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Slaves as Contraband

When the Dred Scott decision ruled that slavery had been accepted by the Constitution and could not be banned in any state, the reaction in Northern and Southern states led, after four years of debate and one crucial election, to war.

President Lincoln proposed to nullify the Dred Scott decision and restore a situation where slavery would be limited to states where it already existed. At no point during his election campaign did he suggest eliminating it altogether.

Despite laws making it illegal to teach slaves to read, communication networks between plantations spread the word that the Union army brought freedom. Actually, that was neither the Army’s orders nor intention. Early in the war, General Halleck, Union Commander in the Western Theater, issued Order No.3 barring fugitive slaves from army camps so military officers would not make decisions about their freedom. The Fugitive Slave law, passed in 1850, was still in effect and he felt decisions regarding escaped slaves should be made by Congress, not the army.

General Benjamin Butler was in command at Fort Monroe, Virginia when three enslaved men sought refuge at the fort. They had been working on Confederate fortifications nearby when they learned that their owner planned to move them farther south, away from their families. Their owner sent an agent to demand their return, in line with the Fugitive Slave Law. General Butler refused on the grounds that they were helping the Confederate war effort in rebellion against the United States and so by the rules of war were contraband.

This became military policy. Whether working on fortifications or tending crops, slaves were helping the Confederacy. If they escaped, they would not be returned to their owners.

When J.F. McCartney sent Elizabeth his photo from the camp near Vicksburg, she showed it to a neighbor who commented that it appeared he had been brushing up against the “counter bands.” This odd comment shows that by 1863 ordinary citizens were aware of the contraband policy. In her joking way, she infers that the photo shows J.F. to be deeply tanned.

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