Escaped slaves move north

About five hundred thousand slaves escaped from the South and

Mathew Brady

Union major general Benjamin F. Butler.

(Photograph by Mathew B. Brady. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Union major general Benjamin F. Butler.

(Photograph by Mathew B. Brady. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

crossed the battle lines into Union territory during the Civil War. Prior to mid-1862—when black men were not allowed to be soldiers, and many Northern whites claimed that it was a "white man's war"—some Union generals returned fugitive slaves to their owners in the South. But before long, some Union officials began welcoming escaped slaves, partly because they often brought useful information about enemy troop numbers and positions. Keeping fugitive slaves became the official Union policy in 1861. A small group of escaped slaves approached Union general Benjamin F.

Butler (1818-1893) that May, and he refused to return them to Confederate hands. He argued that the Fugitive Slave Act—which required Americans in free states to help slave owners retrieve their property—no longer applied because the Confederacy was a foreign country. He called the escaped slaves "contraband [captured goods] of war" and declared his intention to keep them. In August, the U.S. Congress passed the Confiscation Act, which allowed the Union Army to seize any property used "in aid of the rebellion," including slaves.

At first there was no clear Federal policy regarding "contrabands," as the escaped slaves came to be known. Eventually, most Union Army units set up contraband camps and provided food, clothing, and shelter to the former slaves. The residents of many Northern cities organized freedmen's aid societies and sent volunteers to teach the contrabands to read and write. One of the earliest contraband communities was established on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. Volunteers provided the former slaves with education and land and helped them make the transition to freedom. Following emancipation, some free Northern blacks started schools in the South to educate freed slaves.

Some of the escaped slaves who came through Union lines stayed to become cooks or laborers for the soldiers. Others were put to work on abandoned plantations to grow food and cotton for the troops. In addition,

Em Northerners Organize to SS Help the "Contrabands"

Thousands of slaves escaped from plantations in the South during the Civil War and made their way to the North, particularly after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation set the slaves free in 1863. Many former slaves crossed the battle lines to join the advancing Union troops, where they were accepted as "contraband of war." Most of the "contrabands," as the escaped slaves came to be called, were poor and uneducated and arrived with only the possessions they could carry on their backs. At first, the Union Army did not have any systems in place to deal with the contrabands.

Before long, however, many Northern cities organized freedmen's aid societies to collect money and supplies for the former slaves. They also sent volunteers to teach the contrabands how to read and write and help them make the transition to working for pay. Many of the early teachers and aid workers were Northern whites who had supported the abolition of slavery. But large numbers of free blacks became involved in helping the contrabands after emancipation. The following statement from the Reverend Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915), pastor of Israel Bethel Church in Washington, D.C., shows how black leaders throughout the North rallied people to the cause:

The time has arrived in the history of the American African, when grave and solemn responsibilities stare him in the face. . . . The great quantity of contrabands (so-called), who have fled from the

Henry Mcneal Turner
Reverend Henry McNeal Turner.

oppressor's rod, and are now thronging Old Point Comfort, Hilton Head, Washington City, and many other places, and the unnumbered host who shall soon be freed by the President's Proclamation, are to materially change their political and social condition. The day of our inactivity, disinterestedness, and irresponsibility, has given place to a day in which our long cherished abilities, and every intellectual fibre of our being, are to be called into a sphere of requisition [a formal demand or request]. . . . Thousands of contrabands, now at the places above designated, are in a condition of the extremest suffering. We see them in droves every day perambulating [walking around] the streets of Washington, homeless, shoeless, dress-less, and moneyless. . . . Every man of us now, who has a speck of grace or bit of sympathy, for the race that we are inseparably identified with, is called upon by force of surrounding circumstances, to extend a hand of mercy to bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

Slaves Spies
A poster urges black men to join the Union Army.

some former slaves served as spies for the North. They traveled through the South, pretending to be slaves on their way from one plantation to another, and gathered information from slaves and free blacks. Then they came back and told Union officials about the location and size of the enemy forces. Spying was dangerous work for blacks, because anyone who was caught could be killed or returned to slavery.

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