Over the course of the last year I became familiar with the use of the term “contrabands” to describe escaped slaves in the American Civil War. Like many terms of the period, it seemed self-explanatory, in an ugly way. A symptom of the racism that was fundamental in the Union as well as in the Confederacy. I read it and moved on.
In fact, the term “contraband” is derived from the concept of “contraband of war” and was linked to a first step toward the Emancipation Proclamation. According to international law, in times of war goods that can be used for hostile purposes can be legally seized from the enemy or from merchants of a neutral nation who ship such goods to a belligerent power. Typical examples of contraband of war include shipments of arms or the materials needed to make arms.
In May, 1861, only a month after the beginning of the war, lawyer turned Union General Benjamin Butler,* stretched that legal concept to cover three escaped slaves who sought asylum at Fort Monroe, Virginia–a Union fort isolated in newly Confederate territory. The young men–Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend–brought information about an artillery emplacement being built by slave labor across the harbor from Fort Monroe.
Butler was not an abolitionist and the laws regarding escaped slaves were clear: fugitive slaves must be returned to their masters. The Fugitive Slave Act was still in force, and Abraham Lincoln had declared that the purpose of the war was not to overthrow slavery but to keep the union intact. In his inaugural speech, he had explicitly stated “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
The law was clear, but Butler felt the men who had asked for asylum represented a special case. They had brought him useful military intelligence. And if he returned them to their master they would be put back to work building an artillery battery that was aimed directly at his fort. When rebel officers arrived at Fort Monroe demanding that he return the slaves, Butler declared them contraband of war–enemy property being used for hostile purposes–and refused to return them.
Two days later, more escaped slaves arrived at the gates of Fort Monroe. By early June, some 500 escaped slaves had taken shelter within the Union lines, where they quickly became an unofficial part of the garrison.
Newspapers throughout the North picked up the story, quipping about what The Times described as “contraband property having legs to run away with, and intelligence to guide its flight.” Soon the fugitives were being described as “contrabands”, a term that encapsulated the unresolved nature of their legal status as property.
*Aka “Beast” Butler, not because of his military actions but because of his face and rough manners.