War as a Catalyst for Freedom
From the beginning, military conflict disrupted slavery—wherever the Union armies moved in the South, slaveholders found it harder to control their slaves. Many slaves fled to Union military lines, hoping to find freedom and a chance to fight in the war, a war they firmly believed was a battle against slavery. Their exodus was quite moving to many civilians in the North, including artist David Gilmour Blythe, whose ironically titled 1864 painting Old Virginia Home emphasizes the hostility of “home” for enslaved people, the importance of the war as a catalyst for freedom, and the uncertain future faced by former slaves.
These changes on the Southern homefront forced Union leaders to rethink their position on emancipation. Early in the war, Union military policy dictated that commanders return slaves to the rebels who claimed them, in accordance with the fugitive slave law. Nonetheless, slaves themselves were determined to obtain their freedom. Their continuing pressure on Union lines, combined with changing attitudes among some Union army commanders and activism by abolitionists in the North, slowly but surely caused policies to shift.
The first change came when the Union army began to classify runaway slaves as “contraband of war” in 1861. Military leaders used the term “contraband” to define enslaved people as a category of property that could be taken from the enemy according to the laws of war. This allowed them to undermine rebel slaveholders’ stake in slavery. At the same time this helped them to avoid upsetting those slaveholders still loyal to the Union, who expected their “slave property” to be protected under the United States Constitution. Union leaders also emphasized the military benefits of this move toward emancipation: every enslaved person who was not returned to his or her owner was also no longer available to grow crops or to build defenses for the Confederacy.
Black and white abolitionists in the North urged President Lincoln and Congress to embrace abolition even more forcefully. Only very limited steps were made in this direction until the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation did not, however, free “all the slaves.” Instead, it freed only those enslaved persons living in “states in rebellion.” The Proclamation thus left out the 500,000 enslaved people living in the border states (though slavery had been abolished in Washington, D.C. in 1862), as well as approximately 300,000 enslaved people living in federally occupied Tennessee, Louisiana, and Virginia. This meant that some 3.1 million men, women, and children remained, technically, enslaved in 1863.
By 1865, however, many enslaved people gained their freedom whether it was legal or not. Wherever the Union army went, slaves in surrounding areas ran away from their owners, seeking shelter with the military. Soldiers in the field commented regularly about this fact in their letters to those at home. The Harper’s Weekly illustration The Effects of the Proclamation is based on a sketch made by a soldier who observed such a scene.
Harper’s Weekly also captured the migration in Negroes Leaving Their Home, which illustrates how men, women, and children fled their homes by boat, attempting to reach Union ships, and safety.
Once escaped, some freed people made their way North or to jobs and homes in urban areas in the South; many more, however, came to contraband camps. By the end of the war, about one hundred of these camps had been established across the South and lower Midwest, and housed tens of thousands of people. The camps provided housing, food, clothing, and medical care to the residents, but in most cases this aid was inadequate. In many camps, people had to live in tents and makeshift huts, though some offered sturdier wooden cabins and small garden plots. Medical care was often negligent or simply unequal to the demands. Camp residents (like newly recruited soldiers), frequently fell ill to disease epidemics resulting from crowded and unsanitary living conditions; smallpox, cholera, and typhoid fever were particularly common.
Contraband camps presented former slaves with the contradictions of freedom. On the one hand, the camps represented freedom from former owners and the hope of brighter futures. At the same time, however, the army viewed the contraband camps as a way to control migrating populations of former slaves as well as places to recruit labor and soldiers. The military thus required able-bodied men in the camps to enlist as soldiers or manual laborers for the army. This meant that the vast majority of permanent residents in the camps were women, children, and aged or disabled men. Without knowledge of the location of friends and family, those who escaped slavery found new challenges along with their freedom. The painting Contraband on Cairo Levee emphasizes the uncertainty faced by these African Americans.