Union sketch artist A. R. Waud went to considerable pains to work up this engraving of a family arriving at a contraband camp soon after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day in 1863. As I related in my previous posts, thousands of slaves had already sought refuge in the so-called contraband camps, beginning in June 1861, when the war was just a few months old. Yet the arrival of this family in camp marked a significant difference in the ongoing migration of Southern slaves to freedom.
For one thing, the Proclamation freed every slave still confined within the domain of the Confederate South. Whereas before emancipation was local and opportunistic, by 1863, its scope had widened, and slaves fleeing did so certain their freedom had been conferred by the president’s executive authority. A slave anywhere in the South, hearing news of the Proclamation, might be emboldened to leave his or her bondage and begin trekking toward a condition of freedom the United States government and its army guaranteed. Of course, proclaiming the slaves’ freedom was not just the right thing to do, it was also a pragmatic wartime action aimed at weakening a still defiant Confederacy and ending a long, unnecessary, and terribly sad war.
The new set of conditions that encouraged slaves to run away north may account for some of the features of this drawing. For one, this is an entire family of freed slaves, traveling in a way that suggests some premeditation. They are traveling together in a covered wagon, not on foot—crammed together, admittedly, but with two mules and a torn canvas cover overhead supplying some protection and privacy. The group consists of five or six women and about as many men. There are children and several newborns, and everyone wears a head covering.
Particularly notable are the stripes on the sleeves of the man seated at front. He wears the uniform of the Union Army. Not only has he served the Union cause, but perhaps his status as a free man enhanced the opportunity he clearly seized, to bring his whole family, along with livestock and a wagon, from somewhere in the interior of the South to within sight of a Union contraband camp.
Waud had a photographer, David Woodbury, take a picture of this family. The photo then became the basis of Waud’s careful yet somewhat sanitized drawing. The fuss may be explained by a note accompanying one version of the picture in the Library of Congress, which states that this was the first family to reach the Union lines as a consequence of the Proclamation. We will probably never know if this is true. The photograph on which Waud based his drawing gives a much more sobering impression of the condition of these pioneers.
The travelers occupy a woe-begone scene, a desolate midway strewn with freshly sawn logs, a few soldiers in the background peering into the camera, too. The soldiers, like the fugitives, are transients; they are from somewhere else, traveling across a landscape that is not home. Yet the refugees, once residents of a farm, and perhaps even workers in a household, look as though they have been here always, so heavy an undertaking does their journey seem.