In May 1861, three slaves escaped from Confederate-occupied Norfolk County to the US Army base at Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. Major General Benjamin Butler refused to return them to the Confederacy, saying they were neither slaves nor free but “contraband of war.” They were just the beginning. In areas of the South where the US Army was present, thousands of slaves escaped to Union lines. The army and navy set able-bodied adults to work for wages and established “contraband camps” where they and their families could live.
Conditions in the camps usually exceeded the quality of life under slavery, but these were refugee camps, where residents were subject to mistreatment and to the danger of disease. The so-called contrabands often remained on the move, marching along with Union troops rather than confronting the wrath of their former owners. Caught in between slavery and freedom, African Americans worked to defeat the Confederacy and, in the process, helped army officers and political leaders envision the possibility of slavery’s abolition and eventual citizenship for freed people.
Runaway slaves were often depicted as “contrabands” in Northern periodicals. Some illustrations communicated their value as laborers or as intelligence gatherers who could provide information about everything from the terrain of the South to the habits of their former masters. Many other illustrations, however, grossly distorted contrabands’ features in caricatures meant to suggest low intelligence and less-than-human qualities.