Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

menuAmerican Social History Project  ·    Center for Media and Learning

A Union Army Captain Testifies Before the Freedman's Commission

In May, 1861, Union General Benjamin Butler offered military protection to runaway slaves in Virginia, declaring them wartime "contraband." In every region touched by the war, African-American men, women, and children flocked to the protection offered by Union encampments. In exchange they provided manual labor and information about local terrain and Confederate troop movements. By the end of the war, nearly a million ex-slaves were under some kind of federal protection, many in the so-called "contraband camps" established by Union commanders beginning in 1862. Life in the camps was often harsh. Provisions for food, clothing, shelter, and medicine were inadequate, given the number of former slaves who sought refuge and the desperate condition in which many of them arrived.

Question: How many of the people called contrabands, have come under your observation?

Answer: Some 10,000 have come under our control, to be fed in part, and clothed in part, but I cannot speak accurately in regard to the number. This is the rendezvous. They come here from all about, from Richmond and 200 miles off in North Carolina. There was one gang that started from Richmond 23 strong and only 3 got through. . . . .

Q: In your opinion would a change in our policy which would cause them to be treated with fairness, their wages punctually paid and employment furnished them in the army, become known and would it have any effect upon others in slavery?

A: Yes . . . I found hundreds who had left their wives and families behind. I asked them “Why did you come away and leave them there?” and I found they had heard these stories, and wanted to come and see how it was. “I am going back again after my wife” some of them have said “When I have earned a little money” ...and I have had them come to me to borrow money, or to get their pay, if they had earned a month's wages, and to get passes. “I am going for my family” they say. “Are you not afraid to risk it?” “No I know the way” Colored men will help colored men and they will work along the by-paths and get through. . . . they do not feel afraid now. The white people have nearly all gone, the blood hounds are not there now to hunt them and they are not afraid, before they were afraid to stir.

. . . Now that they are getting their eyes open they are coming in. Fifty came this morning from Yorktown who followed Stoneman’s Cavalry when they returned from their raid. . . . they would leave their work in the field as soon as they found the Soldiers were Union men and follow them sometimes without hat or coat. They would take the best horse they could get and everywhere they rode they would take fresh horses, leave the old ones and follow on and so they came in. I have questioned a great many of them and they do not feel much afraid; and there are a great many courageous fellows who have come from long distances in rebeldom. Some men who came here from North Carolina, knew all about the [Emancipation] Proclamation and they started on the belief in it; but they had heard these stories and they wanted to know how it was...

Q: Do I understand you to say that a great many who have escaped have been sent back?

A: Yes Sir, The masters will come in to Suffolk in the day time and with the help of some of the 99th carry off their fugitives and by and by smuggle them across the lines and the soldier will get his $20. or $50...

Source | Excerpts from testimony of Capt. C.B. Wilder before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, 9 May 1863, National Archives, from University of Maryland History Department, Freedmen and Southern Society Project,
Creator | American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission
Item Type | Government Document
Cite This document | American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, “A Union Army Captain Testifies Before the Freedman's Commission,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed February 25, 2024,

Print and Share