Category Archives: Uncategorized

African American Occupations in Reconstruction America

Although the reasoning behind southern secession and the Civil War seems to be a convoluted mess of issues regarding states’ rights, taxation, and good ole’ fashioned territorial tension, what is clear and understandable is the significance that a Union victory brought to those enslaved. Despite popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation did not give slaves their sought after freedom (Worry not! We have all thought so at one time or another). Instead, concrete freedom and undeniable American citizenship came to all African Americans with the adoption of the consecutive Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments (passed in 1865 and 1868, respectively). But, what came next?

Although those two amendments both abolished slavery and required all rights and privileges belonging to United States citizens to no longer be withheld from African Americans, these pieces of legislation were mute on just how States were to incorporate thousands of new citizens into every day life. So, what had life been like for African Americans during the Reconstruction Era of U.S. history?

As we have learned in our high school history classes (and still witness, even today), being black and living in America can be characterized as a constant uphill struggle for freedom, rights, and respect. Yes, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments may have promised to fulfill the American creed – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – for African Americans, the fact remains that racism was (and is) embedded in our culture. Understanding, then, that the assimilation of these new citizens was going to be hard, the U.S. government had the foresight to create the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (shortened to just Freedman’s Bureau) in March of 1865. The purpose behind the Freedman’s Bureau, originally intended to operate for just one year, was to ensure that African Americans were given proper food and medical attention, as well as education and protection in the workplace. The efforts of the Freedman’s Bureau became even more essential when, later that same year, Mississippi and other southern states enacted legislation known as the Black Codes.

Although the Black Codes are considered the precursor to the intense and violent Jim Crow Era of the South, the laws enacted by these codes packed a definite wallop. Born from a necessity to reinforce white supremacy, the Black Codes served as the behavioral outline for what African Americans could and could not do within the boarders of their state. For the most part, the codes were concerned with the issue of integrating African Americans into the existing labor market. Thousands of men and women joined the free labor market pool and white southerners, wishing to kill two birds with one stone, detailed the rights that African Americans had in regards to work and contracts in the Black Codes.

So, with all focus on labor, we are left with a question: what kinds of jobs did African Americans have in Reconstruction America?

Church and Publication

Richard Allen, Founder of American Methodist Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of AME Social Action Comission.

Richard Allen, Founder of American Methodist Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of AME Social Action Comission.

Richard Allen, a former slave once owned by famed Philadelphian lawyer Benjamin Chew, founded the first independent black denomination in the United States just fourteen short years after he bought his freedom in 1780. The church, American Methodist Episcopal of Philadelphia, became an invaluable resource for African Americans to be involved with both politics and the black community. During the Civil War, numerous African Americans participated in the proliferation of the abolition cause through their positions in the AME. Through the AME, African Americans served in traditional and non-traditional church roles that united the black community. The non-traditional positions had African Americans creating and publishing the AME’s official newsletter, The Christian Recorder. According to Eric Gardner, The Christian Recorder became a widely read and subscribed to newspaper that reached both African American civilians and soldiers fighting in the war.

After the war, the nature of The Christian Recorder somewhat shifted. While still printing interesting articles and notices of community events, the weekly newsletter began to publish with more frequency ‘Information Wanted’ advertisements. Hundreds of people, in desperate hopes of reuniting with a lost love one (who had been sold, fought in the war, etc.), wrote to The Christian Recorder with information usually detailing the lost person’s name, appearance, and even last known location. Along with being responsible for printing those wanted advertisements in the newsletter, those working for the AME often served as liaisons, or contacts, between those searching for loved ones and the people who might have information and possible leads about the missing.

Although the work completed by those of traditional church positions was rather different than those with more non-traditional roles in the AME, both occupations required African Americans to do meaningful and, at times, difficult work.


Once the successful Atlanta to Savannah leg of his legendary March to Sea had come to an end, Gen. William Sherman met with several black leaders of Savannah to discuss the idea of appropriating the confiscated southern territory to African Americans who fought for Union or had previously worked the land while enslaved. From Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, issued on 16 January 1865, comes the well-known order for African Americans to receive “forty acres and a mule” as reparation for the injustices done to them by slavery. Although Sherman’s order is admirable, President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination put the proverbial nail in the coffin of the former slaves owning the confiscated land. President Andrew Johnson, a Southern sympathizer, returned the land to the properties’ original owners.

Although the reinstated plantation owners were given back their land, the workforce needed to care for the property was no more. While anxious to reclaim their lost fortune, plantation owners realized that they could capitalize on the poor African Americans who, because of the Black Codes, needed work but could not afford the land and tools necessary to create a successful farm or business. As a deceptive cure for all ills, plantation owners offered these freed blacks a portion of their land in return for percentage of the crops produced. This process of renting land in exchange for goods became known as sharecropping.

Sharecropping and Its Prevalence

Although the premise of sharecropping sounds fair, albeit opportunistic, the truth behind the exchange was for less reasonable than we would like to think. As we have discussed, sections of the Black Codes detail African American employment. The portion, “An Act to Confer Civil Rights on Freedmen, and for Other Purposes,” requires that all “freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes” to live in previously designated areas (so, African Americans could live only in towns that the government deemed proper) unless holding a license to live and work someplace else. For most African Americans, purchasing property in those designated towns was unrealistic. Truthfully, what former slave had money to spend on land or a home?

Armed with this knowledge, plantation owners appealed to these freedmen and offered them the gold plated opportunity of sharecropping: for a small portion of the profit (one-third of the crop harvest), one could rent the land needed to both live on and farm. Again, sharecropping does not sound all that bad. But, tagged on to the fine print of the deal were stipulations and charges. As previously mentioned, most freedmen were poor and, thus, could not afford the seeds and tools required to cultivate a successful farm. Once more, plantation owners had the solution: for an additional third of the crop harvest, one could rent the tools and seeds (picked by the plantation owner) needed.

So, after months of hard labor, what would those who entered the contract with the plantation owners receive as profit? One third of their crop harvest that must be disbursed in two ways: consumed by the family or sold for monetary gain. Suddenly, sharecropping does not seem like such a good idea. Yet, during Reconstruction, nearly 90% of all African Americans were sharecroppers.

Percentages of farms sharecropped during Reconstruction Era.

Percentages of farms sharecropped during Reconstruction Era.

The story of freedman Luther Mills exemplifies the conundrum faced by many African Americans after the Civil War. Mills, a husband and father of three, searched for odd jobs and other ways to provide for his family. Unable to read or write, Mills understood that his options were limited and, when presented with the opportunity to obtain the necessities his family needed, agreed to become a sharecropper. Signing a contract with a plantation owner, becoming a sharecropper, was not a perfect solution to the troubles that faced newly freed African Americans, but the contract was certainly enough to provide for the basic needs of daily life. Unfortunately, once the deal was made and contract signed, the sharecropper was stuck working for his employer for at least a year. According to the Black Codes, a deal was a deal and could not be terminated by the employee. If a contract had been agreed upon to last a year, then the employee was required to work for that time period. The employee, or sharecropper in this instance, could not quit and, if caught trying to leave the employment, would be returned and punished. Sounds an awful lot like the various fugitive slave legislations of the past, right?

Domestic Work

As we can see, conditions for African Americans in the South had not improved and, one could argue, began to resemble a quasi-slavery institution. Fortunately, freed black men and women were now able to travel to find better employment opportunities.

Since the North had fought for the freedom of those enslaved, southern African Americans believed that northern towns and workplaces would be the answer to their problems. Black women, in particular, were eager to trek North for the possibility of working outside the domestic sphere that they had been limited to for so long. These women were especially hopeful in finding better wage work given the economic climate of the North during Reconstruction.

During the later half of the Civil War and immediately following the fighting, the North and West experienced an industrial boom that has been unparalleled in American history since. This explosion of industry and business was primarily due to the proliferation of electricity, as well as railroad expansion (the Transcontinental Railroad opened in 1869). As a result of this remarkable boom in production, more people were needed to perform manual labor tasks such as attending to the new assembly lines or hammering in the metal steaks on railroad ties. Because of the high demand of labor, business looked to capitalize on an underutilized resource to save money; women, of course, represented that rarely tapped reserve. Once women began to be hired in bulk for these factory jobs, a hierarchy of female workers was created. Atop the labor pyramid were the white, Anglo-Saxon females, followed then by the Irish women, and ending with black females who, instead of factory work, found themselves designated to performing jobs only in domestic services. According to Sharon Harley in The Afro-American Women: Struggles and Images, as “all blacks were despised and hated by whites, there can be little doubt that black females were excluded from the northern factory system.” So, once again, African American women found themselves working as maids, dishwashers and, for a lucky few, unskilled factory workers.


Although I have created a rather bleak image of life for African Americans in the South during Reconstruction, not all suffered under the sharecropper regime. Scholars of African American history have identified over one thousand black men who held political office in both state and federal government. Surprising? Given what we learned about the Black Codes, most definitely. The first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress was a man named Hiram Rhodes Revels.

Hiram Rhodes Revels. Photo courtesy of Knox College.

Hiram Rhodes Revels. Photo courtesy of Knox College.

Interestingly, Revels began his career as a minister in the AME church. Serving in a traditional church role, Revels spoke often to those in his congregation and often put his formal education to more use by tutoring youngsters. Born a free man in North Carolina, Rhodes was tutored himself at an early age and continued with his education at the Union County Quaker Seminary in Indiana, as well as Knox College in Illinois. After leaving AME to join the Methodist Episcopal Church, Revels was stationed permanently in Natchez, Mississippi in 1866. In just three short years, Revels was elected to present his county in the Mississippi State Senate. There, Revels flourished and was soon voted to replace Albert Brown in the U.S. Senate in 1870. Revels became not only the first African American to serve in the Senate, but in Congress itself.

Oscar James Dunn.

Oscar James Dunn.

Another first to serve was Oscar James Dunn of Louisiana. Unlike Revels, Dunn was born into slavery and, after working as a skilled laborer for years, was emancipated in 1819. Dunn, while a skilled laborer, had also been tutored in music and was a talented violinist. In 1868, Dunn became the first black man to serve in state government as Louisiana’s lieutenant governor. Once Reconstruction ended, however, men like Revels and Dunn were no longer able to serve in government on a local, state or federal level. Although their terms in political office did not last long, these men created a legacy and should be remembered as true pioneers of the time.

Concluding Thoughts

After the Civil War, African Americans help a wide variety of jobs ranging from the sharecroppers in agriculture, women as maids and dishwashers, and even so far as political office. The accomplishments of these men and women were great, but still not equal or fair treatment that African Americans deserved under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment. Knowing about the kind of job opportunities (or lack thereof) that existed for African Americans during Reconstruction puts Civil Rights history into a new perspective, making the movement of the 1960s inevitable and even still continuing.



Harley, Sharon and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images. New York: Kennikat Press, 1978.


13th Amendment

14th Amendment

40 Acres and a Mule

African American Women in the North

AME Social Action Commission

Black Codes

Hiram Rhodes Revels 

Oscar James Dunn


William Sherman’s Field Order No. 15

Sharecropping Map and photograph of Oscar James Dunn are provided courtesy of Google Images.


FAB Philadelphia: Establishing Black Baptists Roots in a Methodist City 1813-1900


Christianity is something that has always been a solid tradition in African American communities since the end of the Civil War in 1865. Once the African Americans were freed and established their own communities, the Christian church usually became the center pillar of society. It was a way to not only seek spiritual fulfillment in a chaotic world, but organize community programs and aid. One of the largest hotspots to expand on African churches in the years leading up to and during the Civil War was Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s location as the southernmost northern state made it not only a prime city to settle for free blacks, but also escaped slaves and later those emancipated during the war. Initially, the Methodist church was one of the first to accept African Americans into their churches and then to branch off into the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. The AME church had strong ties to Philadelphia and its black communities through its publication The Christian Recorder. The Christian Recorder, a weekly publication provided articles on theology and current events as well as provided aid to displaced African Americans seeking family and friends after either being sold or emancipated. However; it would soon find a rival in a new organization: The First African Baptists Church, who’s roots in Philadelphia are key to the African American narrative.

The Christian Recorder was a positive and valued source in the Black AME community, interestingly enough though, its articles often went to great lengths to discredit a new rival denomination that had popped up in Philadelphia and was giving the AME churches a run for its money with parishioners. There are various articles featured it its issues dating back to Civil War Era and many deal with a preoccupation of statistics: numbers of Baptists in the region or nation compared to Baptist converts, including a heated article dismissing claims that the Black Baptist churches were outnumbering AME churches titled “You Are Mistaken”. Another article from 1863 critiques the Baptist paper The Examiners open article about wanting to create a more ritualized infant baptism, one more in line with the ceremonious Catholic baptisms. An article from November 6, 1890 entitled The Baptists and the Methodists goes on a lengthy, fiery diatribe in response to the American Baptists article about how the AME church had at that time actually despised the Baptists so much that at a Kentucky AME conference they were rumored to have said

” We are sorry the Baptist church has sunk so deep into ignorance, prejudice and superstition as to make an exhibition of themselves in this enlighten age, therefore be it ‘ Resolved that we pray for them that they may yet return to the principles of Christian love as taught by our common Lord, and that mercy be extended to them till they repent’ “

It is odd to think that at a time when the Black community was seeking its emancipation and induction into American society, that two religious organizations could attack each other in such violent ways. The Christian Recorder, documents various “grievances” it has with the Baptist churches ideologies, actions and general presence. Through reading The Christian Recorder, the reader picks up in an obvious matter how essential the AME churches were in time leading up to the Civil War, during and after. However; the Baptist tradition is one that has been downplayed and is equally important in understanding the role of African Americans in free society in the 19th century.

Just as with the AME churches, the Baptist movement grew out of white Baptist churches. May 13th 1809, 13 parishioners from The First Baptist Church of Philadelphia kindly asked to leave the mostly white congregation of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia to create their own African congregation and by June of 1809, under the direction of Reverend Henry Cunningham, the church built its first of many on a small rented lot on 10th and Vine in Philadelphia.

In 1813, the second Pastor Reverend John King, a white minister from the south would preside over the First African Baptist Church (FAB) and would change the location twice; a jump to 11th and Vine and later 8th and Vine, but he would be replaced in 1832 by the Reverend James Burrows. Burrows was the epitome of the African Christian in the Civil War Era. He was a former slave who had actually worked in Philadelphia with his masters permission to pay off his freedom! Burrows was hugely successful, he moved the location yet again to 11th and Vine and according the FAB site, built a consistent following up until the time until he left in 1846. Sadly, and for reasons unknown, in the 1850’s the fellowship started to decline.


The Baptist church once again came to life in 1864, the year after the Emancipation, as a flood of northern migration was taking place under Reverend Theodore D. Miller. By 1867, Miller had presided over a increase of 240 to 12,000 parishioners. Because Philadelphia’s location provided a perfect settlement for the newly freed African Americans, the Baptist tradition took on and in 1867 the church moved again, it was because they had grown almost overnight and needed a bigger building for their budding community. Because the fellowship was so high and under the dedicated care of Reverend Miller, the new location on Cherry Street was entirely paid for in his 32 years of service. Miller would pass away in 1897 and leave a legacy of strength in the Baptist community. The FAB church was not just revolutionary for organizing in a mainly Methodist town, but for its contributions to the African Americans of Philadelphia in practical ways as well. In the early 1900’s after it had been solidly established in the aftermath of the Emancipation and Union victory, FAB started the first Savings and Loans for African Americans in the city and helped secure mortgages early on for the growing Black communities.

index.php    index.php

Baptist and AME churches were not the only religious affiliations who have helped aid African Americans from slavery or racial injustice. However; both were crucial in Philadelphia in the 19th century to establish a home base as well as a strong Black community. Most though are more familiar with the AME organization and its role in the emancipation process. Philadelphia could not have developed such a strong African American community with the FAB. Today, it has celebrated 205 years of practice in the Philadelphia region and continues to be a major pillar in the African American community in Philadelphia.

Photos Courtesy of NYPLA

Suggested Readings-

FAB Celebrates 205th Year

The FAB Church

The Black church During the Civil War

The First African Baptist Church, Philadelphia. Charles Brooks 1922

Camp William Penn: Creating United States Colored Troops in Pennsylvania

Company E of the 4th U.S.C.T.

Company E of the 4th U.S.C.T. (Library of Congress)

By January of 1863 the Civil War was well under way. Hundreds of thousands of troops were enlisted in the Union Army to preserve the Union! Yet, the government would not enlist any African-Americans, whether they were runaway slaves or free men. By the end of year this would change, with thousands of African-Americans enlisting in the army. Camp William Penn would be Pennsylvania’s only training camp of African-American Troops and would become one of the nation’s largest and most important training grounds for these troops.

Initially, Abraham Lincoln resisted the enlistment of African-American troops in the Union Army. That was in 1861 when everyone hoped that the war would be short.  By September of 1862 the war was well over a year old and the Union had suffered a string of losses at the hands of the Confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln issued on September 22, 1862 changed that. Today we remember the proclamation as the act by which Lincoln freed all the slaves (which isn’t technically true but that is for another article), but near the bottom of the document there was a single sentence about using African-Americans as soldiers. “And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” With this single statement, Lincoln started the country towards using African-American troops. Once the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1st, 1863 states started to form African-American regiments. The first and most famous of the state regiments was the 54th Massachusetts, which was formed in March of 1863 but there was no system in place for the Federal government to recruit African-American troops.

The attack on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts (Knox University)

The attack on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts (Knox University)

General Order 143 changed all that. When Secretary of War E. D. Townsend issued this order in May of 1863, it created the United States Colored Troops. This was the organization that was created for enlisting and organizing African-American into regiments.  Already in March of 1863 a group of men formed a committee, with former cavalry officer Colonel William Frismuth as head of the committee, for the recruitment of African-American soldiers into regiments. Originally, it seems as though the committee wanted to use these troops to form Pennsylvania state regiments. This proposal was originally backed by Governor Curtain but had trouble getting support from the War Department. In May a new committee, dubbed the Citizen’s Bounty Fund Committee, formed and petitioned the new Secretary of War Stanton to recruit for and form colored regiments in Pennsylvania. This committee in turn formed a sub-committee, called the Supervising Committee for Recruiting Colored Troops, which would not only recruit troops but also help to administer the new training camp for these troops. On June 22nd this committee received word from the War Department:

“I am instructed by the Secretary of War to inform you that you are hereby authorized as the representative of your associate petitioners to raise in Philadelphia, or the eastern part of Pennsylvania, three regiments of infantry, to be composed of colored men, to be mustered into the service of the United States for three years or during the war. To these troops no bounties will be paid.

They will receive $ 10 per month and one ration, $ 3 of which monthly pay may be in clothing.

It must be distinctly understood that but one regiment is to be recruited at a time; thus, the organization of the first regiment must be completed and the regiment mustered into service before the recruiting of the second is commenced.

The troops raised under the foregoing instructions will rendezvous at Camp William Penn, Chelten Hills, near Philadelphia, where they will be received and subsisted as soon as they are enlisted, and an officer will be assigned to duty at that post to take command of them on their arrival and make the necessary requisitions for supplies.”

Camp William Penn (Library of Congress)

Camp William Penn (Library of Congress)

Camp William Penn officially open on June 26th, 1863. The response by the Philadelphia African-American community was overwhelming and immediate. By the end of July a full regiment of 800 men had been recruited and formed into the 3rd United States Colored Troop. By the end of August enough officers had been found and the 3rd U.S.C.T. was officially mustered into the Union Army. (Mustered in means they were officially sworn in and were a part of the army) The response only slowed slightly after the formation of the 3rd U.S.C.T. The 3rd U.S.C.T. was the first of eleven regiments that would pass through Camp William Penn. Besides the 3rd U.S.C.T., the 6th U.S.C.T., the 8th U.S.C.T., the 22nd U.S.C.T., the 24th U.S.C.T., the 25th U.S.C.T., the 32nd U.S.C.T., the 41st U.S.C.T., the 43rd U.S.C.T., the 45th U.S.C.T., and the 127th U.S.C.T. all were formed and trained at Camp William Penn. If you would like complete regimental histories of these units, they are in Samuel Bates’ History of Pennsylvania Volunteers 1861-5; Prepared in Compliance with the Acts of the Legislature Volume V. When Camp William Penn closed in May of 1865  about 11,000 enlisted men and 400 officers had been trained in camp. Considering only about 80,000 African-Americans enlisted during the Civil War, Camp William Penn trained almost 1/8 or about 13% of all African-Americans that served in the Union Army during the course of the war.

Troops on parade at Camp William Penn (National Archives)

Not only was Camp William Penn one of the largest camps for training African-American troops but it also acted as a link to the African-American community. Thousands of men from Philadelphia and other states flocked to the camp creating a link between it and the African-American community. Some of the most visible connections appear in issues of the Christian Recorder. The Christian Recorder was one of the most popular African-American newspapers in the country and was based out of Philadelphia. In issues of the newspaper you see articles written about the camp and letters sent by soldiers from regiments that were formed in Camp William Penn. Recruiting ads were placed in the newspaper as well. There were many soldiers from U.S.C.T. regiments, whether they were formed at Camp William Penn or not, that were subscribers of the paper. With the prevalence of sharing newspapers and reading aloud, this would greatly increase the number of people who would be exposed to the paper. Probably the biggest advantage to this would be the added exposure for the information wanted ads. Information wanted ads were people advertising trying to find long lost friends and family, usually separated by slavery. Not only were soldiers sometimes the people posting these ads but were sometimes the people being looked for in the ads. With these soldiers being spread out around the country both North and South, it greatly helped to boast the chances of the people in the ads being found.

The 3rd U.S.C.T. Battle Flag (Library of Congress)

The 3rd U.S.C.T. Battle Flag (Library of Congress)

Camp William Penn was one of the most influential training camps of African-American soldiers. Not only did it train a large chunk of these soldiers who served during the war but its’ connection with the African-American community and the Christian Recorder made it a large part of the African-American culture during that time period.


Additional Reading about Camp William Penn:

Camp William Penn 1863-1865: America’s First Federal African American Soldiers’ Fight for Freedom by Donald Scott, Sr.

Camp William Penn and the Black Soldier by Jeffry D. Wert (JSTOR access required)

Camp William Penn by Pennsylvania 150th Anniversary of the Civil War

Camp William Penn in Historic La Mott

National Archives Records on Camp William Penn

Additional Reading about the United States Colored Troops

 United States Colored Troops by the National Archives and Records Administration

Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar

United States Colored Troops by the National Park Service

Contraband Camps

On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all slaves in seceded states “forever free.” However, the reality of the proclamation is that it did not free any slaves. Emancipation did not mean the elimination of the racial restraints; however, it provided a new means by which the United States military could address the complicated issue of runaway slaves. The proclamation was the final step in a series of orders addressing runaways known as contrabands—arguably stretching from the fugitive slave act of 1850, through the Kansas, Missouri conflict leading directly to the first shots on Fort Sumter. Contraband camps remain one of the most under studied areas in Civil War history; yet they are perhaps one of the most important institutions in the reestablishment and recreation of African-American social networks disrupted by slavery or during the war.

Page one of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln January 1, 1863.

From the outbreak of violence in 1861 slaves sought to escape their masters and flee to freedom in the North. This was especially true in the Border States, where sympathetic abolitionists and relatively easy access to northbound travel infrastructure made escape a more viable option. For some slaves, however, there were even greater risks. Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend were taken by their masters to North Carolina where they learned they would be used to construct gun emplacements and fortifications for the Confederacy. Rather than stay and help the cause that would keep them in chains, they fled to the Union lines at Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads, Virginia. The fort’s commander, General Benjamin Butler, a lawyer and savvy telegram writer, was faced with an interesting conundrum. The three escaped men represented a violation of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 which Butler and other Union commanders were expected to honor as not all states remaining in the Union were “free.” Butler realized, however, that returning these men to their masters would enable the enemy to continue the construction of the defenses which, in time, would be used against the general and his men. Therefore, General Butler sent a wire to the war office and the president explaining his quagmire. President Lincoln made the crucial decision to allow Union officers to confiscate slaves as “contraband,” the same as they would materials of war captured in battle.

African American refugees known as Contraband. Bermuda Hundred, VA. c. 1864.

      The story of Mallory, Baker, and Townsend traveled around the country amongst both freemen and slaves. According to historian Thavolia Glymph, by 1863, the population of contrabands at Fort Monroe had grown from only a few individuals to nearly a thousand. Fort Monroe was only one of several thousand Union installations around the country that housed tens of thousands of contrabands. These former slaves: men, women, and children, were sometimes employed by the army to work in or maintain the camps. Men were recruited into colored regiments, particularly after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863. Soon, United States Colored Troops (USCTs) were training at facilities such as Camp William Penn outside Philadelphia.

            Quality of life in contraband camps was predicated on several factors: distance to Union lines, access to supplies, overcrowding, climate, and access to clean water. As the war progressed, small villages grew into shanty towns, and later camps inhabited by thousands. Often the health of these camps was dependent on the charity of sympathetic Union commanders or Northern aid societies who would visit with clothing and medication for children and women. Because men of fighting age were often off with the Union Army, the elderly, women, and children were left to fend for themselves in a violent landscape. Aside from the threat of smallpox, cholera, or tuberculosis frequent raids by Confederate partisans or Confederate cavalry could wipe out entire camp populations.

            Yet the promise of freedom motivated many to throw down their tools and march many miles to these camps. Even in the face of real danger and near constant disease and hunger, independent contraband settlements allowed communities and families to remain together. According to Glypmh, “At Craney Island near Norfolk, Virginia, for example, female fugitive slaves were able to re-establish family life with their male kin and also find work as seamstresses and cooks.” At times, travel to these camps meant separation from family. This was especially true for slave women who were forced to leave small children behind during daring plantation escapes. For these women, problems of camp life like hunger and disease were eclipsed by the anxiety of the loss of their children or fear if they were still alive, abused, or otherwise sold to another master.

The “Grand Contraband Camp” at the end of the War. c. 1864. Library of Congress.

 After the war these mothers, along with many other family members who had been separated during the conflict began to attempt to rebuild the social and familial networks that existed in the slave system in the antebellum period. Through family connections, churches, friends, and new networks created in camps they began to put out the word through ads in newspapers around the country in hopes that their loved ones could be reconnected with them. The Christian Recorder and the wanted ads that appear during and after the war is one example of an attempt to reestablish these family and social networks. Because these communities represent such an important yet under studied field in Civil War studies they warrant further examination and research by scholars.



Sources for more Information

Witt, John Fabian, Lincoln’s Code The Laws of War in American History. New York: Free Press, 2012.

Glymph, Thavolia.”‘This Species of Property’: Female Slave Contrabands in the Civil War” (Reprint). The Confederate Experience Reader: Selected Documents and Essays. Routledge, 2008.

The Christian Recorder

 National Trust for Historic Preservation: The Forgotten- The Contraband of America and the Road to Freedom

 National Park Service: Living Contraband- Former Slaves in the Nation’s Capital during the Civil War

National Park Service: Cornith Contraband Camp

 Last Road to Freedom: Rethinking Emancipation- Restoring Families

 National Archives and Records Administration: Featured Documents- The Emancipation Proclamation

 African American Civil War Memorial and Museum: United States Colored Troops

Lecture: Thavolia Glymph on Enslaved Women and the Armies of the Civil War



Test post

test post