Captain Orlando Poe insists, to Parthenia Leila Ellis’s irritation, upon calling the slave/servants he conscripts for work on Fort Sanders and other parts of the Union’s defensive perimeter “contrabands.”
It had been common usage in the Union army from the early days of the war when slaves would emancipate themselves by fleeing farms and plantations and flock to approaching Federal army units.
Union Gen. Benjamin Butler, leading troops to Fortress Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula, originated use of the term for slaves in what came to be called the Fort Monroe Doctrine. By calling them “contraband of war,” Butler could avoid the distasteful early federal policy of returning them to their owners.
President Lincoln disliked the term because he feared adding to the rebellion by needlessly antagonizing the border slave states (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware) which had not seceded. Gen. Ulysses Grant disliked it because crowds of slaves following his troops slowed their movements and created problems of food and shelter.
But Congress made the term and the practice official policy in its 1861 Confiscation Act, which included the plantations and other property of seceding traitors as well as self-emancipating slaves. Congress also passed a new Article of War, forbidding its army officers from returning fugitive slaves to their masters.
Soon, as historian James M. McPherson wrote in his Battle Cry of Freedom, “[e]ven when Billy Yank welcomed the contrabands, he often did so from utilitarian rather than humanitarian motives. ‘Officers & men are having an easy time,’ wrote a Maine soldier from occupied Louisiana in 1862. ‘We have Negroes to do all the fatigue work, cooking and washing clothes.'”