The Freedom of Slaves and Contraband Camps


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D.University of Virginia

In the course of the Civil War, freedom came in many different ways and at different times to black people across the South. The freed slaves were kept in contraband camps that were run by the government. What were the conditions inside these camps? Were the freed people happy?

African American laborers during the Civil War.
African American freed slaves were largely used by the army as labor force during the Civil War, sometimes without any pay. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Freedom of Slaves During the Civil War

As the nation approached the third year of the Civil War, the famous Emancipation Proclamation was issued by Abraham Lincoln. However, it didn’t initially free the slaves. Many slaves became contrabands when their white masters fled their farms. The slaves escaped to Union lines as Federal troops came closer.

Most black people didn’t use the chance they got to flee from the bondage of slavery. By the end of the Civil War, around 1.5 of the 3.5 million slaves in the Confederacy were in areas, or had been in areas, directly influenced by Northern military operations. Only about a half million of those 1.5 million were in areas completely controlled by the Union. This meant about one in seven slaves made their way to freedom during the Civil War.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Black Refugees in the Civil War

This turn of events was problematic for the federal government. It also put significant pressure on Union leadership, either on military commanders or on Washington political leaders who didn’t know how to handle the large and growing number of emancipated blacks gathering behind Union military lines.

Contrabands in the camp of the 2nd Regiment, Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry, Washington DC.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, freed slaves arrived in contraband camps run by the government. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The U.S. government had not developed a systematic uniform policy to handle the contrabands. There was divided responsibility between the military, Treasury Department, and a spectrum of freedmen and missionary societies to provide education relief for the freed people.

Furthermore, army officers had one top priority: military efficiency. They almost didn’t care about the welfare and wellbeing of black refugees; what was important to them was the maximum efficiency of their unit by using these people.

After breaking free from bondage, black people were placed in contraband camps established behind Union lines. These camps were generally overcrowded, and disease was widespread in them. The conditions in these camps improved as the war continued, and rations, clothing, and medicines were provided.

Learn more about the background to emancipation.

Helpers in Fight Against the Rebels

The military was interested in contraband camps because they could use the refugees in their campaign against the rebels. They intended to utilize black men as laborers to support military operations, acting as teamsters, stevedores, pioneers, hospital orderlies, nurses, cooks, laundresses, etc.

Accordingly, almost every non-combatant task was assigned to contrabands under the protection of the Union Army. But as the war went on, the military considered enrolling black men as soldiers, ultimately putting them into the United States Colored Troops (USCT) units and regiments.

Learn more about sinews of war-finance and supply.

Slavery in Another Form

Theoretically, the contrabands should have received money while being free at the same time, but this wasn’t true for the most part as they often had to do whatever the U.S. government asked them to do, sometimes without any pay in return. This was similar to what the Confederates forced slaves to do.

Many freed black people also worked on the captured plantations, which were seized from rebel owners and used for the Union’s benefits, at least in theory.

On the other hand, many greedy Northern speculators wanted to make money off these farms, while some Southern landholders signed the loyalty oath to the Union to keep their farms under their own control. Neither of these groups was concerned about the black people who worked on these plantations.

The Unfairly Low Wages of Black People

The plantations were generally located in Louisiana and Mississippi under General Nathaniel P. Banks’s jurisdiction, a commander in the area. He issued regulations claiming that labor was a public duty. Idleness and vagrancy were considered crimes, so all able-bodied freed people who were not employed had to enlist for public work in areas under his jurisdiction. Black people were forced to sign up with an employer in return for a promised wage, food, and housing.

Yet, the salaries were often spent on clothing, medical care, etc., leaving no money for men and leading them to essentially work for room and board. Abolitionists objected to this as they believed it was a misrepresentation of free labor since the black men had to work for a year and often with no monetary compensation of any kind.

However, the conditions were not the same for all freed people, as more skilled workers generally did better than those with fewer skills. Those working on plantations operated by the government also did better. Furthermore, some army officers tried to help freed people, even though the results were mixed due to difficult circumstances.

Learn more about the war in the West, winter 1862-63.

Increasing Difficulties in Contraband Camps

As the war proceeded, the able-bodied black men left contraband camps and enlisted in the army. As a result, elderly and infirm people, very young boys, and married men with wives were the only ones left in the camps. None of them were fit to serve in the army. At this point, the situation became even more difficult and demanded more attention from military officers who looked after these camps.

The mortality rate in contraband camps was a shocking 25 percent. Similarly, the rate of death by disease was high among Confederate and black soldiers, around 20 percent, most being young and healthy men. So, there weren’t many young healthy men left in the contraband camps.

So, life for slaves in contraband camps and in the U.S. Army was full of difficulties.

Common Questions about the Freedom of Slaves and Contraband Camps

Q: What were the significant initial difficulties within the contraband camps?

The contraband camps were overcrowded, with disease largely widespread among black people.

Q: Why was the army interested in contraband camps?

The army was interested in contraband camps since they could use the refugees in their campaigns against the rebels. The army intended to use black people as workers to support their operations.

Q: What was the mortality rate in contraband camps?

The mortality rate in contraband camps was a shocking 25 percent.

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