The Civil War Connections Blog

Contraband of War

Hello readers!  This is a very exciting blog post for me because it is my first since the conclusion of final exams for the spring semester!  Now that I’m home from the good ole’ University of Virginia, I have even more time to spend sifting through databases and congressional catalogues to find fascinating photographs and documents to share with you!  I recently came across the following picture labeled “contraband” in a Library of Congress collection.  I found it intriguing that the title was not “slave” or “black soldier,” but upon some reflection and research the label is not only interesting but historically appropriate.

digital file from original item, front

Civil War Contraband. Library of Congress.


“Contraband” was used by the Union to refer to slaves who escaped from the Confederate states to Union lines.  As the term implies, such individuals were not deemed free or enslaved, but received a status unique to their controversial condition.  The title is documented as first entering the wartime scene in 1861 at our very own Fort Monroe.  Brig. Gen. Benjamin Butler bestowed the designation upon three slaves who escaped from a Confederate fortifications project via canoe.  After a Confederate soldier approached Butler to retrieve the slaves, the Brigadier General explained that since the CSA had used them to aid the Confederate military effort, their appropriate status should be contraband of war.  Coupled with the illegitimacy of the Fugitive Slave Law due to Virginia’s secession, Butler’s designation prevented the slaves from being returned to Confederate hands.  As Joseph T. Glatthaar explains in his essay “Black Glory,” “In one eventful day, Butler had, in effect, freed three slaves and then employed them to work for the Union army.”[i]

The title gained official status in 1861 with the passage of the First Confiscation Act.  Though this legislation is often overlooked in high school and collegiate classes, it represents an important first step toward emancipation which allowed for the inclusion of African Americans in the military affairs of the Civil War.  In his essay, Glatthaar further elucidates that throughout the war, roughly 180,000 slaves served the Union “gr[owing] cotton and foodstuffs and aided in all sorts of construction and logistical endeavors…caus[ing] shortages, hardships, and disillusionment among [Confederate] soldiers and civilians alike.”  Those who could not escape from the Confederacy also wreaked havoc on plantations “through work sabotage,” leading to further unrest in the minds of Confederate slave owners.[ii]

[African American man, sitting outside a military camp tent]

African American man Outside Camp Tent. Library of Congress.

Glatthaar argues that the emancipation of slaves played a critical if not imperative role in Union victory.  Though I am always hesitant to point to one aspect of the war as the key to Union success, I will concede that the draining of labor from the Confederacy due to emancipation was crippling.  With the flight of slaves, Confederate leadership was forced to redistribute troops amongst different labor duties; an action that no doubt depleted the number of men fighting on the battlefield when the CSA already faced a daunting magnitude of Union soldiers.[iii]

If you take anything away from my post, I hope that you will always pause to consider the minute details that are often overlooked.  Sometimes considering the title of a photograph or the use of a term in a speech can lead to an enlightening discovery and a deeper understanding of a compelling topic.  As you have probably already realized, I am an intellectual historian that has been dropped onto the battlefields of the Civil War.  However, I recognize that it is crucial to never neglect the connection between military affairs and the political or cultural atmosphere of an era.  If you would like to read more on this topic, I would suggest perusing Glatthaar’s essay along with the other essays in Why the Confederacy Lost edited by Gabor S. Boritt.

[i] Joseph T. Glatthaar, “Black Glory” in Why the Confederacy Lost. Ed. Gabor S. Boritt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 140-141.

[ii] Glatthaar, “Black Glory,” p. 137-138, 141.

[iii] Glatthaar, “Black Glory,” p. 137.