Contraband Camps "Refugees Treated With Contempt"
Southern slaves who sought freedom by leaving their plantation homes and escaping to Union forces often found much less than they were expecting. Crowded into contraband camps, the refugees were often neglected and abused by their Union protectors. "Many, very many of the soldiers and not a few of the officers have habitually treated the negroes with the coarsest and most brutal insolence and humanity; never speaking to them but to curse and revile them," reported a New York Evening Post war correspondent. Charlotte Forten, a Northern teacher who participated in the Port Royal experiment, was dismayed at the attitude of Union offices toward the black refugees. The officers "talked flippantly, and sneeringly of the negroes, using an epithet more offensive than gentlemanly."
Northern soldiers almost unanimously resented being assigned to duty guarding and policing contraband camps. They insisted they had enlisted to save the Union, not to "play nursemaid" to black refugees, and they vented their frustration on their hapless charges. Though rape of white Southern women by Union soldiers was virtually unheard of during the war, Yankees were not so reluctant to take advantage of their position with regard to the escaped slaves. A Union private at Port Royal reported an incident that made him "ashamed of America": About 8-10 soldiers from the New York 47th chased some Negro women but they escaped, so they took a Negro girl about 7-9 years old, and raped her.
Other soldiers found the proximity of pliant Negroes a blessing, assigning the refugees onerous jobs that the soldiers hated to perform themselves. A Union soldier in Louisiana wrote to his family at home in Maine: "Officers and men are having an easy time. We have Negroes to do all the fatigue work, cooking and washing clothes." Black refugees who were put to work picking cotton, building roads, constructing fortifications, or doing camp chores for the Union were usually paid for their work.
Fascinating Fact: Because the vast majority of slaves were illiterate, little has been recorded of how they regarded their newfound "freedom".
Back to index page