“Contraband of War” and Virginia

<em>Stampede among the Negroes in Virginia - their arrival at Fortress Monroe / from sketches by our Special Artist in Fortress Monroe</em>

Wood engraving from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine shows freedom seekers approaching the Federal sentinels at Fortess Monroe under the leadership of General Benjamin F. Butler. Source: Library of Congress.

<em>Rappahannock River, Va. Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock</em>

Stereograph taken by Timothy O. Sullivan of freedom seekers fording the Rappahanoock River in Virginia, August 1862. Such images convey the compulsion to find freedom by any means necessary. Source: Library of Congress.

Freedman's Barracks, Alexandria, Va.<br />

Photo of the Freedman’s Barracks in Alexandria, Virginia, ca. 1861. The U.S. Army provided the barracks to newly arrived freedom seekers. Source: Library of Congress.

The first freedom seekers of the American Civil War escaped to the Union stronghold at Fort Monroe, Virginia. On May 27, 1861, General Benjamin F. Butler, the commander of the Union army at Fort Monroe, issued a decree that his troops would not adhere to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Instead he proposed that all enslaved persons who fled to Union lines would be treated as “contraband of war,” enemy property that was liable for seizure in wartime.[1] 

Congress validated Butler’s decree on August 6, 1861, with the First Confiscation Act, which stated that if a slave owner used his or her slaves to aid the Confederacy, those slaves would be forfeit. In July 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, establishing that fugitive slaves “shall be deemed captives of war, and shall be forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves.”[2]

As a Union-occupied city during the Civil War, Alexandria provided a haven for African Americans fleeing slavery. However, many who arrived in the city were penniless and malnourished, and some suffered from illness. By the summer of 1862, Alexandria found itself with a crisis of enormous proportions. Within sixteen months of the occupation, the population had increased by 10,000 people. The Union Army housed the newly emancipated in barracks and poorly constructed shantytowns. In such close quarters, disease quickly spread.[3]


[1]Eric Willis. “The Forgotten: The Contraband of American and the Road to Freedom,” National Trust for Historic Preservation, June 19, 2017, accessed June 8, 2018, https://savingplaces.org/stories/the-forgotten-the-contraband-of-america-and-the-road-to-freedom#.WzJFIKknagQ

[2]“The First Confiscation Act,” Freedmen & Southern Society Project, University of Maryland, accessed August 20, 2019, http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/conact1.htm; “The Second Confiscation Act,” Freedmen & Southern Society Project, University of Maryland, accessed August 20, 2019, http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/conact2.htm; and Matthew Pinsker, “Congressional Confiscation Acts,” Emancipation Digital Classroom, July 14, 2012, accessed August 20, 2019, http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2012/07/14/congressional-confiscation-acts/.

[3]“Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial,” City of Alexandria Virginia, June 4, 2017, accessed November 10, 2017, https://www.alexandriava.gov/FreedmenMemorial and Charleen Smith-Reidel, “A Graveyard Resurrected,” Folklife, February 1, 2018, accessed June 8, 2018, https://folklife.si.edu/talkstory/a-graveyard-resurrected-contrabands-freedmens-cemetery-alexandria-virginia.

A Brief History of Alexandria
“Contraband of War” and Virginia