Contraband of War – Ben Butler history 6 of 8

Contraband slaves photographed in Virginia

About 900 fugitive slaves had made their way to Fort Monroe after news of the contraband declaration had spread. Men, women, and children sought refuge with the Union Army because they believed they would be freed. Those people would not be freed until 1863 and would still be used as property for the Union war effort against the southerners.

After General Butler left Fort Monroe, General John Ellis Wool, the oldest man to serve as a general in the Civil War, was named commander of the fortifications and the Department of Virginia. In His General Orders No. 34 (found here) dated November 1st, 1861, General Wool listed the payment due to contraband slaves that worked for the Union Army. Laborers were meant to be paid ten dollars a month but were too often actually paid much less.

Black soldiers, white officers and teachers in South Carolina

Mary S. Peake, a Virginia native, established her own school near the walls of Fort Monroe in September 1861. The school served as a model for others to be established in Union occupied territory during the rest of the war. The first attempts at Reconstruction were in Corinth, Mississippi during the Union occupation of 1862. Schools and homes for former slaves were erected on the plantation lands of their former masters.

By 1863, nearly 10,000 slaves had escaped to Washington, D.C. Those that reached the Union capital city found themselves unwanted and mistreated. Few contraband slaves found help outside of the Union army. Work was mostly available only in the army and navy. Cooking, cleaning, building and deconstructing were all parts of the contraband experience. It is estimated that around 40,000 former slaves had made it to Washington, D.C. by the end of the war in 1865.

Sheet music written in response to the contraband decision

The contraband slaves became popular images in the North. Songs were written about the Fort Monroe decision; cartoons were published of slaves leading in a great exodus out of the southern states; the term contraband would outlast the war and would be used to refer to blacks for years to follow.

Many contraband slaves served in the Union armies and navies as soldiers, too. They were not paid as well as white soldiers but fought just as hard, earning respect from their white comrades in the darkest hours of the war. About 178,975 black soldiers served for the Union. Black regiments were led by white officers only. Few black enlisted men were ever promoted past the rank of sergeant. Most of the black regiments came from Kansas or were recruited from plantations in the rebellious states. The most famous black regiment, composed of free men and former slaves from around the country was the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, forever held in the annals of history with their defeat but brave efforts July 18th, 1863 at Fort Wagner, South Carolina.

By: Will Sullivan


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