Group of “contrabands” in Virginia, May 1862. Photograph by James F. Gibson.
In the opening months of the Civil War, three slaves escaped. This wasn’t anything new; in fact, it happened so often that in 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law to make it easier for slaveholders to recover their “property.” The difference, as Adam Goodheart discusses in his 1861: The Civil War Awakening, was that now the North and South were at war. The escaped slaves showed up at the Union-held Fort Monroe in Virginia, and provided valuable intelligence about the Confederate fortifications they’d been building. When a Confederate officer arrived at Fort Monroe to demand the slaves be returned, the Union commander, Benjamin Franklin Butler, came up with a brilliant legal loophole that changed the course of the war. As he recalled in his memoir:
"What do you mean to do with those negroes?" [said Major Carey, the Confederate officer.]
"I intend to hold them," said I.
"Do you mean, then, to set aside your constitutional obligation to return them?"
"I mean to take Virginia at her word, as declared in the ordinance of secession passed yesterday. I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be."
"But you say we cannot secede," he answered, "and so you cannot consistently detain the negroes."
"But you say you have seceded, so you cannot consistently claim them. I shall hold these negroes as contraband of war, since they are engaged in the construction of your battery and are claimed as your property.”
"Contrabands" flocked to the Union lines by the thousands, serving as informants, scouts, laborers, and when the Army began recruiting blacks in 1863, soldiers. They helped pave the way for emancipation. Their status as property, as something that could be confiscated because they helped the enemy fight the war—like a cask of gunpowder—ironically helped make them free. The Civil War, especially for the North, was all about drift. What started as a conservative war—a war to preserve the Union as it existed—became a radical one, involving the abolition of slavery and the annihilation of the Southern way of life. “Contrabands” were the first crucial step.