A history of slaves who took refuge with the Union Army on their journey to freedom.
Drawing on abundant archival sources—military records, soldiers’ correspondence and diaries, maps, telegrams, and “countless scraps of paper”—historian Manning (Special Adviser to the Dean/Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard Univ.; What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War, 2007) offers a vivid, compelling view of the struggles undertaken by escaped slaves during the Civil War. She focuses on contraband camps, first set up at Fort Monroe in Virginia to protect three slaves from the belligerent slaveholder who insisted on their return. The camps spread wherever the Union Army encamped: on the eastern front, where the Army maintained posts for the duration of the war, camps offered stability; in the West, camps tracked railroads and rivers, making life for refugees “extraordinarily precarious” since they “were constantly on the move.” Refugees in the western theater “often floated in and out of multiple camps, but never out of danger.” Contraband camps could offer only makeshift housing and scarce food and water. In Vicksburg, “hunger drove former slaves to the desperate act of boiling mud in hopes of extracting some nutrient from it.” Disease spread rapidly. After the Army enlisted black men into its ranks, the camp population skewed to women, children, the old, and the sick. Their numbers swelled after news of the Emancipation Proclamation became known in September 1862. By the end of the war, Manning writes, more than 400,000 slaves had taken refuge in the camps: the federal government, formerly the defender of slaveholders, suddenly became former slaves’ “most efficacious—if often wary and tragically imperfect—ally in the pursuit and protection of the basic rights that gave their lives meaning.” Blacks’ contributions to the war effort—men as soldiers, women by cooking, nursing, and sewing—gave them roles as citizens.
Manning conveys in gritty detail the fraught alliance between refugees and their military protectors.