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Contrabands of War

        Wherever Federal troops invaded Southern territory, fugitive slaves sought protection behind Union lines. Since the government had no policy for dealing with the runaways, military commanders used their own discretion, according to circumstances. Union political general and abolitionist Benjamin F. Butler first applied the term contrabands of war to fugitives at Fort Monroe when he learned they had been building fortifications for the Confederates. These slaves he did not return to their owners, but later, under different circumstances in Louisiana, he did order fugitives back to Unionist masters.
        In summer 1861 several officers recommended returning all fugitives because they had no system of caring for them, a policy generally adopted in the West. The House of Representatives addressed the problem 9 July by passing a resolution absolving the army from any responsibility to capture and return fugitives, but a few weeks later Lincoln interceded on behalf of some Virginia slaveowners seeking to cross the Potomac River to recover their property. The Confiscation Act of August 1861 established the first official policy: any fugitive slave used with his master's knowledge to advance Confederate victory was to be considered a prize of war and set free.
        Using these criteria, several commanders set up contraband camps where they provided as best they could for the fugitives' welfare. Lacking funds to carry out extensive relief programs, they provisioned their charges variously, sometimes leasing them to loyal planters or hiring them as laborers for the army. Finally, in Dec. 1862, Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton, then commanding the Department of the South, ordered the refugees under his jurisdiction settled on abandoned lands, issued each laborer 2 acres of land, and gave them tools to plant crops for their own consumption; in exchange, they produced a portion of cotton for government use. Some commanders appointed superintendents to oversee the blacks' welfare, and private relief associations quickly organized to provide additional supplies, supervision, and education.
        Despite efforts to care for the contrabands, many were crowded into unhealthy camps, where they died from disease, exposure, or, occasionally, starvation. An official in one camp reported a 25% mortality rate over a 2-year period. Some contrabands returned voluntarily to former masters and many men joined the Union army when permitted to enlist in 1863.
        Regardless of relief measures taken, commanders complained chronically of the trouble caused by hordes of contrabands following the army. Congress finally established the Freedmen's Bureau in Mar. 1865 to provide a formal structure for helping former slaves adapt to their new status.
Source: Historical Times "Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War" Edited by Patricia L. Faust

This Page last updated 07/18/04


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