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

The Humanitarian Sensibility

woodcut of kneeling man in shackles
The humanitarian sensibility is the capacity to be moved by suffering we are not experiencing ourselves. It is especially remarkable when the suffering that moves us is remote, not present to our senses, but requires an imaginative empathic response.  The desire to relieve distant suffering or right abstract wrongs is an outgrowth of the humanitarian sensibility.  It is an active and extended form of charity.

The humanitarian sensibility is not innate–it is a product of culture, and not found in all societies, but where it is present it has profound consequences, both in the present and historically.  We can see it operating to various degrees in the Syrian refugee crisis, just as we can discern its utter absence in the perpetrators whose violence has led millions to flee Syria and its environs.  Historically, the humanitarian sensibility has powered innumerable movements, including the drive to abolish slavery in the Western world, beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The humanitarian impulse, though not peculiar to the West, is a living expression of Biblical precepts and the natural rights tradition on which democratic government rests.  It carries the Biblical injunction to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ to its farthest possibility, leading Westerners to battle hunger and disease afflicting other continents, to give to Haitian disaster relief, to correct cleft palates and blindness wherever they are found, and to support female rights and rights activists like Malala Yousafzai.  The drive to minister to the world is noble, but it is not universally shared.  And in the US, we can see the limits of that sensibility, as when our government turned away children from Latin America, who came here seeking refuge from the violence and exploitation of the drug trade.

Image: from this source.
The emblem of the beseeching slave with the question “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”
first gained circulation in the 1780s as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England.
The design was rendered in many forms,
on coins, in ceramic by Josiah Wedgwood, and as a woodcut, as here.
This powerful graphic appealed to viewers to look beyond differences of race and condition
to acknowledge the common humanity that linked free people with the enslaved.
This particular woodcut appeared on an American broadside to illustrate
John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1837 poem, ‘Our Countrymen in Chains.’

The Dream of Emancipation

Thomas Nast, "Emancipation: The Past and the Future," colored wood engraving, 1865 (Library Company of Philadelphia).
All the fervent hopes associated with the end of American slavery animate this colored engraving of Thomas Nast’s “Emancipation: The Past and the Future,” published in 1865.

Better than pages upon pages of tracts and editorials, this vivid artwork expresses the moral convictions and sentiments that led Americans of 150 years ago to get rid of slavery, and, beyond that, to envision a society in which all people would equally enjoy certain basic rights.

Freeing the slaves was one thing: it was quite another for white America to embrace a vision of political equality that would extend to Americans of another color.  Yet this northern Americans did right after the Civil War (1861-65), amending the Constitution to secure positive legal equality for former slaves and all persons of color.  Proponents of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—which abolished slavery, promised citizens equal protection under the law, and extended voting rights to blacks—believed that these measures would guarantee the liberty of former slaves and their descendants, opening the way for their sharing in the blessings of prosperity and peace.

In that sense, the so-called Reconstruction Amendments, passed between 1865 and 1870, represent the high-water mark of nineteenth-century America’s quest for racial equality.  That quest, which had begun in earnest in the 1830s, was an essentially moral and intellectual movement, a movement that a generation of writers, moralists, orators, newspaper publishers, and outspoken clergymen advanced.  For many decades they labored hopelessly and alone.  Abolitionists were marginal and dangerous figures.  Politicians wanted nothing to do with their cause.  Statesmen were uniformly loathe to disturb slavery: it was essential to the US economy; therefore, it was far better to let it be.

Only the abolitionists persistently and inconveniently refused to be silent.  For decades, their cause, their dream of banishing slavery once and for all, was a fringe movement, something entertained only in truly radical minds.  Those who demanded abolition were literally playing with fire, and sometimes the fire found them, as when their offices were burned, or when their efforts to keep the courts from returning fugitives slaves to their masters caused riots.

The belief that slavery had to end and that, once it did, the only proper course was to recognize black Americans as citizens, gradually gained some political traction, though it remained a minority view.  Radical Republicans like Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts would not rest until they had expunged slavery from the Constitution and enshrined the principle of racial equality in its place.  After the war, Northerners succeeded in amending the Constitution as they did only because the South was relatively disenfranchised and in a state of social and economic disarray.

The amendments were right, but they remained radical: like many of our nation’s founding principles, the Reconstruction amendments spelled out an ideal, one that has proved elusive, for decades more inspirational than real.

But the dream of it, the dream of racial inclusion and equality: that dream has made all the difference, both during Reconstruction and subsequently.  The Americans who struggled, 150 years ago, to codify this radical vision and make it more real were the forerunners of modern civil-rights heroes like Martin Luther King.  That dream continues to inspire all people of conscience to practice mutual respect, and to be true to the radical principle of equality that ennobles us all.

Item: from the collections of  The Library Company of Philadelphia.
Click the print to enlarge it.

Nast’s drawing telescopes all the horrifying aspects of slavery.  At left, the capture and abduction of Africans from their native lands; the break-up of their families; their sale on the auction block to American owners;
the powerlessness of male and female slaves in the face of their owners’ will;
their forced labor, the fruits of which now belonged to their owner;
and the absence of any recourse except to the ear of God,
to end the injustices and torment of being enslaved.
Only Liberty (at the top of the print) could dispel these grave moral and social sins.
Nast imagined a future in which newly freed people would enjoy everyday blessings,
such as (at right) having intact families, sending their children to school,
being paid wages for labor performed,
and owning something themselves instead of being owned.