Frederick Douglass, February 6, 1863
For most white Americans, the Civil War was a war for the Union. But for black Americans, it was a battle for freedom. Determined to end slavery, tens of thousands of enslaved African Americans used the war to escape their bondage. As the Union Army drove into the Confederacy, enslaved people stole away and entered Union lines. These thousands of African Americans made their freedom a fact. Within two years, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and made ending slavery government policy.
One month into the Civil War, three men escaped across the mouth of the James River and entered Fort Monroe, Virginia. With this act, Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townshend declared themselves free and triggered a national debate over whether the United States had the right to emancipate the enslaved. General Benjamin Butler refused to return the men to slavery and classified the men as enemy property or in his words “the contraband of war.” The nickname and the policy stuck. Despite the uncertain status of being classified as “contraband,” thousands of African Americans escaped slavery, forcing the hand of the federal government.
This Civil War envelope portrays a slave catcher stopped short by General Butler (the FFV stands for First Family of Virginia). Although he was no abolitionist, Butler refused to return people to slavery on Constitutional grounds. He argued that the Fugitive Slave Law no longer applied to southerners who left the Union. Before the War, this law permitted slaveholders the right to hunt runaways in the North and demand their return to slavery.
Tent cities sprang up across the South as thousands of enslaved people crossed Union lines and forced the issue of freedom. The people had spoken, using one of the few political tools available to enslaved people—the power of coming together to be heard. The sheer number of African Americans arriving in camps and cities pressured politicians, generals, and the U.S. government to act. Lincoln, personally, witnessed the growth of the tent cities as he crossed Washington, D.C., each day.
As African Americans walked away from slavery and into Union lines, the U.S. Army found itself fighting a war surrounded by men, women, and children. The self-emancipated forced the army and eventually President Lincoln to resolve their status as people not property. The military provided cast-off tents, like this Sibley tent, for African Americans who reached Union lines. One tent could hold 10-20 people.