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Background Essay on Civil War "Contraband"

This essay describes how runaway slaves escaped to Union camps, and how the army formed "contraband camps" to house runaway slaves and their families. 

In May, 1861, Union General Benjamin Butler offered military protection to runaway slaves in Virginia, declaring them wartime “contraband,” or property forfeited by the rebellious Confederates. News of Butler’s decision spread like wildfire, and within three days sixty-seven African-American men and women had arrived at Butler’s encampment, which they referred to as “Freedom Fort.” While the famed African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass approved of Butler’s policy of not returning escaped slaves to their masters, he objected to the general’s use of the term “contraband . . . a name that will apply better to a pistol, than to a person.” 

In every region touched by the war, African-American men, women, and children moved quickly to reach the freedom offered by Union camps. In return for protection, they provided labor and knowledge of local terrain and troop movements. Slave owners often followed runaways into the camps and demanded their return. Some Union commanders complied or simply denied entrance to runaways, but many shielded runaways from those who attempted to return them to servitude. As the war moved South, slaves in greater and greater numbers deserted their owners to join the Union’s advancing forces. Slave labor was crucial to the South’s economy and military effort, and this massive transfer of labor from the Confederacy to the Union had a tremendous impact on the course of the war. By the end of the war, nearly a million ex-slaves, about one-quarter of the African Americans in the South, were under some kind of federal protection. 

Escaping together was seldom a viable option for most slave families. While Union officers viewed the labor of black men as crucial, they often wanted little to do with black women and children, or elderly blacks. Many African-American men responded by making it clear that they would not work unless their families had food and shelter. To stem the general disorganization that would be created by large numbers of women and children congregating near military camps, Union commanders began to establish “contraband camps” in the fall of 1862. Life in these camps was often harsh. Provisions for food, clothing, shelter, and medicine were inadequate, given the number of slaves who sought refuge and the desperate condition in which many of them arrived. 

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on Civil War "Contraband",” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 4, 2023,

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