Massachusetts Historical Society


"I Shall Forward to You My Contraband": Tracing Wartime Black Movement North Through an Incomplete Archive


Authors: Marcy Sacks, Albion College
Comment: Amy Murrell Taylor, University of Kentucky

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This paper examines the trafficking of Black refugees into northern homes during the Civil War. Union soldiers wrote frequently to their families about sending them a “contraband,” yet scholars have generally dismissed the comments as either facetious or wishful thinking. Despite incomplete evidence in the archives, by using letters, military records, and census data, this essay demonstrates that to the contrary, soldiers and government officials often made good on the idea, leading to the extensive relocation of unwilling participants to the North. Yankees sent Black southerners not simply to exploit their labor but because white Unionists became more sympathetic to slavery once they experienced its benefits. By seizing freedpeople to work in their homes, Yankees were revealing their retreat from the free labor ideology and newfound slave-owning fantasies.

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