, it also speaks to the suffering of a white Confederate family. The poem’s narrator is the mother of a black Union soldier, but also, has a slave master who served in the Confederacy, along with the master’s son. Both master and son would feel the pain and anguish of war. In this, the slave mother and her mistress would share a bond that transcended race, section, and politics.

Candle-Lightin’ Time features other, non-Civil War content and makes for a fine read not only for its poetry but for its photographs.

Dunbar died in Dayton, Ohio at the age of 33 from tuberculosis.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers

Dey was talkin’ in de cabin, dey was talkin’ in de hall;
But I listened kin’ o’ keerless, not a-t’inkin’ ’bout it all;
An’ on Sunday, too, I noticed, dey was whisp’rin’ mighty much,
Stan’in’ all erroun’ de roadside w’en dey let us out o’ chu’ch.
But I did n’t t’ink erbout it ‘twell de middle of de week,
An’ my ‘Lias come to see me, an’ somehow he couldn’t speak.
Den I seed all in a minute whut he’d come to see me for; –
Dey had ‘listed colo’ed sojers, an’ my ‘Lias gwine to wah.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 2

Oh, I hugged him, an’ I kissed him, an’ I baiged him not to go;
But he tol’ me dat his conscience, hit was callin’ to him so,
An’ he could n’t baih to lingah w’en he had a chanst to fight
For de freedom dey had gin him an’ de glory of de right.
So he kissed me, an’ he lef’ me, w’en I’d p’omised to be true;
An’ dey put a knapsack on him, an’ a coat all colo’ed blue.
So I gin him pap’s ol’ Bible, f’om de bottom of de draw’, –
W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 3
But I t’ought of all de weary miles dat he would have to tramp,
An’ I could n’t be contented w’en dey tuk him to de camp.
W’y, my hea’t nigh broke wid grievin’ twell I seed him on de street;
Den I felt lak I could go an’ th’ow my body at his feet.
For his buttons was a-shinin’, an’ his face was shinin’, too,
An’ he looked so strong an’ mighty in his coat o’ sojer blue,
Dat I hollahed, “Step up, manny,” dough my th’oat was so’ an’ raw,-
W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

Ol’ Mis’ cried w’en mastah lef’ huh, young Miss mou’ned huh brothah Ned,
An’ I did n’t know dey feelin’s is de ve’y wo’ds dey said
W’en I tol’ ’em I was so’y. Dey had done gin up dey all;
But dey only seem mo’ proudah dat dey men had hyeahd de call.
Bofe my mastahs went in gray suits, an’ I loved de Yankee blue,
But I t’ought dat I could sorrer for de losin’ of ’em too;
But I could n’t, for I did n’t know de ha’f o’ whut I saw,
‘Twell dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

Mastah Jack come home all sickly; he was broke for life, dey said;
An’ dey lef’ my po’ young mastah some’r’s on de roadside, – dead.
W’en de women cried an’ mou’ned ’em, I could feel it thoo an’ thoo,
For I had a loved un fightin’ in de way o’ dangah, too.
Den dey tol’ me dey had laid him some’r’s way down souf to res’,
Wid de flag dat he had fit for shinin’ daih acrost his breas’.
Well, I cried, but den I reckon dat’s what Gawd had called him for
W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 4

 



This video excerpt, from the 1990 video “The Eyes of the Poet,” features Herbert Woodward Martin performing the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dr. Martin, University of Dayton professor emeritus, is an acclaimed scholar and interpreter of Dunbar’s works.
University of Dayton; Published on Oct 14, 2014

Steamship with African American Children, Jacksonville, Florida, Late 19th Century

Steamship-with-African-American-Children3

Steamship with African American children
Collection: Loewentheil Collection of African-American Photographs, Cornell University Library, Digital Collections
Creator: O. Pierre Havens
Date: Late-19th century
Description: Lucas Line steamship, with African American children on the riverbank in foreground. Well-dressed white people sit high up on the ship.
Site: Jacksonville, Duval, Florida, United States

Portrait of Woman and Man with Bayonet

Woman-and-Man-with-Boyonet-2a
Portrait of a woman and a man with a bayonet
Description: Portrait of a woman in a bonnet standing beside a man in Civil War era uniform with a bayonet and hand-colored buttons. In an ornamental case.
Source: From the Loewentheil Collection of African-American Photographs, Cornell Universisity
Date: Late-19th century

Freedom from Shame: “A Christian and civilized city… should not be subjected… to the humiliating spectacle of a woman chained and pinioned and driven along the streets”


Slaves in chains: a not uncommon sight in the Antebellum South
Image: A slave-coffle passing the Capitol; Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-2574

Shame freed two black women from bondage in Tennessee during the Civil War.

The state of Tennessee was not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation. At the time the EP was issued (1/1/1863), most of the state was under US military control. As such, Tennessee was no longer considered to be in rebellion against the United States; and only  states that were controlled by Confederate rebels were covered by the Proclamation.

As such, slaveholders in Tennessee still had a legal right to chattel property. However, in March 1862, “the US Congress adopted an additional article of war forbidding members of the army and navy to return fugitive slaves to their owners.” In addition, Union Provost Marshal organizations had some leeway to enforce the law as they deemed appropriate and necessary. The Provost Marshal were Union military authorities who acted as a local police force in areas that were reclaimed from the Confederates. This would give the enslaved opportunities for freedom even in a Union slave state.

In February 1864, Major John W Horner, a Provost Marshal in Nashville, TN, was disturbed to see a young woman “with her arms securely tied behind her” walking behind a buggy on the streets of the city. He found the scene a “brutal and revolting act” that “subject(ed) a civilized and Christian city to the humiliating spectacle of a women chained and pinioned and driven along the streets.”

He details the scene and his response to it in this correspondence to the Provost Marshal of the District of Nashville, dated February 27, 1864:
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Sally in our Alley

Sally-in-our-Alley
“Sally in our Alley.”African-American girl dancing, African-American man with banjo, and another African-American man seated on steps, c1897. Photographic print on stereo card: stereograph. Stereo copyrighted by B.L. Singley (Keystone View Co.).
Image Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-76162 (b&w film copy neg.); LCCN Permalink https://lccn.loc.gov/2002698375
To view a larger image, go here.

“Sally in our Alley” is a song attributed to the Englishman Henry Carey (1693?–1743), which gained some level of popularity in its day. “Sally in our Alley” also refers to a 1902 musical and three different films released from 1916 to 1931.

Perhaps the woman in the above image was dancing to the song. Or maybe her name was Sally and she was dancing in somebody’s alley.

Quotable: Patrick Rael on Men, Lions, and History

On a warm afternoon in Newcastle, England, in 1863, the British Association for the Advancement of Science met to hear papers presented by scholars in its Ethnological section. Before a rapt audience, one of its distinguished members, Dr. James Hunt, lectured lengthily on the superiority of the white race over its darker cousins. In the middle of the lecture, from the midst of the audience, a long black man rose to challenge Hunt.

Arguing for the innate ability for African descent people to “rise,” the man engaged the learned racial theorist on none of the grounds of the new racial science. Instead, he told a tale taken from Aesop, of a man and a lion both walking down the street, arguing over which represented the superior species. According to the story, hard pressed to prove his case, the man was delighted to spy a public house, the sign for which depicted a man wrestling a lion to the ground. Considering his arguments won, the man pointed to the picture as evidence of men’s superiority over lions. The lion, however, simply asked, “Ah, but who painted the picture?”

The meeting errupted. Defenders and challengers of black capacities descended into verbal melee, and the session adjourned prematurely.

– From Black Identity & Black Protest in the Antebellum North, by Patrick Rael, P1.

According to Rael, the black man in the audience was William Craft. Craft has gained some measure of fame for his daring escape from slavery with his wife, Ellen Craft. Notes Rael, “(Ellen), lightly complected, had posed as a young white master traveling north with his slave, William.” They resided in New England for a time, but were forced to flee the United States. According to Wikipedia,

Threatened by slave catchers in Boston after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Crafts escaped to England, where they lived for nearly two decades and reared five children. The Crafts lectured publicly about their escape. In 1860 they published a written account, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; Or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery

The story of the Crafts is detailed here.

Ellen_and_William_Craft
Ellen and William Craft, wife and husband, circa mid 1800s. Ellen, a “light skinned slave,” posed as a male slave owner, and William posed as her slave, in a daring plot to escape from the South to gain their freedom.
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

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?

Drunk History: Harriet Tubman leads slaves to freedom during the Civil War

Harriet Tubman, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, was a spy for the Union during the Civil War, eventually leading raids on plantations in South Carolina that freed over 700 slaves.

Comedy Central’s Drunk History show does a hilarious take on her wartime heroics:

While it is hilarious, it is based on a true story. Much of this seems based in part on the book Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent: How Daring Slaves and Free Blacks Spied for the Union During the Civil War, by Thomas B. Allen, which is a good read.

Crissle West of The Read does most of the voice-over for this video.