The “Contraband”—A Precarious Freedom


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

Day 56: Dial, text, write

If you’re looking for a convenient way to help get out the vote, this Indivisible portal may be for you. There you can sign up to phonebank, textbank, or write postcards to never voters or semi-frequent voters, urging them to Vote Blue.

“Wake up on November 4th knowing you did everything in your power to make Donald Trump a one-term president.” Amen.

Image: from this source.

The First Fourth of July

The colonies had been warring against the English crown for more than a year. Their taking up arms on the periphery of the great British empire had at first been defensive and spontaneous, when, in April 1775, they exchanged fire with the redcoats in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord. Behind Americans’ resort to arms was a conviction that, if they did not make a stand, the monarchy would strip them of their political autonomy, the ways of being and governing that the colonies had built up over the years. Some began associating loyalty to King George with political servitude.

So they backed up into a nasty situation: with their dander up and their more moderate tactics exhausted, thirteen weakly affiliated colonies had plunged willy-nilly into a war against a mighty power. No one of them could last against the British: they could only prevail by acting as one, by organizing. So the quest to organize the future states into something like a nation began.

It wasn’t the simplest proposition, because at that time the American colonies, though contiguous along the eastern seaboard, were largely strangers to one another. Each colony had its own character and peculiarities, its own governing traditions. They were as distinct and alien to one another, claimed John Adams in 1775, as Indian tribes.

What is most remarkable about the Revolution, yet often taken for granted, is that private citizens in the various colonies voluntarily took on these outlandishly weighty and amorphous duties. As the pace of political instability quickened, leading merchants, journalists, lawyers, intellectuals, printers, and farmers found a way to communicate, to protest, to proselytize, and to bring an entire (formerly tranquil) society together around ambitious and previously unthinkable propositions.

As the colonies became more radicalized, their leadership became shrewder, more obsessive and voluble, spewing forth oratory and addresses and declarations of such variety and power as to unite an entire population around a set of mortally dangerous yet self-respecting demands.

For more than a year, the Continental Army under George Washington had managed to hold together and to keep the British forces busy. But a rebellion that was merely negative–that merely pushed back against the British status quo–scarcely afforded the miserable and fractious colonials with a compelling reason to stay in the field. The moment they grew tired of rebelling against, the British would win.

The passage of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, marks the moment when the various grievances and injuries the colonies suffered under King George were transmuted into one simple positive, practical, political goal. The colonies (now states) declared they were and would be INDEPENDENT. But they also declared themselves to be “the United States of America.” Their first stride toward becoming a true nation came when their leadership, meeting as a “Grand Council of America,” unanimously approved of and proclaimed this as a fait accompli.

What would have happened to the colonists if they had failed to unite? They would probably have been treated as traitors and hung, their fate not too different from what is happening to political dissidents today in Hong Kong.

Today we look back on the leaders of the Revolution and marvel at their sins. We blame them for the political sins of generations of American leaders who came after them. How could they be so narrow-minded, so selfish and blind? Yet without their flawed vision, without their imperfect realization of a universal dream, without their amazing skills as political strategists and activists, where would you and I be today? What language would we be speaking? What narrow confines would shape our political dreams?

Image: “The Battle at Bunker’s Hill,”
from this source.