Contraband, runaways, freemen: new definitions of reconstruction created by the civil war
There exists in the history of the Civil War, a gap in the story of African American participation in the struggle. Much discussed is the Underground Railroad, the use of black troops in both armies, John Brown’s Raid, and the Freedman’s Bureau. Left largely unexplored is the use of runaway slaves and contraband in the Union Army during the opening days and months of the struggle. Between the time the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861 and the authorizing of Black Troops by the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in January 1863, the Union Army grappled with the conflicts raised by the South’s “peculiar institution.”
Historical accounting of the Reconstruction era has seen a broad shift in interpretation. And, as the interpretation shifted, so too did the actual genesis of the reconstruction phenomenon evident following the War. The firm placement of Reconstruction in the years following the War became fluid as historians like Willie Lee Rose began to argue that the concepts, issues, and problems of Reconstruction are evident as early as the Port Royal Experiment.
On November 7, 1861, federal troops led by Commodore S. F. Du Pont fired upon and eventually seized the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Upon landing his troops, Du Pont found only abandoned plantations and thousands of abandoned slaves. It was here that both federal troops and ardent abolitionists began to answer the questions regarding the transition between slave and free. It was at Port Royal that the first black troops were raised, the first schooling of slaves began, and the power of a wage earner to affect his employment situation was explored. All this transpired at a time when the future of slavery had yet to be determined. Furthermore, this “experiment” served as a “proving ground” for those involved in the postwar Reconstruction plan. (1)
However, war records and slave narratives, along with newspaper and magazine accounts, show that the legal, political, and social phenomenon witnessed during the Reconstruction era were evident well before the inception of the Port Royal experiment. While nobody could have known at the time, the dynamics explored by the Union Army in dealing with both slaves and contraband would be reflected again at Port Royal, South Carolina and again during Post-war Reconstruction.
Opening Days, 1861-1862
From the outset of the War, slaves infiltrated Union lines looking for protection and an active role to play in the struggle. No clear-cut policy existed to address the use of contrabands in the Union army and at the outset of the struggle the number of fugitive or captured slaves was comparatively small. However, as the war progressed the number of slaves captured as well as those fleeing bondage increased exponentially. Where in the conflict, and in society, did the contraband fit?
As the slave issue and the issue of emancipation became intertwined with the war cause, the Army Headquarters quickly established a laissez faire approach. It was not the place of the Army to settle the question between master and slave. All fugitive slaves who sought asylum in Army camps were to be returned to their rightful owners regardless of their owner’s loyalties.
In the field however, facing a massive labor shortage and desiring the quasi-luxury of servants, officers and troops in the field began to argue for the use of the contraband and runaway slaves. Against orders, many Army camps continued to use contraband and runaway slave labor for construction, cooking, and servants. In addition to menial labor, Army officers used the contrabands and runaways as sources of information on Confederate troops, activities, and sympathizers. Army camps continued the use of contraband and runaway labor up until the Emancipation Proclamation. It is this internal conflict that foreshadowed the social, political, and economic issues that would arise at Port Royal and again during Reconstruction.
Two distinct groups comprised the slaves that began to seek asylum in the midst of Union troops, although the distinctions quickly blurred as the War progressed. Slaves came into Union lines usually by one of two ways, as runaways or as contraband.
In making the case for asylum, runaway slaves would claim to be freemen looking to aid the Union effort, or that their masters planned to use them to aid the Confederate cause. Slaves were queried at length, and independent of any other slaves, to “validate” their stories. The scope of the inquiry remains questionable, especially in light of the massive labor need of the Army, combined with the servants desired by the officers. In one account, a former slave recalls his interrogation.
He said, `Who are you?’ I said, `I belong to Mars’ Bill.’ `What do
you want here then? Didn’t your master treat you good?’ I said,
`Mars’ Bill treated me all right, but I wanted to be free and I came
with my brother over here to work.’ … they told me to fall in line
with my brother and the rest of the workers. (2)
In October of 1961, Secretary of War Simon Cameron gave what appeared to be blanket approval to train fugitive slaves as Union soldiers.
You will … avail yourself of the services of any persons, whether
fugitives from labor or not, who may offer them to the National
Government. You will employ such persons … if special
circumstances require it, in any other capacity, with such
organization (in squads, companies, or otherwise). (3)
However, to appease loyal slave owners, Cameron promised compensation for the use of their slaves.
In contrast, contraband consisted of property seized when Union troops occupied Confederate territory. The first application of this term concerning the confiscation of slaves occurred on May 23, 1861, when three slaves presented themselves to General Benjamin F. Butler following the seizure of Fort Monroe. With no law or precedent in place, the highly controversial politically appointed general, made use of international law. He declared the slaves property of the enemy and as such, subject to confiscation. Furthermore, regarding the slaves as persons, the slaves had remained loyal to the Union and deserved the protection of the United States Government. Therefore, General Butler was able to address both the property and the human issue. “Thenceforward the term `contraband’ bore a new signification, with which it will pass into history, designating the Negroes who had been held as slaves, now adopted under the protection of the Government. (4)
Secretary of War Simon Cameron supported General Buffer in his course of action. In a letter dated May 30, 1861, Secretary Cameron authorized the Union general to “refrain from surrendering to alleged masters any persons who may come into lines” with no distinction made between runaways versus contraband. (5) He went further by empowering General Buffer to use the slaves in service and labor but he refrained from answering the broader questions surrounding the contraband, leaving it for “future determination.”
Congress officially adopted the contraband terminology in its Act of July 6, 1861, which authorized the confiscation of slaves used to aid the Confederate cause. This was the first official response of the government to the contraband issue. The word contraband also became a transitory term for civilians in the north who still resisted the idea of emancipation. As a private in the Massachusetts militia expressed it, “the venerable gentleman, who wears gold spectacles and reads a conservative daily, prefers confiscation to emancipation. He is reluctant to have slaves declared freeman, but has no objection to their being declared contrabands.” (6)
However, the use of the term contraband would create a more perplexing issue for the military. How was the army to view runaway slaves and contraband? Were they property to be used for the war cause or humans and citizens with all the rights that such would entail? Headquarters and officers in the field would spar over this conundrum.
As the first weeks of the war turned into months and the Union Army entered and took control of border areas, confiscation of slaves became a more complex issue. Officers, believing strongly that the confiscated slaves were used to support the Confederate Army, blatantly ignored the Fugitive Slave Act. Part of the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act required the return of all slaves to their rightful owners. However, when Colonel Mallory, C.S.A., sought the return of his slaves, Major General Buffer rebuffed his invoking of the Fugitive Slave Act.
He desired to know if I did not feel myself bound by my
constitutional obligations … I replied that the fugitive-slave act
did not affect a foreign country, which Virginia claimed to be, and
that she must reckon it one of the infelicities of her position. (7)
At the start of the war, recognizing that many of the border states were also slave states, the Union government sought to maintain the idea that the war was about restoring the Union and had little to nothing to do with slavery. In Kentucky, the Army walked a fine line. General William Tecumseh Sherman, a Federal general noted for aggressive tactics, ordered Colonel Turchin to uphold the laws of both the United States and Kentucky and to return runaways upon proper proof by owners. In November 1861, Brigadier-General McCook petitioned General Sherman for direction in handling contraband, now used to describe captured, abandoned, and runaway slaves. McCook wrote, “I have no faith in Kentucky’s loyalty, therefore have no great desire to protect her pet institution, slavery.” (8) McCook was far more interested in promoting the cause of the war “south of the river” and did not want to advance the uninformed belief that this was a war to free slaves. Furthermore, McCook believed the Confederacy was using this notion as part of their anti-Union propaganda. In a letter to Sherman he wrote that “I am satisfied they bolster themselves up by making the uninformed believe that this is a war upon African slavery.” (9) In his book The Sable Arm, Dudley Taylor Cornish points out that Lincoln’s main concern during the first third of the war was to protect and retain the loyalty of the border states. “One way to retain the loyalty of Union men and slave holders in those states [Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and parts of Virginia] was to quiet their fears of invading abolitionist armies beating emancipation on their bayonets. (10)
As 1861 turned into 1862, the Army developed different methods of acquiring contraband. No longer were contrabands those who wandered into camp after the Union Army captured territory. Needed to fill manual labor supplies, officers were directed to seek out and recruit slaves in Confederate territory surrounding Union camps.
In addition to recruitment, orders were given to capture slaves in surrounding Confederate territory. In February of 1862, Major General Henry W. Halleck, known as a slow and over cautious field commander, issued two directives. He directed Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant to “Impress slaves of secessionists in the vicinity to work on fortifications. (11) In a letter to Brigadier General Cullum, he directed him to “Find contrabands, and put them to work to pay for food and clothing. (12)
As the Army increasingly sought the labor of contraband, they simultaneously sought to close the camps to runaway slaves. Here the issue becomes increasingly complex. The lines and distinctions between contraband and runaways sharpen and then blur again. As 1862 passed, contraband seemed to define those slaves, of Confederate or Union owners, who were recruited or captured by Union Army for the express purpose of performing labor. In contrast, runaways were those who attempted to enter the camp without solicitation.
The increase in the return of slaves, often to known Confederate sympathizers or officers, turned into a source of conflict between Army headquarters and officers in the field. Early in the conflict, General Butler made clear his view that the runaway slaves as well as contraband should be allowed, even compelled, to aid the United States. Other officers in the field adopted similar attitudes.
However, as the end of 1861 drew near, the tone from headquarters and some commanding generals changed. The open access to Army camps closed as policy and attitudes changed. In November, General Sherman directed General McCook to surrender claimed runaways to the county sheriff. He maintained that by allowing the runaways behind Union lines there “formed a source of misrepresentations, by which Union men are estranged from our cause. (13) In December, James B. Fry, Chief of Staff, and Major Waring referred to orders forbidding the entrance of fugitive slaves behind Union lines. (14)
During the same period, officers in the field pressed their case to allow both runaways and contraband to remain in the camps. Heated exchanges took place between field officers and headquarters. In October, commander of the Kansas Brigade, Joseph H. Lane, wrote a scathing letter to General S. D. Sturgis.
In answer to your note … I have this to say, that I do not care a
fig about rank; I have enough of the glittering tinsel to satisfy
me…. My brigade is not here for the purpose of interfering in
anywise with the institution of slavery. They shall not become
negroe thieves, nor shall they be prostituted into negroe catchers.
The institution of slavery must take care of itself.
However, Lane qualified his position by stating that
Confiscation of slaves and other property which can be made useful
to the Army should follow treason as the thunder peal follows the
lightening flash…. I had a man cowardly shot in the woods to-day
[sic] within sight of our camp by the very man, I have no doubt,
whose property you are so anxious to protect. (15)
Nevertheless, by February 26, 1862, the Headquarters of West Tennessee issued General Orders, No. 14, reminding Officers of General Orders, No. 3 that ordered “fugitive slaves to be excluded from the lines.” (16) Assistant Adjutant-General Rawlins stressed the conflict presented by the growing number of citizens asking authorization to look through military camps in order to locate runaway slaves. Rawlins, acting on the orders of General Ulysses S. Grant, authorized the continued use of contraband, as defined by the Act of July 6, 1861. However, this attempt to reinstate the official categories of runaways and contraband would present even more headaches. The runaways and contrabands were no longer faceless novelties and no longer fit so neatly into categories.
I WANTED TO BE FREE
At the start of the conflict, the number of runaway slaves seeking asylum was relatively small. The Army found them handy to fill positions such as servants to the officers, cooks, seamstresses, and to work in the quartermasters department. As the war progressed, the number of runaway slaves entering the camp during the first months of the war was placed in the thousands by one estimate. All were used in some form of labor capacity. In the early part of the war, former slaves were paid for their labor. The average wage was around two dollars a day. However, there were reports that the government had not paid wages for five to six months at a time. (17) In addition to wages, workers would receive food and sometimes clothing. In other cases, and more frequently as the war progressed, wages were paid solely in the form of food, clothes, and shelter.
Distinguishing between contraband and runaways was a confusing and vexing issue. After General Irvin McDowell ordered all runaway slaves excluded from Union camps, officers would decide, with no constitutional authority, the status of a “claimed” runaway. Moreover, some officers “made color a presumptive proof of bondage.” (18) Other officers avoided the possibility of their new servants being identified as slaves by simply taking the servants with them when they left camp. In July 1861, General Butler reported that a New York Regiment took with them nine slaves, against orders, in spite of them being detained by the Provost Marshall. (19) Complicating matters, slave owners too occupied to claim their slaves sent “agents” in their place but officers could not verify conclusively that the agents were indeed representing the owners. Benevolent officers would aid the slaves by assisting their escape, especially from over zealous Provost Marshalls. An officer witnessed a colonel decide a case by pitting the claimed and claimant against each other in a foot race “outside of the lines … to try their fleetness. The negro proved to be the better gymnast and was heard of no more.” (20)
As the Army grappled with the slave versus contraband issue, the contraband themselves began situating themselves as active participants in the war effort. Through the raising of “unofficial” troops and participation in the cause as spies and informants, the former slaves situated themselves in the middle of the drama. As the war intensified, runaways became a vital source of information regarding terrain, troop movements, and confederate sympathizers. Both women and men situated themselves into the daily routines of the army camps, working as seamstresses, mess cooks, and in the quartermasters department.
There existed no set criteria describing the “typical” runaway that applied for asylum. Most claimed that their masters were either in or soon to be in the Confederate Army and planned to take them with them. Some were abandoned by their masters, as was the case at Port Royal. However, their stories were as varied as the individuals themselves.
Many of the slaves, particularly in the case of runaways, left their families behind when they escaped to the Union lines. James Henry Willis was born into the household of a Mrs. Eliza Simms in Port Royal, Virginia. At the beginning of the war, Willis ran away, leaving behind his wife, mother, and four brothers.
Soon after making their escapes, the slaves were “captured” by northern troops. They were put to work in a variety of occupations. When Willis was “captured” by the First New Jersey Calvary, he did odd jobs for the “Jerseymen” for nine months before joining up with the Second Rhode Island Infantry. Again, Willis did odd jobs caring for officer’s horses and clothes. When wounded officers in the Second Rhode Island Infantry were sent to Washington, Willis accompanied them, continuing his service. (21)
In contrast to Willis, some runaways escaped directly from Confederate troops. In the case of William Henry Singleton, he joined up with Samuel Hymans who left West Point to organize a company of soldiers who later became the First North Carolina Calvary. Singleton went with Hymans because he “wanted to learn how to drill.” He did, and so well that he soon led the drills for the entire company. After a clash with General Ambrose E. Burnside, Singleton escaped and sought employment within Burnside’s camp. Although Singleton told the whole of his story to the officers there, none initially believed him until he later correctly identified a Confederate officer previously thought to be a “Union Man.” Singleton continued to give information and acted as a guide. A slave named Holmes served in the Confederate Army after he was forced to take the place of his master. He stayed with the Confederate Army three months and then ran away to join the Yankees. (22)
At the same time the runaways were integrating themselves into “Army life,” conflict arose if the runaways desired to take more than a servant’s role in the conflict. When Colonel Leggett refused to allow Singleton to arm himself even for defense, he took what was owed and formed his own “regiment of colored men.” Singleton petitioned Burnside to allow his regiment into federal service, but Burnside was powerless. That did not stop Singleton, who at a chance encounter, petitioned President Lincoln for the right to fight. President Lincoln replied that Singleton had “good pluck. But I can’t take you now because you are contraband of war and not American citizens yet. But hold on to your society and there may be a chance for you.” (23)
These were the runaways and contraband integrated into Army life. In the majority of cases, I found the officers truly treated the contraband and runaways as servants not slaves. War records and slave narratives document both pay in return for work and the freedom to leave when so desired. In December 1861, General Waring addresses his concerns to acting Major-General Asboth:
If I turn them away I inflict great hardship upon them, as
they would be homeless and helpless…. These people are
mainly our servants and we can get no others. They have
been employed in this capacity for some time–long enough
for us to like them as servants, to find them useful and
trust worthy, and to feel an interest in their welfare. (24)
Other commanders continued to petition for the acceptance of fugitive slaves belonging to rebels, citing the fugitive’s need for protection, and the officer’s need for servants.
It is not clear from the remaining documents if the issue of the place of contraband in Army was ever decisively solved before Congress authorized the raising of black troops. What is clear is the continued use of both contraband and runaways. The runaways declared themselves as freemen and as the war progressed, officers were inclined to take them at their word. “These negroes all claim and insist that they are free. Some of them I have no question are so. Others I have as little doubt have been slaves, but no one is here to prove it, and I hesitate to take so serious a responsibility as to decide … that they are such.” (25) While realizing the social conflict that aiding and using runaway slaves ignited, troops in the field were reluctant to give them up. For all the politicking and social wariness, the Army Headquarters and high-ranking officers failed to see the impact of the people factor. In addition, as the troops and officers became familiar with this people, at least for some, there followed the questions of freedom and citizenship. A private in Company L of the Third Regiment of the Massachusetts militia was assigned to contraband duty in which he supervised their labor. Seven days later he bid good-bye to the contraband as he was heading home. As the contraband asked the private to remember them, each listing their names, the situation hit home. “I may forget the playfellows of my childhood, my college classmates, my professional associates, my comrades in arms, but I will remember you and your benedictions until I cease to breathe!” (26)
Not all Union officers and troops welcomed contraband or runaway slaves, just as not all of Northern society welcomed them. While some officers considered them a valuable asset, other found the situation irritating and embarrassing. Nevertheless, this does reflect the same issues present at Port Royal and later during Reconstruction. Where did the slaves and contraband fit in the military society and society as a whole? Would they contribute to the society? Were they loyal, could they be trusted? I argue that had those going through reconstruction inquired of the experiences of the Army with contraband and runaways, they would have gained useful insights. The issues and conflicts the military establishment dealt with in an attempt to find a place for runaway slaves previewed the struggles society as a whole would face integrating this people into their social strata.
(1) C. Vann Woodward, introduction to Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment, by Willie Lee Rose (London: Oxford University Press, 1964).
(2) Julius Lester, To Be A Slave (New York: The Dial Press, Inc., 1968), 132.
(3) Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1966), 19.
(4) “The Contrabands at Fortress Monroe,” Atlantic Monthly (November 1861), 627.
(5) “Gen. Butler’s course Approved–Slaves Contraband,” Fredricksburg News 4 June 1861, pg. 2.
(6) “The Contrabands at Fortress Monroe” 627.
(7) Benjamin F. Butler, letter to Lieutenant-General Winfield Scott, May 24, 1861, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, (hereafter referred to as OR), I, vol. 2, 650, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1882).
(8) Alexander M. McCook, letter to General W.T. Sherman, November 5, 1861, OR, I, vol. 4, 337, (Washington, D.C: GPO, 1882).
(10) Cornish, 10.
(11) Major General Henry W. Halleck, letter to Brigadier-General Ulysses S. Grant, February 8, 1862, OR, I, vol. 7, 595, (Washington, D.C: GPO, 1882).
(12) Major General Henry W. Halleck, letter to Brigadier-General Cullum, February _, 1862, OR, I, vol. 7, 628, (Washington, D.C: GPO, 1882).
(13) W. T. Sherman, letter to Brigadier-General McCook, November 8, 1861, OR, I, vol. 4, 347, (Washington, D.C: GPO, 1882).
(14) James B. Fry, letter to General Thomas, December 22, 1861, OR, I, vol. 7, 510, (Washington, D.C: GPO, 1882); George E. Waring, Jr., letter to General Lorenzo Thomas, December 23, 1861, 511, (Washington, D.C: GPO, 1882).
(15) James H. Lane, letter to General Samuel D. Sturgis, October 3, 1861, OR, I, vol.3, 516, (Washington, D.C: GPO, 1882).
(16) Jno. A. Rawlins, General Orders, No, 14, February 26, 1862, OR, I, vol. 7, 668, (Washington, D.C: GPO, 1882).
(17) John W. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), 172.
(18) “The Contrabands at Fortress Monroe,” 628.
(19) Benjamin F. Butler, letter to Lieutenant-General Scott, July 27, 1861, OR, I, vol. 2, 765, (Washington, D.C: GPO, 1882).
(20) Ibid., 629.
(21) “James Willis Dies at 102,” Montclair Times, 21 May 1942, 6.
(22) Ms. Holmes, interview, George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972-79). Online, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/wpa/holmes11.html
(23) William Henry Singleton, “Recollection of My Slavery Days,” Interview, electronic edition, Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2000. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/singleton/singleton.html
(24) George E. Waring, Jr., letter to Acting Major-General Asboth, OR, I, vol. 8, 451 (Washington, D.C: GPO, 1882).
(26) “Contrabands,” 636.
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