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How could labeling a human being “property” possibly set them free?

Refugees from slavery during the Civil War

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Such a situation arose during the Civil War when Fort Sumter was surrendered to the Confederates in April of 1861. In May, the first refugees from the fort in South Carolina arrived at Fortress Monroe in Virginia, having fled across Union lines for safety—and for freedom. In her book Sinful Tunes and Spirituals, the late music librarian and eminent black music researcher Dena Epstein described the story, and the impact of the events. Free/Phase artists Mendi+Keith included Epstein’s book in their first onsite gathering of materials for inspiration in January.

Landowners near Hampton, Virginia were planning to send their enslaved workers further south to work on a Confederate artillery battery in Norfolk. Hearing of this, three men decided to escape in a small rowboat to Fort Monroe, hoping to stay nearer their families and to be given refuge.

“When General Benjamin Butler, in command of the fort, was asked to return the slaves to their masters, he refused, claiming them as ‘contraband of war’—a phrase which delighted the North and became a new synonym for slave. News of his decision spread by ‘grapevine telegraph,’ bringing large numbers of slaves into Fortress Monroe and Hampton, the neighboring town. They were given rations and put to work on fortifications, but they were still in great need of clothing, shelter, and every imaginable kind of social service.” (Epstein, p. 243)

What is “contraband of war” anyway? And how did the Union military use this principle to help the refugees get closer to freedom? The idea was developed in Europe during the Middle Ages, defining “contraband” as goods that may not be shipped to a belligerent in war (the enemy) because these goods serve a military purpose, and so may be seized. General Butler didn’t debate the status of the men as property—but he did invoke this principle, characterizing Virginia as a foreign power, to hold the men (and use their labor to help the Union war effort—it was later decreed by military command that the labor of the “contrabands” was to be paid). The confederates were in a predicament—to get their “property” back, they were told they had to renounce secession, and by implication, the basis for it, which was the preservation of the system of slavery in the South. In 1861 and 1862, President Lincoln signed two confiscation acts, legitimizing Butler’s position, and decreeing that all enslaved people who fled to these camps behind Union lines would be free forever. His Emancipation Proclamation was issued not long afterward.

Yet conditions were hard in the camps, especially as more women and children arrived. toFortMonroeHPHp202_large

Stampede of Slaves to Fortress Monroe (engraving). –From Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, May 1861, p. 202. Courtesy of The Gilder Lehrman Collection, New York. Online exhibit by The Lehrman Institute/The Lincoln Institute, “Mr. Lincoln and Freedom”

That summer of 1861, the American Missionary Association wrote to offer their help, and the Reverend Lewis C. Lockwood went to investigate the situation at the Fortress in September. The music of the people who had escaped slavery and gathered there in encampments made a strong impression on him. Being sympathetic to their quest for “spiritual and temporal deliverance,” he noted the song we know as “Go Down, Moses” in his first report back to the Association, and later sent the extended text (20 stanzas!) of the song to the Secretary of the YMCA in New York, who then sent it on to the New York Tribune. This appears to have been the first publication of the complete text of a Negro spiritual.

The sheet music arrangement (title page shown in the banner) appeared less than two weeks later, published by Horace Waters & the Oliver Ditson Company. The caption title, with description, reads:

“THE SONG OF THE CONTRABANDS. ‘O LET MY PEOPLE GO.’ This Song, originated among the Contrabands, and was first heard sung by them on their arrival at Fortress Monroe; and was introduced here by their Chaplain: Rev. L. C. Lockwood. Arranged by Thomas Baker.”

Abolitionists took up the song, and created a parody—new words to a tune—with stanzas in support of the movement. Though, according to Epstein, “The Song of the Contrabands” never attained great popularity outside of the anti-slavery movement at the time, that may have been in part due to the lackluster arrangement by Baker. For the wider white world, a truer understanding of the power of this song had to wait until a better arrangement and transcription done by Theodore F. Seward in the 1872 publication Jubilee Songs: as sung by the Jubilee singers of Fisk University, also done under the auspices of the American Missionary Association. Epstein asserts that before the war white audiences tended to confuse minstrel songs with authentic folk music, but

“With the outbreak of the war, forces were set in motion that would inevitably bring large numbers of Northerners into direct contact with plantation slaves. The occasional comment of the antebellum period was superseded by a stream of reports of Negro singing as newspaper reporters found it to be colorful copy, and soldiers began writing letters home.” (Epstein, p. 242)

The song may not have been known by black people nationwide, but reports of it were sent during the war from a number of places other than Fortress Monroe by white missionaries and soldiers at the camps.

Contemporary report in the New York Times, 1861
Article from the National Trust for Historic Preservation online magazine. Eric Wills, “The Forgotten—The Contraband of America and the Road to Freedom.” Preservation, May/June 2011.

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