Contraband Camps

During the American Civil War of the early 1860s, there were “contraband” camps. Such contraband camps were African-American refugee camps to which between 400,000-500,000 thousand enslaved men, women, and children in the Union-occupied portions of the Southern Confederacy states fled to escape their slave-holding owners by getting themselves to the Union Army. There they were workers for the Union Army.

To make the escape from their masters and head to a Union camp was a scary thought. The Southern rebels developed rumors they told to the slaves that the Yankees would eat them, sell them into slavery in Cuba, process them into fertilizer, or make them pull carts like oxen. Many in-spite of the rumors made the run to the Union camps.

They were fed and cared for those who reached the camps. Those who wanted were trained to be Union soldiers and join the United States Colored Troops.

Not all the camps were perfect. Refugees were in makeshift villages of tents or shacks faced reprisals when Confederates infiltrated Union lines, were occasionally handed over when their owners came looking for them and fell victim to smallpox and diseases that proliferated in the absence of proper sanitation.

Not just men, but also women and children arrived in the camps—barefoot and hungry after long journeys by boat, wagon, foot. Deaths happened, sometimes 30 per day die and were carried out by wagon loads, without coffins, and thrown into a trench.

A large refugee location was Fort Monroe in Virginia known as “Freedom’s Fortress.” Some camps set up a school for African-American children. Many coming there later had a spirit of independence—a feeling that they are no longer slaves.

The women helped to make significant contributions, growing cotton on abandoned plantations as part of a Union labor program, some becoming cooks or hospital workers.

Many African-American who were freemen already went to the camps looking for any relatives.

After the end of the Civil War in 1865, there had been about 100 contraband camps. Many of these former contraband establish new lives in nearby areas or went west for a fresh start. Over the decades many of the former contraband campsites have had historical markers placed and the nearby gravesites marked. There is a Contraband Historical Society.

Photos: 1861 Contraband Camp at Harper’s Ferry in VA; 1863 contraband camp; School for children in the contraband camps in 1863 and the marker about the Corinth Contraband Camp.

Related Blogs:

Collections of African-American Images

Documents on African-Americans

African-Americans Serving in the American Civil War

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