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Monday, May 2, 2016

Battlefield Dispatches No. 333: The contraband exodus

Friday, September 7, 2012

By the summer of 1862 Fort Scott, in addition to becoming a huge "Union" military complex, was also becoming a "Haven for Refugees" who had escaped from the violence of the war. Many of these refugees were African Americans all of ages, from babies to senior adults who had escaped from the bonds of slavery.

The following article was submitted to the Fort Scott Bulletin newspaper by an individual in the camp of the 1st Kansas Volunteers and describes the difficulties the Union officers were faced with when confronted with and what to do with the "Contrabands," or escaped slaves.

The word "contraband" was invoked by Union Gen. Benjamin Butler at Fort Monroe, Va., in 1862 when he was asked by a slave owner to return some slaves which were the slave owner's property. Since the slaves were identified as property, Gen. Butler refused to return them to their owner because any and all property used by the enemy to support the war effort could be confiscated, which is exactly what Gen. Butler did. So from then on, the escaped slaves were referred to as "Contrabands." The following article was published on Page 2 in the Sept. 13, 1862, edition of the Fort Scott Bulletin.

"From the First Kansas Aug. 27.

The Contraband Exodus

It is gratifying to observe that a very large proportion of the passengers going North are of the colored persuasion. Scores of grinning contrabands may be seen on every upward bound (wagon) train. The north star is no longer looked for as the guide to the land of freedom. The panting fugitives steal their way to the nearest military post and inquire for the man that "gives" passes and then fly as fast as steam can carry them, to perform the labor necessarily abandoned by the brave men of the North who have enlisted to fight for the old flag.

Until recently their masters, or more frequently their mistresses, would follow them into camp and in some instances they succeeded in getting the poor slaves to return to bondage. Col. Deitlzer commanding the Post, considered it his duty to enforce "General Order No. 3, rather than lie in the guard house half of the time for disobedience to orders. But since the passage of the confiscation and emancipation laws, there is less hunting for runaway Negroes. Whenever a loyal citizen, one that has taken the Oath (of Allegiance) comes and asks permission to look for his slave, the Colonel refers him, kindly and courteously to the law of Congress which provides that "any military or naval officer who attempts to decide whether a Negro is free or slave or returns one to his pretended owner, shall be cashiered (dishonorably discharged from the Army). The conviction is fast forcing itself into the minds of all classes in this community, that the peculiar institution (Southern term for slavery) is about played out and it is so.

A large number of chattels (slaves) "vamoose the ranch" and those that remain refuse to work. Slaves are very uncertain and unprofitable property. It needs no law of Congress nor proclamation by the President to abolish slavery. The good work of tearing up by the roots the "sum of all villainies," which make all the states free and restore prosperity and permanent peace to the nation, goes bravely on, and as rapidly as is desirable.

If the fanatical abolitionists of the north would cease their unreasonable howling for the abolition of slavery at one fell swoop, by Congressional or Presidential action and shoulder a musket and assist us in driving the traitors into the Gulf, the country would give them more credit for honesty and sincerity. The slaves are virtually freed as fast as we push the federal troops southward. It is one of the inevitable results of this war."

Now then, many of the African Americans who arrived in Fort Scott finally reached their destination which was Kansas, and more importantly, freedom. This was the message and part of the legacy of John Brown and other abolitionists who were involved in the struggle of "Bleeding Kansas" from 1855-1860. Many of the African American men who escaped to Fort Scott and eastern Kansas formed the nucleus of the 1st and 2nd Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry regiments and fought and died defending their new freedom, and of course, the war went on!

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches