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[Detail] sit-down strike after being refused service

The Civil War

Timothy O'Sullivan. Fugitive African Americans Fording the Rappahannock River

Timothy O'Sullivan. Fugitive African Americans Fording the Rappahannock River Rappahannock, Virginia, August 1862. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-B8171-518

Are you familiar with the word contraband? During the Civil War, it had a special meaning. Read the introduction to The Civil War section of the Special Presentation, as well as the subsection titled “Contrabands of War.” Then answer these questions:

  • What did the term contraband of war mean during the Civil War? Do you think this is an appropriate use of the term? Why or why not?
  • In what way were the people referred to by the term contraband of war useful to the Union forces?
  • How did photographer and artist Alfred Waud respond to observing the escaped slaves in Union Army camps? How do you respond to the images of these African Americans?
  • How did the Emancipation Proclamation change the status of the escaped slaves? According to the exhibit, by the end of the Civil War, one in eight Union soldiers was African American. Does this statistic surprise you? Why or why not?
  • Photography was a relatively new technology at the time of the Civil War. How do you think photography changed the way history is recorded? Use examples from the Special Presentation or from the five collections making up African American Odyssey to support your answer.
William R. Pywell. Slave Pen in Alexandria, Va.

William R. Pywell. Slave Pen in Alexandria, Va. [1862] Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-B8171-2296

African American soldiers did not receive equal treatment in the Union Army: they were paid less, sometimes they did not get paid for extended periods, and they were not allowed to attain high ranks. Nonetheless, these soldiers were loyal to the Union cause, and many distinguished themselves in their service to the nation. Christian A. Fleetwood, an African American soldier, won the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving the American flag during a battle in Virginia; his citation read "Seized the colors, after 2 color bearers had been shot down, and bore them nobly through the fight." (He was one of fourteen African American men to receive that high honor during the Civil War). Read his account of the action from his diary (images 153-155).

  • How did Fleetwood describe the actions that won him the Congressional Medal of Honor? What would you conclude about his character based on what he wrote?
  • To whom did Fleetwood refer as “stars”? Would you use the term similarly today?
  • What can you learn about war from the diary of a soldier like Christian Fleetwood? Read some other entries from the diary and develop a list of adjectives you would use to describe Fleetwood’s experience as a soldier in the Union Army.