As the Civil War unfolded, slavery began ending. It didn’t end through a single act or pronouncement, any more than it had gotten started that way. Instead, as battle followed battle, humans began chipping away at slavery on an extemporaneous basis, as opportunities arose. White officials in the North, agents of the Union cause, did something to facilitate this process of emancipation, which yet required Southern slaves’ own determination and action to become a real thing. To become free was momentous, but it was also a curiously precarious and fearfully abstract condition. It was “nothing but freedom,” as historian Eric Foner aptly put it.
This photograph captures the momentousness and curious sameness of emancipation. In 1862, as Union and Confederate troops battled in Virginia, slaves seized the moment, leaving their putative masters and seeking refuge from bondage by crossing over into Union camps. The slaves pictured here were newly free, but their freedom was tenuous and geographic, dependent on the Northern forces’ advance onto enemy ground. Before the war, such fugitives could never rest easy, for a federal law passed in 1850 required Northerners to respect slaveholders’ rights and allow them to recapture their “property,” even if their property had fled into the North and resided on “free ground.”
All that went by the boards when the sections warred. Union strategists recognized that hastening slavery’s end was key to defeating the rebel states. Hoping to deprive the Confederates of a captive labor force and to disrupt slave-master relationships, Northerners began encouraging and harboring the freedmen, as former slaves were called. Besides, many of those leading the Union effort were abolitionists who recoiled at the inhumanity of the “peculiar institution.” To many Northerners, though by no means all, liberating and “uplifting the slave” was a principled, intrinsic part of what the war was for.
Others saw the refugee slaves as more problematic. Laws had yet to be written or passed establishing that former slaves should enjoy the status of free citizens and the attendant rights. Years would pass before the legal and civil status of former slaves was settled. In the meantime, some folk regarded the freedmen as more akin to “lost property”–chattel who fell short of being truly human and free. White ambivalence toward the freedmen was reflected in the word they used initially to define them: “contraband,” a word for forbidden or illicitly held property.
The Union army, willing to facilitate the former slaves in their passage to freedom, hastily staked out and ran provisional “contraband camps.” The refugees pictured above had been assigned an outbuilding on a farm in Cumberland Landing, Virginia, where Union officers were also headquartered. Eventually, the Union army would shelter a population of contraband estimated at as many as one million souls. In 1862, though, when this picture was taken, fleeing slaves were a novelty: they were the emissaries of a race of people white northerners were unfamiliar with, whom they would previously have had little chance to see or know.
The strangeness of this historic moment lives on in the photograph, in the stances and facial expressions of the newly free, whose difference from the photographer and the army around them is registered in expressions of watchful gravity. Only one woman in the center is smiling, and no wonder. Despite having survived their first flight to “freedom,” these intrepid souls were right to doubt whether they had truly arrived. They needed to keep the army between themselves and the Southern rebels, or else face the awful risk of being re-enslaved.
Image: from this source