The Union army went to war with no real plan for dealing with slaves that entered their lines. Often, the fate of slaves who had escaped from their masters depended on the political leanings of the commander of whichever Union regiment they happened to encounter first. It finally took the lawyer-general, Benjamin Butler (1818–1893), to solve the problem. In May 1861 three slaves escaped to the Union-held Fortress Monroe at Hampton Roads, Virginia, where they encountered Butler's men. Rather than return them to their masters and work on the Confederate fortifications, Butler declared them contraband of war. The definition held, for it enabled Union authorities to deny slave labor to the Confederacy while simultaneously keeping the faith with more radical Northerners who wanted slavery abolished.
With the battle of Antietam, Lincoln had a victory that permitted him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation from a position of strength. When it took effect on January 1, 1863, the term contraband no longer applied to black refugees in the South; they became freedpeople and they became a top priority for the Lincoln administration. Given the progress of Union forces up to 1863, the issue of caring for the freedpeople became an all-important problem. The Army and Navy had liberated tens of thousands of people of African descent along the coasts and waterways of the south, but only in central Tennessee had Union forces advanced very deep into Confederate territory east of the Mississippi River. With no place to put the refugees, the army established freedmen camps along the southern coast and waterways—and the call went out for help.
In the West, along the Mississippi River, General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) assigned army chaplain, John Eaton Jr. (1829–1906) as Commissioner of Contrabands (a title that did not reflect the changed status of freedpeople) in his department. Eaton's duties consisted of seeing to it that the freedpeople received food, health care, religious instruction, education, and work. Toward that end, Northern church organizations aided him tremendously, sending missionaries and other necessities. The obstacles they faced were daunting, for the hundreds of thousands of freedpeople huddled in camps around the country often left the plantation with the clothes on their back, with no provision for the future. In cases where they did bring possessions with them, it was often completely useless items pilfered from their former masters's abandoned homes.
Colonel Herman Lieb of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) recalled the procession of freedpeople who followed General William T. Sherman's (1820–1891) column to Vicksburg at the conclusion of the Meridian raid in early 1864:
Their arrival caused a general turnout of citizens and garrison which through the endless cortege passed. Such a sight was never seen since the exodus of the Jew from Egypt. Hundreds of vehicles of the most varied description, from the mule cart to the family equipage of their former masters, loaded promiscuously with women and children, household and kitchen furniture, while their male protectors, not so naked as you saw them in Omdurman, but just as dirty and uncivilized, marched in file on both sides of the caravan. In apparel they presented a most laughable spectacle, the majority in bedraggled plantation clothing, some with boots, some in shoes, most barefoot, in parts of Confederate and Union uniforms, a few here and there with stovepipe hats, caps or colored handkerchiefs on their heads." (Johns 1912, pp. 138–139)
The periodic deluges of freedpeople taxed the resources of both government and private charities. Elkanah Beard (1833–1905), a missionary working among the freedpeople at various islands and landings on the Mississippi wrote to his supporters that "several in the week past have frozen to death, and others were so chilled that they are not likely to survive long. Hundreds of women and children are barefoot, and have nothing but cotton clothing, which has been worn for months." Beard's supporters responded with books, seeds, and other sundries (Association of Friends of Philadelphia and Its Vicinity, for the Relief of Colored Freedmen 1864, p. 10). The camps existed as a temporary measure, for the government ultimately wanted the freedpeople to become Christian, hardworking, self-reliant, citizen farmers. As one missionary summarized, their mission was to make sure "that the freed people are treated as free, and encouraged to respect and observe the institutions of religion, marriage, and all the customs of virtuous and civilized society, and to become worthy of the blessings of a Christian civilization" (Forman 1864, p. 120).
While the missionaries saw to it that the freedpeople kept their spiritual houses in order, the government looked to finding them physical shelter. The task was daunting, for by the spring of 1864 some 20,000 freed-people lived in the vicinity of Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia; 10,000 at Fortress Monroe; and 8,000 at Yorktown. Across the country, in the Mississippi Valley, the government seized Jefferson Davis's (1808–1889) plantation and deposited up to 5,000 freedpeople on the property, while Memphis, Tennessee; Natchez, Mississippi; and New Orleans, Louisiana, took in 5,000 to 6,000 each (Association of Friends of Philadelphia and Its Vicinity, for the Relief of Colored Freedmen 1864, pp. 7–9). The Treasury Department attempted to relieve the pressure on the cities and towns by leasing abandoned plantations. Ideally, the plan provided incomes for the former slaves, put them in healthier environments, and settled them in communities where they learned how to become good citizens; but it did not always work out. Rebel raiders often struck the plantations and camps, taking both livestock and freedpeople to resell in the interior of the Confederacy. Unscrupulous opportunists leased plantations, harvested a crop, then left without paying their workers. The government had to come up with a better plan by the time the war ended or it would have faced hundreds of thousands more freedpeople to care for in addition to the ones already liberated by advancing armies.
In March 1865, Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands which operated until December 1868 under the leadership of General Oliver O. Howard (1830–1909). The Freedmen's Bureau, as the agency was commonly known, brought all of the government's efforts on behalf of freedpeople under one umbrella organization. It supervised humanitarian efforts by feeding and clothing destitute blacks, establishing schools, and founding hospitals. In the legal realm it established courts to mediate disputes between black laborers and white planters, while in the financial realm it established banks to teach frugality to newly liberated African Americans. The Bureau had its detractors. Many white Southerners, ever sensitive about their own personal freedom, felt that the Bureau violated their rights, as it established its own courts and legal framework. In 1872 the Bureau passed out of existence. Within five years the Bourbon Redeemers had retaken control of the Southern governments, virtually ending government efforts on behalf of freedpeople. Nevertheless, in the short time between the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of Reconstruction, the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution changed the status of blacks once again, that from freedpeople to American citizens (Bentley 1955).
Association of Friends of Philadelphia and Its Vicinity, for the Relief of Colored Freedmen. Statistics of the Operations of the Executive Board of the Friends' Association of Philadelphia and Its Vicinity, for the Relief of Colored Freedmen. Philadelphia: Inquirer Printing Office, 1864.
Bentley, George R. A History of the Freedmen's Bureau. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1955.
Forman, Jacob Gilbert. The Western Sanitary Commission; A Sketch of Its Origin, History, Labors for the Sick and Wounded of the Western Armies, and Aid Given to Freedmen and Union Refugees, with Incidents of Hospital Life. St. Louis, MO: R. P. Studley, 1864.
David H. Slay