African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List | Education Materials

"Contrabands of War"--African American Fugitives to Union Lines

What’s the Main Idea?

Object Description

Probing Further

Alfred Waud, Contrabands Coming into Camp
Contrabands Coming into Camp.
Published in Harper's Weekly,
January 31, 1863.
Chinese white on brown paper.

Prints and Photographs Division

What's the Main Idea?

Object Description

As Union armies moved into the South, thousands of slaves fled to their camps. Although some Union officers sent runaways back to their masters, others allowed them to remain with their troops, using them as a work force and dubbing them "contraband of war." Nonmilitary jobs slaves held were as bakers, butchers, boatmen, orderlies, nurses, and as builders of fortifications and other military works.

The Union army did not actively recruit African Americans for military action until 1863, and the Confederate army did not actively recruit black soldiers until near the end of the Civil War. Instead, blacks were needed to help maintain the southern farms and plantations so that additional whites could enlist and fight. In all, more than 185,000 African American soldiers (92,000 from the South), 30,000 sailors, and 400,000 free black and slave civilians risked their lives in the Civil War.

Of this sketch, Waud, who photographed the "contrabands" and then prepared the drawing for the newspaper, wrote:

There is something very touching in seeing these poor people coming into camp--giving up all the little ties that cluster about home, such as it is in slavery, and trustfully throwing themselves on the mercy of the Yankees, in the hope of getting permission to own themselves and keep their children from the auction-block. This party evidently comprises a whole family from some farm . . . .

Probing Further

  1. Compare the two photographs Contrabands, Camp Brightwood. Washington, D.C., ca. 1863, and Timothy O'Sullivan's Fugitive African Americans Fording the Rappahannock River with the sketch above by Waud. How do these representations belie the notion of contraband? What do you think are Waud's and the two photographers' point of views? Does one image seem to be more realistic and less romanticized than the other? Which one and why?

  2. Research black infantry troops that fought in the Civil War such as the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, 1st South Carolina Colored Volunteers, or the 1st Regiment of the Louisiana Native Guards. Research, too, blacks who served as naval man onboard such vessels as the Union ships, the Monitor or USS Marblehead. Were Blacks commissioned as officers? Did Blacks receive equal pay and pension? Equal provisions and equipment? What reasons accounted for any discrepancies found between black and white soldiers' pay, and distribution of provisions and equipment.

  3. Christian A. Fleetwood, a sergeant major of the 4th United States Colored Troops, received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his gallantry in action while at Chaffin's Farm near Richmond, Virginia, on September 29, 1864. Later, Fleetwood wrote a booklet titled, The Negro as Soldier, which traces the struggle of African American men fighting in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Read The Negro as Soldier. Why do you think Fleetwood thought it necessary to research and write this booklet? Do you think that this booklet, which is a primary source, is accurate and objective as far as detailing the history of Negroes in American wars?

  4. After the Civil War, blacks for the first time were permitted to serve in the regular peacetime army. These soldiers were sent out West to, among other duties, patrol that vast territory. These soldiers became known as "Buffalo Soldiers," so named by the Native Americans who lived on the land. Look at the photograph of the 25 Infantry, Buffalo Soldiers, stationed at Fort Keogh, Missouri, while saying the chorus from Reggae singer/songwriter Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier" song, "Stole him from Africa, brought him to Amer-
    ica. . . fighting on arrival, fighting for survival." Does this song, now, take on new meaning for you?

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