Contrabands of War

A new term inadvertently changed the way people thought about runaway slaves.

William Headly, who escaped from a plantation near Raleigh, North Carolina, c.1863. Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

The day after Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, three enslaved men – Frank Baker, James Townsend and Shepard Mallory – commandeered a boat and rowed across the James River from Hampton to Fortress Monroe. There they asked Federal troops manning the fort to grant them asylum.

What seemed like a straightforward request was anything but. Should these refugees be treated as freemen who had emancipated themselves? Or did the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which remained the law, require that they be returned to their so-called owners? Complicating matters was the fact that enslavers in loyal border states such as Maryland and Kentucky had been assured that the right to keep their human property was secure. Granting asylum to the three runaways would contravene this guarantee. 

That was the dilemma confronting Fort Monroe’s commander, Major General Benjamin F. Butler. Butler was no abolitionist, but he realised that he could hardly order his troops – many of whom were antislavery New Englanders – to detain, shackle and return three runaways to secessionists who were aiming guns at them from batteries across the river. 

As Butler considered the dilemma, a soldier of the 115th Virginia Militia approached the fort, beneath a white flag of truce. The soldier, Major John Baytop Cary, told Butler that the three runaways belonged to his commander. 

As they debated the legal issue involved, Butler declared: ‘But you say you have seceded, so you cannot consistently claim them. I shall hold these negroes as contraband of war, since they are … claimed as your property.’ 

After being reported in the press, the exchange became a popular topic of conversation. ‘Within a few days’, noted Lincoln’s biographers John Nicolay and John Hay (at the time his secretaries), ‘a new phrase was on every one’s lips, and the newspapers were full of editorials chuckling over the happy conception of treating fugitive slaves of rebel masters as contraband of war.’ 

Northern commentators marvelled at how quickly the key word of Butler’s phrase – contraband – became a part of national discourse. Contraband, wrote Charles C. Nott, a lawyer serving in the Union army, pushed aside ‘the circumlocution “colored people”, the extra-judicial “persons of African descent”, the scientific “negro” … and the debasing “slave”’. Nott concluded that ‘those who love to ponder over the changes of language and watch its new uses and unconscious growth, must find in it a rare phenomenon of philological vegetation’.

This was not just a matter of philology, however. As news spread about Butler’s so-called Fort Monroe Doctrine, it quickly became clear that the doctrine provided a perfect rationale for not returning those who had escaped from slavery without rekindling arguments about the peculiar institution that had convulsed America for decades. While having the desired result of providing sanctuary to runaways, calling them contraband sidestepped the larger issues involved. Butler’s term, concluded the historian James McPherson, ‘turned out to be the thin edge of a wedge driven into the heart of slavery’. 

Before this, contraband had been an obscure term relating primarily to maritime law. Butler did not intend to recast that word the way he did, let alone suggest a concept that would affect the course of the Civil War. His reference to ‘contraband of war’ was almost facetious; he did not even consider the phrase worth mentioning in his official account of the meeting. Nor did Cary, in his own report. Long after the press had adopted Butler’s casual re-coinage, the Union general himself continued to refer to ‘slaves’, not ‘contrabands’. 

Although abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass considered this term demeaning (Douglass thought it was more suited to a pistol than a person), northerners in general used contrabands synonymously with runaways throughout the Civil War. ‘Several contrabands came into the camp of the First Connecticut Regiment today’, reported a northern newspaper soon after Butler declared his doctrine. The thousands who followed were housed in ‘contraband camps’. 

Characterising runaways as confiscated enemy property was far more palatable politically than treating them as emancipated men and women. North of the Mason-Dixon line, support for preserving the Union far outweighed any passion for freeing the enslaved. ‘Confiscating’ those who escaped was an acceptable alternative. ‘The venerable gentleman who wears gold spectacles and reads a conservative daily, prefers confiscation to emancipation’, noted the abolitionist journalist Edward L. Pierce. ‘He is reluctant to have slaves declared freemen, but has no objection to their being declared contraband.’ 

Regarding runaways as contraband, therefore, proved to be an invaluable way to consign them to a verbal purgatory: neither enslaved nor free. (Those fleeing enslavement might rather have been called freemen, but contraband was certainly better than slave.) Throughout the war, songs were composed about ‘contrabands’, poems written, paintings painted. Louisa May Alcott wrote a story titled ‘My Contraband’. Winslow Homer published drawings of life in contraband camps (and after the war a watercolour titled Contraband that portrayed a Union soldier sitting beside a Black boy). 

The historian Kate Masur has concluded that contraband was a ‘placeholder’, a way to characterise runaway slaves pending their actual emancipation. However, by overemphasising Butler’s role in highlighting the ambivalence northerners felt about those who escaped from enslavement, Masur argues that her fellow historians underestimated their enthusiasm for the term itself. In the stories, songs and pictures they produced about contrabands, ‘Northerners sought to fill with meaning a term that was, by definition, transitional and unstable’. 

In his 1892 memoir, Butler acknowledged the rationale that this phrase had provided for giving asylum to runaways, but said its reception astonished him. Despite the admiration it brought to this man of considerable ego, Butler took no pride for adding contraband of war to public discourse. ‘It was a poor phrase’, Butler wrote. ‘The truth is, as a lawyer I was never very proud of it, but as an executive officer I was very much comforted with it as a means of doing my duty.’


Ralph Keyes is the author of The Hidden History of Coined Words (Oxford University Press, 2021).