“No man should be a neutral in this great emergency”: What to do with discharged contrabands?

By mid-1864, a large population of former slaves, or contrabands to use the term applied at the time, existed at several places in the southern states behind Federal lines.  In particular the Department of the South had significant contraband “cities” around Port Royal Sound.  On one hand, these represented propaganda points for the north – freed slaves to evidence the results of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Major-General David Hunter had drawn upon these contraband camps for labor (employed labor, to be exact) and to fill the ranks of USCT regiments.  At the same time, every contraband in these camps represented on less laborer available to the Confederates in the department – and as witnessed by so many pleas, the Confederate commanders were short on labor of every category.

On the other hand, the contraband, or freedmen, camps were also a mixed blessing to the Federals.  These communities existed on marginal lands, in the middle of an active combat zone, and barely suitable for subsistence farming.  The populations depended heavily upon the military for support and protection.  The threat of re-capture and return to bondage lingered above these communities.  Yet, while no exact figures might support this supposition, all indications were the communities “pulled their weight” and then some, providing soldiers for the USCT regiments, a labor pool, and various supports for the Federals in theater.  Without the contraband community, the efforts of Hunter, Gillmore, and Foster would have been much more difficult.

In regard to the freedmen enlisted in the service, the Federals faced another, perhaps more administrative issue on the surface:  What to do with the men when their terms had expired?  For white regiments, this was simply a procedural matter.  The men transited to a muster-out point and were released to go home.  But for those recruited from contraband camps, that “home” was something that existed as a notional place.  There had been no “home” before the war in the proper sense of the word.  Now “home,” if at all, was a temporary shelter near some Federal garrison.

For the USCT, this was less so an issue, given the standard enlistment terms at that time.  But for the Navy, who’d brought contrabands on board for service afloat practically since the start of the war, this did present a growing concern.  On July 13, 1864, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren too the time to press this concern to Major-General John Foster:

Sir: It often occurs that contrabands and others, enlisted in the naval service, desire to be discharged here when their terms have expired–that is, they desire to remain ashore, which is your jurisdiction, and this can only be done by your permission. While declining, therefore, to interfere with your authority, permit me to observe that it seems very objectionable to permit a population to grow up here of persons from whom there is no guarantee that they may not in some way become useful to the enemy, it being their interest to stand well with both sides. And I hope, therefore, that the practice will only be allowed on condition of such residents rendering military service. No man should be neutral in this great emergency.

Dahlgren’s suggestion, which would grant some claim for those having served in uniform, is a far cry from “forty acres and a mule.”  But in part a foothold for that notion.  And that notion is matched to service, in this case, suggesting a benefit beyond a pension.  This is framed, in the context of a civil war and the need to reconstruct (lower-case “r” there, please note) a loyal state in the aftermath.

Keep in mind, these are the words of a military commander – and not a politician.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 172-3.)