African Americans--Enslaved People. Contraband of War

Early in the American Civil War, thousands of enslaved African Americans behind Confederate lines fled to Union Armies and forced military and political leaders to adopt a policy toward them.

In May 1861, General Benjamin Butler at Fort Monroe, Virginia became the first to formally address the issue when three enslaved persons escaped to the fort and their enslaver demanded they be returned. Butler denied his request on grounds that the fugitive slave law of 1850 no longer applied to states claiming to have left the Union. He then classified these newly freed people as "contraband of war" and assigned them to labor for the military.

President Lincoln resisted action on behalf of the enslaved for fear of isolating neutral slave states like Kentucky and Missouri, yet Congress adopted Butler's policy by passing two Confiscation Acts in August 1861 and July 1862, the first authorizing Union seizure of Confederate property of military value, including the enslaved, and the second freeing all of the enslaved within Union lines. However, these laws largely codified into law the emancipationist policies already being practiced by both the enslaved and many Union generals.

The Union Army set up what became known as "contraband camps" in which newly freed people of contraband status lived. Contraband camps often presented squalid living conditions within which formerly enslaved persons performed hard labor for the military, faced hostility from white Union soldiers, and were still considered property. However, contraband camps also offered the promise of legal freedom and "became the first great cultural and political meeting grounds that the war produced" for newly freed African Americans who had never been concentrated in such numbers (Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet, 73).

The contraband system ultimately highlights the efforts of the enslaved at self-emancipation, as enslaved African Americans' escapes to Union lines early in the war forced the nation to reckon with the question of slavery and the war's aims, and only by freeing themselves did enslaved people reach Union forces and push the nation toward emancipation (Berlin, The Long Emancipation, 158-162; McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 355; Wikipedia).

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