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

After The Tax Bill Passed

cartoon shows tax inspectors looking under a woman's crinoline and under a bed in her home.

A federal income tax was first levied in the United States in 1862.  Congress instituted the tax to meet the extraordinary expenses of the Civil War.  The Revenue Act of 1862 levied a progressive tax on Americans, of 3% on incomes between 600 and 10,000 dollars, and 5% on incomes over 10,000 dollars (roughly $238,000 today).

Prior to the Civil War, the federal government relied primarily on tariffs (duties on goods imported into the US) to finance its activities.  The use of the tariff protected the growth of nascent American manufactures, by making foreign goods more expensive relative to those made in the US.  This arrangement allowed the government to operate without taxing citizens directly.

The cartoon above, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper soon after the Revenue Act went into effect, captures its impact on American psyches.  The tax is depicted as indecorously invasive.  In the drawing, four federal tax collectors are snooping around inside the home of an American citizen named Scroggs.  Caught in the act of arranging his hair, Scroggs faces interrogation armed only with a brush and comb.  A tax commissioner in a high hat accosts him while fingering Scroggs’s pocket-watch.  Another visitor peeks under his wife’s skirt, while still others scrutinize the couple’s clothes and look under their child’s bed.  The caption: ‘Scroggs says he is ready and willing to pay any amount of tax, but he would like them to leave his wife’s crinoline and other domestic trifles alone.’

Did instituting the income tax create an antagonistic relationship between citizens and the government that had not existed before?  What we do know is that in 1867, the Civil War at an end, the income tax was sharply reduced, and in 1872 it was eliminated.  According to the Internal Revenue Service website, between 1868 and 1913, 90 percent of internal revenue was garnered through taxes on alcohol and tobacco.  The income tax was re-instituted only in Woodrow Wilson’s era, following the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment, which increased Congress’s discretion in levying income taxes directly on the citizenry.

Image: from this source.

Thomas Nast’s ‘Central Park in Winter’

Two scenes, showing skating and sleighing in Central Park. The top panel includes drawings of James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley
For the January 30, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast drew a many-paneled illustration of Central Park in winter.  Like many of his works, this one featured a large central drawing, surrounded by smaller vignettes in round and elliptical frames.  The main drawing shows New Yorkers ice-skating on Central Park’s Pond.  (The Park was then only a few years old.)  Below that is a rather wild sleighing scene, in which genteel New Yorkers ride through a desolate terrain, as urchins throw snowballs or rocks at them.

The opening of Central Park coincided with ice-skating’s growing popularity, which took hold in earnest in the 1850s.  The Park was most heavily visited in winter, when its pond became crowded with thousands of skaters, whose activities Nast captures here in wonderful detail.  (Note the woman in the skating chair.)

Perhaps inevitably, Nast’s wonderland contains some politics, too.  Two months earlier, President Lincoln had been reelected as an inconclusive Civil War dragged on, inflicting terrible casualties.  New York, being a commercial center, had always viewed the war with ambivalence.  The conflict was contrary to the city’s interests, disrupting a lucrative trade with the South on which New York’s economy relied.  While many New Yorkers were ardent Unionists and Republicans, the city also had a large Democratic constituency, including a politically active immigrant population, which resented the war, the federal government, and the fuss about slaves.  Many, wishing a return to peace, had lately voted for Lincoln’s challenger, Democrat George McClellan.

Anger over the federal government’s war policies had boiled into violence the previous July.  New York became the scene of bloody draft riots, in which rioters lynched at least 11 blacks and 120 people were killed in street fighting between protesters and the police.  Poor whites were inflamed against a draft bill that Congress had recently passed: while ostensibly requiring all fit men to serve in the Union military, it contained a loophole that wealthier Northerners would use to evade the draft: arranging for a replacement by paying a bounty.

In the foreground of his skating scene, Nast (who ardently supported Lincoln and the war) highlights several figures, including a military man at the far left wearing a kepi—a reminder of high-minded Northerners voluntarily leading the Union effort as officers.  At right are two prominent New York newspaper editors, James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley, who have run into trouble on proverbially thin ice.  Greeley is teetering, while Bennett has fallen, both near a hole signifying treachery.  Bennett had been an outspoken critic of Lincoln and proponent of McClellan, whereas Greeley, while fitfully supportive of the war, had recently embarrassed the Lincoln administration by engaging in bogus ‘peace negotiations’ with some Confederate representatives who turned out to be fakes.

Both editors, though overwhelmingly influential, earned Nast’s scorn because they were feckless peace-mongers.  To have ended the Civil War through a settlement at that juncture would have rendered the suffering of the soldiers in vain.

Their presence heightens the allegorical meaning of the left side of the tableau, where three figures guard the safety of the family and society.  Besides the Union officer, who holds a small boy in his arms, Nast’s own editor Fletcher Harper (with mutton-chop whiskers) stands over a young girl protectively, while a third man (unidentified, but probably a prominent editor, too) deferentially greets a woman standing at the edge of the ice.  Nast depicts these figures as both benevolent and patriotic.  Harper gave Nast a venue for his pro-Union and radically egalitarian views.

So what at first glance passes for an innocuous pleasure scene is a comment on specific editors, and a paean to the value of virtuous editors in a conflict-ridden time.

Image from this source.