Thursday, December 20, 2007

ON THIS DAY: Thursday, Dec. 19, 1861

“The Contrabands”

Sometimes they creep furtively out of the woods and sometimes they walk boldly down the road; sometimes they come in groups and sometimes singly; but they all have the hunted look of men and women trying to get away from something.

They are runaway slaves, and the men in the Union army have a word for them: “contrabands.”

Despite Southerners’ claims of how well they treat slaves, slaves have been escaping northward for decades. Within weeks after the fall of Fort Sumter, they began showing up at the Virginia military base of Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler.

Butler put the escapees to work. He called them “contrabands,” because they had been assets to the Confederates and therefore subject to confiscation under the rules of war. But in these early days of the war the Lincoln administration is treading lightly on the issue of slavery and putting national reunion as its first priority. By degrees, Lincoln and the Congress begin freeing slaves, but until after the war emancipation will be a “work in progress,” rife with ambiguity.

Escaped slaves are showing up at many Union army camps, where they get differing welcomes. Sometimes Union officers return slaves to their owners, trying to dampen secessionism. Many other officers, however, are unable to stomach slavery and harbor the runaways.

Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes is one of these, and as escapees come into the camp of the 23rd Ohio in Fayetteville, western Virginia, he does his best to accommodate them until they can be sent westward to Ohio. “Quite a number have come to me,” Hayes writes Uncle Sardis Birchard in Fremont, Ohio. He urges his uncle to accept a family that he is directing to Fremont. “Allen…will do for a house servant….His wife can cook. If you don’t want them, you can safely recommend them…these are the pick of the lot.”

With slightly less than full confidence in what he is doing, Hayes opines that the family is “entitled to freedom, as I understand the rule adopted by our government. The rule is, I believe that slaves coming to our lines, especially if owned by Rebels, are free.” Hayes is probably referring to the “Confiscation Act” passed by Congress on August 6, the first in a series of steps freeing certain slaves that will lead to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863.

ELSWHERE: Apart from a skirmish in Maryland—no casualties reported—all, is quiet on the front lines. In Cairo, Illinois, Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant fires of a flurry of short, crisp dispatches on routine matters. St. Louis, Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman wonders what will become of him, now that he has returned to duty after his “rest break.” In Ohio, recruits drill at Camp Chase in Columbus and Camp Dennison, near Cincinnati, waiting for their regiments to fill and worrying that the war will be over before they can see some action.

No comments: