The Contraband of America and the Road to Freedom

Posted on: May 11th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Eric Wills

It’s one of the forgotten stories of the Civil War.

Gen. Benjamin Butler’s decision to seize runaways as contraband is a milestone often overshadowed in Civil War history by tales of generals and battlefield strategy. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Gen. Benjamin Butler’s decision to seize runaways as contraband is a milestone often overshadowed in Civil War history by tales of generals and battlefield strategy. (Photo: Library of Congress)

One hundred fifty years ago, on the evening of May 23, three enslaved men named Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend helped change the course of that great conflict. Taken by their owner to Sewell’s Point, near present-day Norfolk, Va., the three men were put to work building an artillery battery for the Confederacy. When they learned their owner planned to take them to North Carolina, where they would help construct another rebel outpost, they decided to risk everything for their freedom, rowing a small boat across Hampton Roads to Fort Monroe, one of the only Union-controlled outposts in the South.

Realizing the absurdity of honoring the Fugitive Slave Law (these men had been helping to construct a Confederate battery that posed a strategic threat), the fort’s commander, Gen. Benjamin Butler, struck upon an ingenious solution. He had no constitutional obligation to return the runaways, he argued, because Virginia had seceded from the Union. Rather, he could seize the three runaways as contraband — property to be used by the enemy against the Union.

By the end of the Civil War, over 500,000 enslaved people sought freedom behind Union lines. Their bravery not only influenced the political climate, but hastened the formal emancipation. (Photo: Library of Congress)

By the end of the Civil War, over 500,000 enslaved people sought freedom behind Union lines. Their bravery not only influenced the political climate, but hastened the formal emancipation. (Photo: Library of Congress)

When other enslaved people heard the news of Butler’s decision, they began flocking to Fort Monroe. By the end of the war, approximately half a million enslaved people and other African American refugees had sought protection behind Union lines. These contraband, as they became known, helped make slavery a central issue of the war. They also helped secure their freedom, aiding the Union cause in numerous ways, such as digging trenches and taking up arms.

But the contraband story has been mostly an afterthought, overshadowed by tales of generals and battlefield strategy. Fifty years ago, during the celebration of the war’s centennial — which coincided with the rise of the civil rights movement — the issue of slavery was roundly ignored.

Now, as we celebrate the war’s sesquicentennial, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is working to ensure that the contraband story is honored and memorialized as an essential part of the narrative that explains how the war changed the face of our nation. On May 23, the National Trust will host a summit of scholars and preservationists at President’s Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC, to consider the best strategies to preserve contraband heritage.

Rob Nieweg, the director of the National Trust’s Southern Field Office, recently visited two sites near the nation’s capital with links to contraband heritage and spoke with a descendant of William Roscoe Davis, one of the original escaped slaves who fled to Fort Monroe.

Many contraband sites have only started to be identified; many descendants of enslaved people have only started to tell their family’s stories. We at the National Trust would like to hear your stories — the stories of your ancestors or of sites you’ve visited or heard about. Please share them by leaving a comment.

This work is just beginning. But together, we can ensure that this momentous story is remembered and honored by future generations.

Learn more about contraband heritage in the latest issue of Preservation magazine.

Eric Wills is the associate editor of Preservation Magazine.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

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