Contraband – The Path from Bound to Free

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By Kris Gilbertson

PBS and various production companies (Lone Wolf, Dave Zabel, and David Zucker) that collaborated on Mercy Street carefully researched the history and conditions in Civil War Alexandria. They assembled an impressive team of technical advisors, headed by historian James McPherson, which included Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum.

Lisa Wolfinger of Lone Wolf Productions approached Davis more than a year ago to ask what resources the Black History Museum could offer in telling the story, particularly the contraband story and general African-American history, but also Civil War history as a whole. Davis worked with the writers and producers on storylines in Mercy Street and the museum will host events related to Mercy Street in coming months.

“PBS was a great group of people to work with, very accommodating,” says Davis, “A lot of people are now aware of Mercy Street because Downton Abbey is back, so you’re seeing commercials for Mercy Street on WETA, and there’ve been several ‘behind the scenes at Mercy Street’ on WETA that actually show the filming. All of the younger actors are very active on social media, even a fanbook page on Facebook.”

Much of the Mercy Street company descended on the city on November 5, during the Alexandria Film Festival, where attendees viewed the entire first episode (one of six). It’s an engaging drama in the genre of Downton Abbey, and likely to build a strong following. Historians like Davis, however, always have a greater concern, or responsibility, to help ensure that the stories told are in the main accurate.

Why “Contraband”

In 1861, near Hampton Roads, Virginia, three male slaves heard that their Confederate owners were going to be moving them farther south. They didn’t want to go. These men had been working for the Confederate cause with the military. They knew that if they left they might never see their families again and could be killed. So they rowed a boat across the bay to the Union Army’s Fort Monroe to seek asylum.

9-Engraving-of-Union-Major-General-Benjamin-Franklin-Butler-November-5-1818-January-11-1893-an-America-Stock-Photo
Union Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler (Library of Congress)

Fort Monroe’s commander, Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler, a lawyer from New England, had been in the job for only a week. Butler knew that he was obligated to return the men to their “owners.” But he reasoned that since the South was seceding from the Union, the men had been put to work against Union forces, and the South considered these men to be property, not people, that he would deem them to be contraband of war. Property confiscated to aid the Union cause; one step closer to freedom.

In one stroke, Butler created the legal argument of deeming fugitive slaves to be contraband so they could be treated as free men. He was later quoted saying “I was always a friend of southern rights, but an enemy of southern wrongs.”

Word of Butler’s clever interpretation of law spread quickly. By the end of the next week, over a hundred slaves escaped from other areas and sought asylum. By the end of the month that number reached 500.

One of earliest to arrive was Audrey Davis’s grandfather, who was named Superintendent of Contrabands at Fort Monroe. He knew those first three men. “There’s a quote from him in the main reading room of the Library of Virginia,” says Davis, “so I think it’s neat that I’m working on a project that tells the contraband story.”

Because of General Butler’s action, if escaped slaves could get to any place that was Union occupied, they could be accepted as contraband, work for the Union, earn a wage, and live independently.

It was a risk because escapees could be captured at any time before reaching safety and returned to their masters. “You could be taken back still as a slave,” says Davis, “but if you get to any Union stronghold, you have a chance at freedom. Not quite free, but you’re not quite a slave, either.”

When General Butler notified the president what he was doing, Lincoln wrote back: “Remember, your occupation is war, not emancipation.” But he didn’t put a stop to it, and passage of the four Confiscation Acts (1861-1864) codified what Butler had done, giving contrabands legal status.

“Butler is the hero in this story; he opened the door to freedom for thousands of African Americans who now, as contrabands of war, could self-emancipate,” says Davis. “They were making this decision on their own, not waiting for someone to rescue them.

“That’s what a lot of African Americans want told in Mercy Street, that African Americans were not passive,” she adds. “These were thousands of African Americans who took freedom into their own hands, risking life and limb to get someplace where it was safe so they could be free.”

The Black History Museum’s current exhibit, Journey to be Free, will be up until the end of the first season of Mercy Street in March. Audrey Davis may do an exhibit based more on Mercy Street, if the series is as popular as predicted.

The contraband of war

Workers at the Quartermasters Wharf, Alexandria. Work for the Union Army at the wharves was available to both free and contraband African American communities. (Library of Congress)
Workers at the Quartermasters Wharf, Alexandria. Work for the Union Army at the wharves was available to both free and contraband African American communities. (Library of Congress)

Alexandria’s free black community comprised only some 400 people, and thousands of former slaves pouring into the city created a humanitarian crisis. Escaped slaves had often been on the road or fleeing cross-country, struggling to get food, clothing, and shelter and were not generally healthy. There was no housing for them. For many, housing became shanties thrown together from scrap lumber. Work was whatever piecemeal jobs they could scrounge.

Illness was rampant, especially among the very young. Relief workers like Julia Wilbur and Harriet Jacobs struggled to provide clothing and supplies. In February 1863, the military governor of Alexandria ordered that part of the building at 321-323 S. Washington Street be turned into a hospital for contrabands, but it wasn’t until September that proper provisions and assistance had the hospital in working order.

It was soon overwhelmed by demand. In February 1864, L’Ouverture Hospital for African American troops and contraband civilians opened on Duke Street, adjacent to the former slave pens that had become a Union jail. The hospital was named for Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. The facility was on par with the better military hospitals throughout Alexandria. In 1864 and 1865, some 1,400 patients were treated there.

Still, the mortality rate of former slaves remained high, especially among the very young. Many died shortly after arrival to be buried in various cemeteries around the area. Not until 1864 was a contraband cemetery established at S. Washington and Church Streets under the supervision of Reverend Albert Gladwin.

Freedman’s Cemetery was active only from 1864 until 1869, and then largely forgotten. At the end of the 19th century, people mining that area for clay reported that coffins were “sticking out like cannon” and people were walking away with bones. Archeologists dug sporadically until the 1990s. Then in 2007, the city bought the gas station built on that site, demolished it, and investigated further. Some 600 graves were identified.

“Probably there are still graves under Washington Street,” says Davis, “and there was massive destruction with the building of Woodrow Wilson Bridge. It was still showing up on maps as a Negro cemetery as late as 1948, but the real mystery is why two buildings went up on the property when there was a provision of sale—the Archdiocese of Richmond owned it—that two things could never be built there: a bar and a gas station. First thing built was a gas station.”

On September 6, 2014, the Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial was dedicated on site. Reverend Gladwin’s main job had been to record all the deaths in the cemetery, but he also listed first and last names, ages, where people died, and what they died of. This invaluable record enabled city genealogist Char McCargo Bah to trace more than a thousand people living in Alexandria who are directly related to contraband blacks of that period. Many had no idea that their roots in this area went back that far. All were invited to participate in the dedication.

Updating Mount Vernon’s story

Alexandria Black History Museum is current working with Mount Vernon staff to expand and clarify the story of the Mount Vernon slaves. “We know roughly how many slaves were at Mount Vernon but we don’t know much about their lives,” says Davis. “We know certain things as they were recorded in other people’s letters or if there was some issue, but their day-to-day, ins-and-outs, what happened with these people and their children, you don’t really find it that much in their records.”

Audrey Davis worked at Mount Vernon as a guide before she came to the Black History Museum. She trained under a renowned oral historian, the late Gladys Quander Tancil, who was the first African-American guide at Mount Vernon and a descendant of Mount Vernon slaves. Tancil devoted years to lobbying for an expanded and more accurate view of enslaved life at the mansion. She succeeded to a degree, but the exhibit now being developed will expand greatly on that history.

“People need to understand what it was like,” says Davis. “Too often people will come into that area and say ‘oh, that’s not so bad.’ They don’t understand the scope of slavery, that this was a horrible institution. You never knew when you could lose your wife, your husband, or your child. You had no control over your person, over your own body, your day-to-day decisions. You didn’t have control. Mount Vernon is working to present a balanced view of a time in our history that we can never be a part of.”