Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Reliable Contraband

The "Reliable Contraband," by Edwin Forbes provides an intriguing view of the relationship that sometimes developed between Union soldiers and the African American slaves they encountered in the Southern states. Many Union officers were hesitant to accept so-called contrabands into their lines, especially early in the war. But as the conflict wore on, blacks came to be seen as a double (even triple) positive to the Union forces. Not only did they take away labor from Southerners, but many came to work for the Union, and thus in opposition to their former owners.

In addition to being a valuable work force, former slaves also provided vital information to Union soldiers, otherwise unobtainable. Northern soldiers often encountered the fierce animosity of the Southern white population. Yankee questions as to where roads ran, or how far the nearest town was, were often met with cold silence. However, even before the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans fully understood that the Union presence in the slaves states would likely doom the institution, and therefore quite willingly offered up any pieces of information that potentially assisted Union success and thus enhanced their chances of freedom.

The image Forbes provides likely shows the meeting of a contraband and what appears to be a Union cavalry officer and soldier near a ramshackle slave quarter. In deference to the white man, the black man tips his hat in respect. The former slave is holding a bucket and is leading a horse, one that probably belonged to his former owner. Pitched beside the quarter are a couple of Federal shelter tents, near which another soldier looks be cleaning his boot off. Behind the quarter a couple of horses are tied to a tree. A couple more horses are behind the shelter tents.

This scene probably played out in countless Southern rural settings. The information that former slaves provided to their eventual liberators would come to serve the Union forces well and assist greatly in their ultimate victory.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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