Escaped slaves set precedent

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Escaped slaves set precedent

March 1997
By Pamela Cressey

The Civil War has had many consequences. While specific locales experienced significant losses, many of the War’s legacies have rippled beyond the battlefields to all segments of our society. Few people in 1861 could have imagined the full range of effects from both the strife and it antecedent philosophies. Alexandrians were well aware that a civil war would impact severely on the town. Alexandria was part of the District of Columbia 15 years before, but in 1861 it faced immediate occupation from federal forces after Virginia’s vote to secede. However, the townspeople could not have known that the War would last more than four years, transform the landscape, alter the lives of so many and bring thousands of African Americans searching freedom.

The U.S. government Alexandria’s homes and churches for use as offices and hospitals. The railroad, wharves and roads were taken, and the citizens were controlled by a military government. Federal troops built forts, batteries, barracks, more hospitals, stockades and connected rail lines forming the largest rail system in the world. Alexandria became a hub of Union activity and was a magnet for African Americans fleeing slavery, seeking jobs and Union military protection.

We do not know exactly how many African Americans came to Alexandria during the war. Some eye witness accounts indicate that thousands crowded into ramshackle and make-shift housing throughout the City. The U.S. Census documents that the town’s black population increased 89 percent from about 2800 people to 5300 between 1860 and 1870. Maps produced by Alexandria Archaeology show the dramatic spread of the antebellum black neighborhoods within the City limits after the War. Oral history and archival research by Patricia I Knock has revealed that rural African American neighborhoods started where Fort Ward Historic Site and T.C. Williams High School are now located.

Blacks escaping slavery during the War were sometimes referred to as contraband, although the government eventually settled on the term "freed people." Major General Benjamin F. Butler coined the term contraband in the early days of the Civil War at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Three slaves from Hampton escaped to the fort on May 23, 1861. Citing the Fugitive Slave Act, their owner demanded that Butler return the slaves. A well-known northern lawyer, Butler refused because he was confiscating the slaves as "contraband of war." The War Department agreed with his determination and ordered Butler to provide them food, shelter and work.

Thus a standard military policy was set, and escapees were referred to as contraband. The many military installations in Alexandria attracted blacks, and the Quarter Master Corps maps document "contraband barracks" in the City and a black hospital complex. Two photographs of men in Alexandria may portray laborers who were categorized by the military as contraband, and barracks can be seen in other photographs. Unfortunately, we do not have any maps or photographs of the cemetery where hundreds, if not thousands, of the freed people were buried by the U.S. government.

The Freedmen’s Cemetery was laid out over nearly an acre of land on South Washington Street at Church Street in 1864. Today the land is the site of a gas station, office building and parking lot. There is no visible sign of the cemetery’s existence on the property. A recent archaeological report associated with the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Improvement Project have brought the cemetery to public attention and has prompted questions regarding its protection and commemoration. In the next several articles I will discuss the history of the cemetery, archaeological findings, and the freed people of occupied Alexandria.

Butler went on to have a controversial military career, but is credited with expanding black rights. He was one of the first to arm African American troops, organizing the First and Second U.S. Colored Cavalry and Battery B, Second U.S. Colored Light Artillery at Fort Monroe, and enlisted blacks in New Orleans. He built a school for black children at Fort Monroe with federal funds, and gave black families confiscated farms for a cooperative. While serving in Congress he was responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1875. As head of the agency overseeing Union disabled, Butler established a Soldier’s Home in Hampton, Virginia, to improve recuperation for respiratory disease and to increase access for black troops.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist

This caption appeared with an image printed in the Gazette:

An illustration of Maj. General Benjamin Butler with three escaped slaves seeking freedom at Fort Monroe, Virginia, May 1861. Butler justified his refusal to return the slaves to their owner saying that he was confiscating them as "contraband of war,"thereby coining the term for runaway slaves. Courtesy of Fort Monroe Casemate Museum.