Civil War: Runaway Slaves--Contrabands


Figure 1.--Here we see Contrbands at Cumberland Landing, Virginia. They are at Foller's house The slaves here has escaped to Federal lines during the Peninsular Campaign. The photograph was taken May 14, 1862. President Lincoln had not yet issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The photographer was James F. Gibson. Source: Library of Congress. LC-B8171-0383.

After the Civil War erupted, large numbers of slaves flocked to Federal lines. Federal troops also occupied substantial areas in the rebelious states, primarily in the areas of the south along the Mississippi River and Tenessee. The slaves who ran away and began reaching Federal units were at first referred to as "contaband". Federal law at the time before issued the Emancipation Proclmation became effective (January 1, 1863) required run away slaves to be returned to their masters. Most of their masters, however, were in rebellion and such an action would have alienated northern abolitionists who were strongly supporting the Federal war effort. It would have also hurt the Federal cause in Europe where diplomats were struggling to keep Britain and France from recognizing the South. Both countrues had strong economic ties to the South which was their primary source of cotton. This is much more important than it sounds today. Cotton was a critical commodity in the 19th century and in fact central to the emerging industrial economies of Britain and France. Yet anti-slavery sentiment made it difficult for either government to recognize the Confederacy. The runaways were not at first accepted as soldiers. Federal units began, however, using them as laborers, both to construct fortifications and in daily camp chores like laundry and cooking.

Underground Railway

Much has been written about the Underground Railway. This did provide freedom for several thousand slaves. Most of those who reached saftey im the North or Canada, however, fled from the border states. The possibility of slaves in the Deep South of reaching the North were very limited. And it was in the Deep South where most slaves were held in bondage.

Civil War (April 1861)

The Civil War began when Conderate natteries fired on Fourt Sumter in Charleston harbor. The opportunity to successfully run away changed markedly with the onset of the Civil War. The Army of Northern Virginia stimied Federal Armies in the eastern campaign. Federal Armies had much more success in the western campaigns and reached the Deep South, especiallyalong the Mississippi River.

Runaways

After the Civil War erupted, large numbers of slaves flocked to Federal lines. This was at first just in northern Virgina as well as areas along the Mississippi (western Tennesee, and Louisiana) where Federal troops first entered the Confederacy. The Fedrals lost batle after battle in Virginia, but there presence there offered the possibility of runaways reaching Fedral lines. The Federals experuencd more success in the West because of better leadership, namely Grant nd sherman. Also the Misissippi provided support from Federal gunbpars which were constructed in substanial numbers/ Runing away was dificult unless Federal troops were nearby. The greater the distance involvd, the greater the chnves of being captured an returned to owners. As Federal troops penetrated deeper into the Condeferacy, more and more slaves were able to run away. The slaves who ran away and began reaching Federal units were at first referred to as 'contabands'.

Federal Law

Federal law at the time before issued the Emancipation Proclmation became effective (January 1, 1863) required run away slaves to be returned to their masters. The Compromise of 1850 had included the Fugative Slave Act which was still in force when the Civil War broke out. Most of their masters, however, were in rebellion and such an action would have alienated northern abolitionists who were strongly supporting the Federal war effort.

Diplomacy

Returning the runaways would have also hurt the Federal cause in Europe where diplomats were struggling to keep Britain and France from recognizing the South. Both countrues had strong economic ties to the South which was their primary source of cotton. This is much more important than it sounds today. Cotton was a critical commodity in the 19th century and in fact central to the emerging industrial economies of Britain and France. Yet anti-slavery sentiment made it difficult for either government to recognize the Confederacy.

Use of the Runaways

The runaways were not at first accepted as soldiers. Federal units began, however, using them as laborers, both to construct fortifications and in daily camp chores like laundry and cooking. This men that both men and women were of value to the Federal forces. The runaways were used primarily as labor at first. After the Emancipation Proclmation, the Federal Government began accepting enlistments for combat units. This would eventually have a substantial impact on the War. Black soldiers swelled Federal ranks as it was becomong increasingly difficult to recruit more soldiers. About 10 percent of the Federal Army was black soldiers by the end of the War.

Boys and Youth

Children also arived at Federal camps. When long distances were involved, nost of the runaways were men. It was virtully impossible for an entire family to escape, especially if there were young children. Of course many familkies were split by selling individuals, but many families were intact. As Federal armies moved further south more childen wre able to run away, either with their families or for older botys on their own. This ws especially true of boys that had been separated from their families. Boys who joined the union camp following could assist their parents or run errands or do favors for the soldiers. We see younger boys serving as servants to officers or perhaps or mascots to units. It is not always clear just who they are. And rgere is only limited literature about them. Some of the boys may have served as drummer boys for the black regiments. We think that many if not most of the black drummer boys were runaways. We think that most were probnly runaways rather than boys recrioted from the free northern black population. This needs, however, to be confirmed. Hopefully readers will know more about this.

Strategic Importance

At the time of the Civil War, America was still a ;argely rural, agricultural country. This was especilly true of the South, but was also true of the North. The North at the time of the Civil War was industrializing, but a majority of the popularion still lived in rural areas nd on farms. This was important in the War. One limitation in rcruiting soldiers was thzt men ere needed to work the. farms. If he volunteered or drafted, the family could be left in direcircumstances. Here the Confederacy had an invantage. Slaves could continue to work yhe lsnd even if mem were at the front. Emancipting the slsves and encouraging them to run away not only undercut the Confederate economy, but significntly reduced food producion. This dversely affected the families at hime, but the Cinfederatec field rmies. Confederated armies by the end of the War were essehtilly starving. Gen. Lee;s Army of Northern Virginia was in such desperate condition at Appomstox Court House after surrendring that Grant ordered food to be delivered to them.

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Created: 6:48 AM 2/4/2006
Last updated: 4:07 AM 12/6/2014