Contraband camp registers have a varied history tied to two Confiscation Acts and to designation of the term “contraband” to refer to blacks who had been used as laborers for the Confederate military and who subsequently sought refuge behind Union lines.
Movement of African Americans in the Civil War context was first tested at Fortress Monroe early in 1861 when three enslaved men sought refuge there. Gen. Benjamin Butler , new to the post in the spring of the first year of the war, put his legal training to use and negotiated the fates of these African Americans, reasoning that the federal military could appropriately usurp the property of an enemy nation. This the Confederacy claimed itself to be. Contraband policy that allowed blacks refuge behind lines, usurping the labor of blacks, challenged the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which commanded marshals and “all good citizens” to assist in the execution of the law by assisting in the return of fugitive slaves. Local Union commanders exercised a degree of judgment in determining how blacks arriving within their departments would be treated and how too they would be represented in the record.
Temporary housing referred to as contraband camps and records of incoming blacks referred to as registers are as often as not rolls of African Americans employed in various capacities including as servants (of officers), as cooks, and as woodchoppers. Some records identify the type of work performed; some do not. Some labor rolls do not list former owners while others include this significant information. Even the titles of these wartime records differ. In the above inset (photo) from a camp on Tybee Island, Ga., the list of blacks on the island was referred to as an “inventory,” harkening to postbellum language even while blacks on the Island were employed in various capacities, in theory, if not always in fact, for pay.
Despite their new position as wage laborers, these workers sometimes appear in records by their first names only and are listed as well with former owners. This last fact was in some cases influenced by the Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, a small group appointed in 1863 to study the transition of blacks to freedom. The Preliminary Report of the Commission recommended a “strict and comprehensive system of registration,” instructing superintendents of freedmen to create a description of each person entering Union lines “so that said person could be “identified throughout life.” The description was to include “facts relating to the legal claim to freedom.” Some superintendents included in registers created in their departments a question of whether a registrant’s former owner was or was not loyal. A master serving the Confederacy either as a soldier or officer or as a supplier justified having his or her property taken.
Newly discovered registers will have a home here at Last Road. Be sure to check our homepage for new developments and our site’s blog.