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'Contraband' slaves seen through the eyes of Civil War soldiers from region

By Kenton Robinson

Publication: The Day

Published August 07. 2011 4:00AM

Editor's note: This is one in an occasional series about the Civil War and its effects on the region.

Soon after the Civil War began, runaway slaves started streaming into Union army camps, seeking their freedom and raising a question that would linger throughout the war: What to do with them?

In August 1861, Congress tried to answer that question by passing the Confiscation Act, effectively codifying the ad hoc solution adopted by Major Gen. Benjamin F. Butler in May.

Butler's policy? Declare them "contraband" and put them to work.

This, of course, ran counter to a law that had been on the books since 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the free states to return runaway slaves to their owners.

But Butler's argument was twofold: The Fugitive Slave Act applied only to states that still belonged to the union, not to those that had declared themselves a foreign country. Furthermore, if the slaves were returned, they would only be used to build batteries and otherwise aid the rebel army.

"Shall they be allowed the use of this property against the United States and we not be allowed its use in aid of the United States?" Butler asked in a dispatch to Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott.

And, indeed, the runaway slaves were soon employed in the service of the Union army, where they were known as "contrabands." In some cases, regiments would be attended by virtual shadow regiments of contrabands, men, women and children who would cook, wash clothes, chop wood and do heavier work for the soldiers.

Thus, for example, in 1863, Josiah Phillips of Groton, serving with the 26th Infantry at Camp Parapet in Louisiana, would write in his small, leather-bound diary: "Jan. 19th Mon. Last night was a Stormy one & to-day till noon. The mud & water is very bad. There was about 400 contrabands landed here last night from up the river to work on the parapets & c. & it is said there are 1,500 to come here."

The Confiscation Act, signed by President Abraham Lincoln on Aug. 6, in essence simply recognized what was already going on. It did not, legally, free the slaves; it simply allowed Union forces to confiscate them, along with any other Confederate property being used in the rebellion.

But it was a step toward emancipation.

In the meantime, there was a tendency on the white soldiers' part to view their black brethren as comical caricatures. That tendency was reflected in the stories the soldiers told about them.

In his memoirs after the war, George Haven of New London tells of how on Aug. 9, 1862, the 1st Connecticut Cavalry was under constant fire at Cedar Mountain, Va. Then he relates this anecdote:

"Lieutenant French of Company C had a colored servant, whom we called Abe, in honor of the President. The officer also had two horses, one of which was very valuable. The poorer mount was used exclusively in battle or skirmish, it being Abe's task to keep the better animal outside the zone of fire.

"We did not see Abe and his charge for several days; and as time went on, there were fears that misfortune had overtaken both the servant and the horse. Just as we were ready to give up all hope of seeing them again, the mount trotted into our night's bivouac with the negro in the saddle.

"Abe's toilet was sadly neglected; and he had endeavored to improve appearances by donning a high white collar that had been lost or thrown away by a dressy officer. The neck-gear gave the Ethiopian a ludicrous dignity, and set the members of Company C shouting with laughter.

"'Abe!' cried Lieutenant French, 'Where the devil have you been?'

"'Marse,' the servant answered, 'I wan' to live jes' long as I kin.'"

Not that the soldiers lacked sympathy for their contrabands. Haven, recalling his own fears as to how he would adjust on his return to civilian life, recalls:

"Several weeks before, a party of runaway blacks had come into the encampment of the 1st Connecticut Cavalry. Away from the cruel drudgery of the only existence they knew, these people had no idea as to what the future offered them ...

"With Union troopers proving indifferent hosts by monopolizing the windward side of an evening campfire, to escape the irritating fumes, the emancipated slaves gathered in lee of the blaze; and, with clouds of smoke streaming into their faces, forgot homesickness and bewilderment by putting whole hearts into the singing of Negro spirituals. In my own uncertainty, I came to envy the simplicity of the oppressed race."

Those attitudes would change in the years to come, when blacks were finally allowed to serve in the Union army, where they would prove their mettle and unparalleled courage in battle.

k.robinson@theday.com

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