When three slaves — Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker and James Townsend — fled to the Union-held Fort Monroe, Va., in May 1861, Gen. Benjamin Butler faced a sticky situation: The men’s master had put them to work building an artillery battery for the Confederacy, so returning the runaways would have been aiding the enemy. However, President Lincoln had made it clear that his goal was to crush the Southern rebellion and not to interfere with the “peculiar institution” of slavery.
Butler hit on the ingenious solution of holding the men as contraband — property that could be used by the enemy against the Union.
“When other enslaved Africans Americans heard that three men had been granted refuge, they began flocking to Freedom’s Fortress, as they called Fort Monroe,” wrote Eric Wills in Preservation magazine. By the end of the war, half a million former slaves and freedmen had found refuge with the Union army. As Wills put it:
The large number of runaways who flocked to Union lines belies the outdated and racist notion that enslaved African Americans simply waited for emancipation by singing hymns and strumming banjos; rather, they seized almost every chance to pursue their freedom, often risking death, and in so doing, helped make slavery a central issue of the Civil War.
Furthermore, they were a vital part of the war effort. When Lewis Lockwood, a member of the American Missionary Association, arrived at Fort Monroe in September 1861, he said:
On the contraband under God perhaps hinges the destiny of this Republic. Without them this rebellion may not be suppressed.
The seven “contrabands” in the photo above worked for the Union army as teamsters. They are wearing old uniforms (castoffs from soldiers who hadn’t survived?), which are shabby and torn. Even their hats have seen better days. But these men were free. And I can only imagine how amazing that felt.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.