By Derrick Perkins
When former President Abraham Lincoln made good on his promise to emancipate slaves in rebel-held territory 150 years ago, the burgeoning population of contrabands in Alexandria likely greeted the news with equal parts joy and trepidation.
“Everyone was incredibly happy about the proclamation — happy but also unsure. This was a life that most had not known,” said Audrey Davis, acting director of the Alexandria Black History Museum. “It was a time of uncertainty for everyone.”
But for many in the Port City, the proclamation — despite its sweeping language — meant little in the way of immediate change. To start, Lincoln’s proclamation granted freedom just to slaves still in rebel territory. Those held in bondage in slaveholding northern states or Union-held Confederate territory would remain in chains.
And for Alexandria’s contrabands, the price of freedom had been purchased with the hardships of their escape from slavery. By the time Lincoln issued the proclamation in January 1863, the Confiscation Acts and the District of Columbia Emancipation Act meant many already assumed they were free, said Chandra Manning, a professor of 19th-century American history at Georgetown University.
“The Emancipation Proclamation itself is not what did the trick here,” she said. “There was actually a legal change of their status — two national laws and one District of Columbia law that already affected them.”
Life was hard for former slaves living in Alexandria before the proclamation, and there was little indication it would get substantially better afterward.
“With the way things were [happening] in Alexandria and other occupied areas, you knew the fight for survival was going to be much more difficult,” Davis said. “You were competing with the white population for more jobs. … You were trying to find a way to survive. That was the uncertainty: How do we make a living now? The whole city is trying to recover [from the war and occupation]. We’re not going to be first in line for the jobs.”
SEEKING SAFE HARBOR
Alexandria’s near-immediate occupation by federal forces stationed across the Potomac meant the Port City became a destination for freed and runaway slaves.
Many hailed from nearby counties and sought asylum in a city once known as a hub of the slave trade — made infamous by notorious slave trafficker Joseph Bruin in the years before the Civil War erupted.
Struggling with the wave of refugees, here and in other federal-held territories, Union officials made the still-controversial decision to give runaways the legal designation of “contrabands.” The term implied the refugees were still property — property seized by the Union Army.
“There is still debate about the term,” Davis said. “Was this a term that African-Americans truly embraced? Or was it a pejorative?”
Regardless, contrabands flowed into Alexandria. The swelling population of recently freed slaves precipitated a refugee crisis. Poor, homeless and still suffering from the rigors of slavery as well as their escape, many fell ill.
Military officials were eventually forced to open a new cemetery — now known as the Contraband and Freedmen’s Cemetery in south Old Town — to bury the nearly 1,800 who died during the war years.
The Union Army, Manning noted, did not boast an inspiring record of caring for its soldiers. And now it was confronted with a wave of refugees trying to make a fresh start.
“These former slaves essentially are displaced persons or refugees, but there’s no notion of such a person yet,” she said. “The Union Army is an army. It’s not a humanitarian organization.”
Inspired by the crisis, northern aid workers and former slaves, including well-known abolitionist and author Harriet Jacobs, descended on Alexandria to open schools as well as provide food and clothing.
And as they benefited from volunteers from points northward, the former slaves also found work with federal soldiers in Alexandria and other occupied territories.
“The Orange and Alexandria Railroad is a key supply line, and it keeps going because former slaves do the work: They fix the tracks, they load and unload, and it’s the same with the docks,” Manning said. “They offer valuable services to the Union Army.”
FACE-TO-FACE WITH BONDAGE
Constant contact with freed slaves, as well as an up-close-and-personal look at the institution of slavery, began to change the hearts and minds of Union soldiers long before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Even if they couldn’t find work at the railroad or on the city’s docks, the refugees could hope for employment with the army. Contrabands served as officers’ cooks and servants, while Union soldiers reportedly gave rations to the freed slaves who flocked to their columns.
“A real reliance grows up between Union soldiers and former slaves,” Manning said. “I don’t want to overstate the case — it’s not as if by the end of the war every soldier is singing, “It’s a small world after all” — but they start electing congressmen who pass the Civil Rights Act and ratify the 14th Amendment.”
Author John H. Matsui documents the account of at least one New Yorker confronted with slavery while serving with the Union Army in his 2012 article, “War in Earnest”:
“One sees some of the effects of war and slavery, while on picket duty [in Fredericksburg] … that would wring … tears … yes, they would make his ‘Satanic Majesty’ blush for shame.”
It wasn’t a universal sentiment — Matsui finds records of Union soldiers complaining about “lazy” contrabands who followed the troops — but as the refugees flocked to the federal armies, indifferent white soldiers from the north began to condemn slavery.
In a talk at the black history museum last year, Manning recounted the letter a Wisconsin soldier sent back to his local newspaper.
“You have no idea of the changes that have taken place in the minds of the soldiers in the last two months,” he wrote in 1861. “Men of all parties seem unanimous in the belief that to permanently establish the Union is to first wipe [out] the institution.”
FREE AT LAST
Though word of the Emancipation Proclamation was slow to spread in Confederate-held territory — slaves in portions of Texas did not learn of it for several years — many began taking advantage of their new rights.
Union Army chaplains were inundated with requests to marry black couples, never before allowed to wed, Manning said. Relatives finding refuge among the northern soldiers no longer worried about seeing family members separated. And free blacks began using the legal system, going before the provost marshal to contest property ownership.
Davis, though, can’t help but imagine the trepidation contrabands in Alexandria felt — even as they likely rejoiced at news of emancipation.
“I don’t think life did [get better afterward]. I think it was probably much harder,” she said, citing Theodore McCord’s study of an Old Town block from the late 18th century to 1907. “It really was much harder after the war. The infrastructure of the city wasn’t there. You’re not only trying to find a job [in the city], but find a job where you don’t have a lot of the businesses. Those years after emancipation and after the Civil War were a great struggle.”