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News Section: Community

Sunday Favorites: African Americans in the Civil War

Part 1: The Runaways

Published Sunday, February 10, 2013 12:05 am
Contrabands boarded dinghies and braved rough seas in hope of being rescued by the Union blockade.

You won’t find the names for nearly a quarter of the soldiers who gave up everything to serve alongside those Union sailors during the Civil War. The only record you may come across if you search through dozens of military documents is “Contraband – name not known.”


Contrabands were runaway slaves that Union officials were hesitant to harbor. 


“What do we do with the runaway slaves?,” General Benjamin Butler asked himself when he was approached by a Confederate officer coming to claim a few slaves that had run off during the night. Butler refused to turn them over.


Instead, he called them “contrabands of war.” The term was adopted almost immediately by military communications and referred to any black man from the South within Northern lines.


Contrabands came from area plantations in hope of a better existence. They left their homes in the middle of the night, boarded dinghies and braved rough seas with the anticipation of being rescued by the Union blockade, an armada of ships stationed just off the Gulf Coast during the Civil War. The purpose of the blockade was specifically to prevent supplies from reaching the Confederate Army.


While the Union couldn’t justify using limited rations to feed these refugees while they remained idle, the Secretary of War determined they would be given amnesty at the discrepancy of individual commanding officers and allowed to remain with Union troops if they enlisted. However, he stipulated they would not be allowed to be registered at a rate higher than that of a boy, which entitled them to about $10 month.


Still, African Americans were not used to monetary payment. In most cases they trusted their commanding white officers with their money for safekeeping. In many instances, they never saw their earnings again. 


In July of 1862, the secretary instructed the East Coast Blockading Company, the blockades stationed off of the Gulf, to enlist as many contrabands as possible because Northern enlistment had not kept pace with the navy. By the end of the war, the Naval War Office reported that one fourth of enlistees were African American.
A black Union Soldier is pictured in uniform.

With the allegiance of the contrabands, the Union was able to strike a blow at one of the most valuable commodities of the Confederacy – saltworks. Salt factories were all over Southern Florida, especially after the onset of the Civil War. In the days before refrigeration, salt served to preserve much needed protein. The necessity for salt became so acute that a person could avoid military service all together if they could produce 20 bushels daily. The Confederacy reportedly used six million bushels per year, an amount that was cut in half by the Union Blockade.


In the beginning, it was the cargo captured from the blockade-runners that alerted Union Troops of local salt operations. In October of 1863, the schooner, Director, which was captured in Charlotte Harbor, yielded 20 bags of salt and rum. Then similar cargo was captured from a boat off of Tampa Bay two months later. 


Saltworks plants had employed many of the former slaves that now made up the contraband. Through their insight into local operations, the Union was able to successfully deplete the amount of supplies reaching the rebels.  


The blockade and contrabands worked together to destroy saltworks all along the Gulf Coast. 


Famous blockade-runner Capt. James McKay had been operating salt works in Tampa and along the Manatee River. One of McKay’s secret salt works on the Manatee River was destroyed during a raid on August 4, 1864 when Federal soldiers blew up a sugar mill in Ellenton, which was providing the Confederacy with “1,500 hogsheads of sugar” each year. The explosion was reportedly heard miles away. The remnant of the mill was the large stone chimney that still stands today.


The raid on the Manatee was just one of dozens of other covert operations that cut off supplies of valuable commodities for rebel soldiers. Although contrabands played a significant role in those vital raids, it is hard to assess their role as individuals. While their service was valued, they were not treated as equals even though they were fighting alongside their white comrades. Contrabands were not listed by name in official reports. Instead, their service faded into obscurity much like those salt operations, which are seldom recounted in Civil War history books. 

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Another interesting story of our history by Merab.
Posted by Bonne Favorite on February 10, 2013

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