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Slavery | Free Blacks | Abolition | Civil War | Reconstruction
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The Civil War

Part 1: "Contrabands of War" | The Emancipation Proclamation | Soldiers and Missionaries
Part 2

Abraham Lincoln's election led to secession and secession to war. When the Union soldiers entered the South, thousands of African Americans fled from their owners to Union camps. The Union officers did not immediately receive an official order on how to manage this addition to their numbers. Some sought to return the slaves to their owners, but others kept the blacks within their lines and dubbed them "contraband of war." Many "contrabands" greatly aided the war effort with their labor.

After Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which was effective on January 1, 1863, black soldiers were officially allowed to participate in the war. The Library of Congress holds histories and pictures of most of the regiments of the United States Colored Troops as well as manuscript and published accounts by African American soldiers and their white officers, documenting their participation in the successful Union effort. Both blacks and whites were outspoken about questions of race, civil rights, and full equality for the newly-freed population during the Civil War era.

Emancipated blacks were forced to begin their trek to full equality without the aid of "forty acres and a mule," which many believed had been promised to them. The Library's collection records the new steps towards freedom on the part of the African American community, especially in the areas of employment, education, and politics. There is also an abundance of books, photographs, diaries, and manuscripts about many aspects of slave life and culture, such as the development of the "Negro Spiritual" and the role played by the United States Colored Troops in the South and the West.

"Contrabands of War"

A Clergyman's Diary on the Eve of the Civil War

A.M.E. Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner, father of painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, was an important church leader in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In this diary he foresees with amazing accuracy some of the problems the nation would face in the upcoming Civil War. Its pages discuss the election of Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina's deliberations about secession, and the emerging war fervor.

Image: Caption follows

Benjamin Tucker Tanner (A.M.E. bishop).
Diary, 1860-1861.
Holograph manuscript.
Carter G. Woodson Papers, Manuscript Division. (4-12)

"Contraband of War"--African American Fugitives To Union Lines
Alfred R. Waud.
Contrabands Coming into Camp.
Drawing. Chinese white on brown paper.
Published in Harper's Weekly, January 31, 1863.
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6173/LC-USZ62-14189 (4-1)

As Union armies moved into the South, thousands of slaves fled to their camps. Although some Union officers sent them back to their masters, others allowed them to remain with their troops, using them as a work force and dubbing them "contraband of war."

Of this sketch, Waud, who photographed the "contrabands" and then prepared the drawing for the newspaper, wrote:

There is something very touching in seeing these poor people coming into camp--giving up all the little ties that cluster about home, such as it is in slavery, and trustfully throwing themselves on the mercy of the Yankees, in the hope of getting permission to own themselves and keep their children from the auction-block. This party evidently comprises a whole family from some farm . . . .

To Union Lines and Freedom

Photographed by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, this is an image of African Americans seeking to gain freedom behind Union lines. It was taken in the main eastern theater of the war during the second battle of Bull Run in 1862.

Image: Caption follows

Timothy O'Sullivan.
Fugitive African Americans Fording the Rappahannock River.
Rappahannock, Virginia, August 1862.
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-B8171-518 (4-4)

"Contrabands" at the Nation's Capitol
Contrabands, Camp Brightwood.
Washington, D.C., ca. 1863. Carte de visite.
Gladstone Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6158 (4-9)

Black slaves who fled to Union lines, or "contrabands," often proved themselves extremely useful, even before the government enlisted them into service. A group of "contrabands" appear on this calling card. Calling cards, or cartes de visite, with photographs were popular during this era partly because photography was relatively new and the cards provided a means of sharing likenesses with friends and relatives. This one includes images of white officers of the 2nd Rhode Island Camp at Camp Brightwood in the District of Columbia. On the left is Capt. B. S. Brown. In the center is Lt. John P. Shaw, killed in action at the Wilderness, Virginia, May 5, 1864, and on the right is Lt. T. Fry. The "contrabands" with them are not named.

The Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln's Proclamation

This print is based on David Gilmore Blythe's painting of Lincoln writing the Emancipation Proclamation. Blythe imagined the President in a cluttered study at work on the document near an open window draped with a flag. His left hand is placed on a Bible that rests on a copy of the Constitution in his lap. The scales of justice appear in the left corner, and a railsplitter's maul lies on the floor at Lincoln's feet.

Image: Caption follows

After David G. Blythe.
President Lincoln Writing the Proclamation of Freedom, January 1, 1863.
Cincinnati: Ehrgott and Forbriger, 1864.
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-1425 (4-22)

Freedom's Eve--Watch Night Meeting
Image: caption follows

Heard and Moseley.
Waiting for the hour [Emancipation], December 31, 1862.
Carte de visite.
Washington, 1863.
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6160 (4-21a)

On New Year's Eve many African American churches hold prayer and worship services from the late evening until midnight when they welcome the new year with praise, thanksgiving, prayer, and confession. These services are called watch night meetings. December 31, 1862, was a very special evening for the African American community, because it was the night before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, freeing all the slaves in the Confederate states.

Soldiers and Missionaries

29th Regiment from Connecticut

29th Regiment from Connecticut at Beaufort, S.C., 1864. Attributed to Sam A. Cooley.
Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-B82201-341 (4-5)

African American volunteers were in readiness to serve in the Civil War when the Union called them. President Lincoln and Union leaders vacillated greatly on the question of the abolition of slavery and the employment of black troops. The Emancipation Proclamation put an end to these questions. Effective January 1, 1863, the Proclamation emancipated Confederate slaves and authorized the use of black soldiers by Union troops. By the end of the war about 186,000 African American men had enlisted.

Frederick Douglass--Recruiter Of Colored Troops

This letter, addressed to Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York, states:

Sir, I am instructed by the Secretary of War to direct you to proceed to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and on your arrival there to report in person to Brig'r General L. Thomas, Adjutant General, U. S. Army, to assist in recruiting colored troops.

Douglass served as a recruiter in several regions of the country.

Image: Caption follows

C. W. Foster, U.S. War Department, to Frederick Douglass, August 13, 1863.
Manuscript letter.
Manuscript Division. (4-16)

Douglass Recruits--His Sons Charles and Lewis
A letter from Charles Douglass (son) to Frederick Douglass, July 6, 1863.
Frederick Douglass Papers, Manuscript Division. (4-17)

Among those Frederick Douglass recruited were his own sons, Charles and Lewis. Both enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts regiment. Charles, who wrote this letter from Camp Meigs in Readville, Massachusetts, relates an encounter with an Irishman while he was rejoicing over "the news that Meade had whipped the rebels [at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania]." Before a fight could begin between young Douglass and the heckler, a policeman led the Irishman away.

The Civil War:   Part 1 | Part 2

Exhibit Sections:
Slavery | Free Blacks | Abolition | Civil War | Reconstruction
Booker T. Washington Era | WWI-Post War | The Depression-WWII | Civil Rights Era |

African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List | Search