Contraband Community Unearthed

A group of “Contrabands” gather in Cumberland Landing, Virginia, 1862.

In Hampton, Virginia, archaeological excavations are unearthing a Civil War–era community that was inhabited by newly freed African Americans. During the early years of the war, runaway slaves were seeking the protection of the Union army at Fort Monroe, near Hampton. At the fort, they found freedom, thanks to commanding officer Major General Benjamin Butler. A lawyer before the war, Butler knew a legal loophole when he saw one: since southerners considered slaves to be property, and because slave labor was being exploited for the Confederate war effort, he concluded that escaped slaves should be treated as “contraband of war.” As such, they were illegal property subject to seizure by the occupying Union forces. As increasing numbers of fugitive slaves arrived at Fort Monroe, Butler put his “fugitive slave law” into effect, thus rendering the runaways free. These former slaves were themselves called “Contrabands.”

Fort Monroe was a Federal fortification located within Confederate territory. Yet, on August 7, 1861, the Confederate army elected to destroy Hampton to prevent its being of use to the Union. Hampton’s white citizens evacuated the port town, and the Confederate troops burned it to the ground. Charred chimneys and brick walls stood as ruins in what is now downtown Hampton. Here and in the surrounding countryside, African Americans from Fort Monroe formed a settlement that became known as the Great Contraband Camp. Escaped slaves from as far as North Carolina came to the camp. The example of these freed slaves, living safely under Union protection, may have inspired President Lincoln to conceive the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Great Contraband Camp and its environs are now the focus of archaeological study. Work began after the demolishing of run-down apartments opened up the area. To locate sites for excavation, archaeologists made use of 1870 census data, fire insurance company maps dating from 1905, and an aerial photograph of the apartment complex. So far, they have identified about 170 features for a closer look.

Image credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Related Links

Comments are closed.