Civil War “Contraband”

We think we know the story of the end of slavery in the United States: Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery with a stroke of his pen, and millions of enslaved men, women and children went forward happily into their new lives as freedpeople. But the reality wasn’t quite so sunny. From the moment the Union Army entered slaveholding territories, enslaved people “voted with their feet,” and fled to the perceived safety of the Union army. These men, women and children came to be known as “contraband,” and the army’s treatment of them reveals a more realistic – but perhaps gloomier – story of emancipation. Join Elizabeth, Dan and Sarah as they discuss “contraband,” rights, and freedom during the American Civil War in this week’s episode of The History Buffs Podcast.


Matthew Brady, Contraband camp, Richmond, VA, 1865 | National Archives and Records Administration 524494 / Wikimedia Commons

Show Notes & Further Reading 

Downs, Jim. Sick From Freedom: African American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Hahn, Steven. A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. Cambridge: Belknap, 2003.

Harrold, Stanley, ed. The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Reader. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2012.

Masur, Kate. “A Rare Phenomenon of Philological Vegetation”: The Word “Contraband” and the Meanings of Emancipation in the United States.” The Journal of American History 93 (4), 1050–84.

McCurry, Stephanie. Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012. 

Feature Image: A contraband camp, ca. 1863 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons 

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