The Slaves That Freed Themselves, Part 1: The Grand Contraband Camp
Much has been written about the “Underground Railroad” which enabled slaves to become free in the North. But very little has been written about the slaves that escaped the plantations by becoming “Contraband of War”. Even less has been written about the former slaves who took up arms against their former masters as “Volunteers of African Descent”. Follow this blog for more information on the topic.
According to Wikipedia, “Contraband was a term commonly used in the United States military during the American Civil War to describe a new status for certain escaped slaves or those who affiliated with Union forces. The Army (and the United States Congress) determined that the US would not return escaped slaves who went to Union lines and classified them as contraband. They used many as laborers to support Union efforts and soon began to pay them wages. The former slaves set up camps near Union forces, and the Army helped support and educate both adults and children among the refugees. Thousands of men from these camps enlisted in the United States Colored Troops when recruitment started in 1863. At war's end, more than 100 contraband camps existed in the South, including the Freedmen's Colony of Roanoke Island, where 3500 former slaves worked to develop a self-sufficient community.”
The Contrabands freed themselves by crossing Union lines. The precedent was established by three slaves, Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory. These men were able to navigate a rowboat in the dark across Hampton Roads harbor from Confederate-occupied Norfolk County. They asked for sanctuary from Union officers at Fort Monroe. When presented with the news, General Benjamin Butler saw this as an opportunity to obtain vitally needed laborers while granting them some measure of freedom. He refused to return the men to their former masters to prevent their use in the Confederate war effort. The next day several more African Americans requested asylum at Fort Monroe and the process continued until the “Grand Contraband Camp” became a city with a population estimated between 7,000 and 10,000 people. The Hampton History Museum had a wonderful exhibit in the Fall of 2013 on the Hampton Contraband Camp which is featured in a Youtube video here. Fort Monroe was renamed by the Contraband community as “Freedom’s Fortress”.
The Army and the Navy began paying the contrabands for their labor. The U.S. Congress legitimized and encouraged the process further with legislation. The Confiscation Act of 1861 was an act of Congress during the early months of the American Civil War permitting court proceedings for confiscation of any property being used to support the Confederate independence effort, including slaves. Lincoln had to be persuaded to sign the act because of his concern that the measure would have no practical effect since the Union was being trounced on the battlefield and had minimal control of Confederate territory. He was also afraid that it might hamper efforts to enact laws for emancipation further down the road. Leading senators of the Abolition movement were finally able to persuade him to the sign the bill. Very few confiscations were pursued in the courts but there were thousands of men, women and children that escaped slavery by crossing Union lines. Stay tuned for the next installment!