Opinion: Letter to the Editor: How Enslaved People Came to be Called “Contrabands”

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: How Enslaved People Came to be Called “Contrabands”

We much appreciated Jeanne Theismann’s front-page article regarding an historic first for the Commonwealth: the inclusion of Alexandria’s Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, the burial place of about 1,800 African Americans, in the national African American Civil Rights Network.

An additional intriguing part of the story is how enslaved people during the Civil War came to be called “contrabands,” normally a term reserved for illegally smuggled goods or spoils of war, and thus began to gain their freedom as early as 1861. In that year Union Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler, originally from Massachusetts and commander of Fort Monroe in Virginia’s Hampton Roads, refused to return three escaped slaves who rowed across the water from Norfolk County and sought refuge at his fort.

Butler, a lawyer by training, argued that because Virginia had seceded and was no longer part of the United States, the Fugitive Slave Act requiring return of runaway slaves didn’t apply. He decreed that neither those three men nor any slaves who escaped should be returned to slaveholders pledging loyalty to the Confederacy. The result was that thousands of slaves made their way to Fort Monroe, thus providing valuable Union labor there, and also setting an example for other Union forts, where so-called contraband camps arose. One of those camps was here in Alexandria. Gen. Butler himself, although often at odds with his Commander in Chief, Abraham Lincoln, went on to command the Army of the James, which had the largest contingent of African American troops among all the Union armies.

Stephanie Kanwit