Contraband camp registers have a varied history tied to two Confiscation Acts and designation of the term “contraband” to represent blacks who had been used as laborers for the Confederate military subsequently seeking refuge behind Union lines.
Despite emerging contraband policy, first tested at Fort Monroe early in 1861 when three enslaved men sought refuge and also offered critical information about Confederate activity. Just as Butler had rationalized and negotiated the fates of these African Americans, the federal military would for some time to come remain uncertain the degree to which it was willing to allow policy on the ground to abridge the constitutional right of private property and 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.
With the influence of law, local Union commanders exercised a degree of judgment in determining how blacks arriving within their departments would be represented in the record. Peculiarities of an ad hoc bureaucratic system may also have played a part in the registers ranging in level of detail and, especially, in whether a former master would be listed with each freedperson.
A new initiative, Freedom’s Movements, plans to make available to the public new registers not included previously at lastroadtofreedom. Newly discovered registers will have a home in a dedicated project site. Here, at Last Road, we will continue to focus on the Register of Freedmen, a circa 1864 record containing the names of more than two thousand former slaves, telling the stories of these ancestors as we learn about their lives before, during, and following the war. We will in addition compare registers, cross referencing them with other significant documents such as soldiers’ pension files and Freedmen’s Bureau Bank records. Always, the goals are to tell new stories and to nurture new conversations.