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  • Working for Citizenship in Civil War Contraband Camps
  • Chandra Manning (bio)

On a bright spring afternoon in 1863 in Corinth, Mississippi, nearly twenty-four hundred black men, women, and children marched, sang, and carried festive banners while Col. John Eaton, Chaplain James Alexander, and Gen. Lorenzo Thomas watched. At the parade’s conclusion, Thomas assured the former slaves that the time had come for all of them, “men and women,” to become “citizens.”1 Thomas, a former slaveholder acting as agent of the very United States government that had denied the possibility of black citizenship in the Dred Scott decision six years earlier, stood in the middle of a contraband camp full of refugees from slavery and extolled their U.S. citizenship. He did so partly in response to black men’s Union army service, as historians have long recognized, but at that moment, he was not talking only–or even mainly—to black soldiers. He was also talking to black civilians, primarily women and children, and he called them “citizens” because the tens of thousands of black men, women, and children who placed themselves in direct contact with the U.S. government by fleeing to Civil War contraband camps throughout the occupied South altered the relationship between the central state and the individual in the United States.

Not just black soldiers but also black women, children, and noncombatant men laundered, nursed, labored, and spied for the Union, and in the process they forged a new definition of citizenship, constructed by and applicable to both men and women. Whereas before the war, claims white property-owners made on the U.S. government would have taken unquestioned precedence over claims black people made, now all the ordinary white northern farmers and clerks serving as provost marshals or picket sentries had good reason to question why the U.S. government should help a master who wanted his slaves back, if the Union could benefit by extending protection to black nurses, laborers, and laundresses instead. The bargain struck between Union soldiers and black men and women widened access to citizenship, made the federal rather than state government the [End Page 172] arbiter of inclusion, and folded rights protection into what had formerly been a relationship chiefly of membership and obligation.

Looking closely at the process of redefinition that occurred in contraband camps, places where many of the hazards and tragic elements of emancipation emphasized by much recent scholarship were acute, clarifies what emancipation achieved, how citizenship happened, and at what costs both were procured. The alliances between former slaves and the Union army were uneasy, contraband camps provided improbable and usually miserable settings for reinventing citizenship, and the reinvented citizenship that emerged from the camps was full of shortcomings, but the process of reinvention still mattered. It consisted of interactions between the men of the Union army and refugees from slavery, both male and female, and those interactions merged discrete sets of ideas about membership, obligation, reciprocity, and rights into an incomplete but nonetheless new definition of U.S. citizenship as the exchange of service to the Union for positive government protection of basic rights.2

Collectively, a rich body of work on the unraveling of slavery has uncovered the political strategies of the enslaved while cautioning against exaggerating the agency black people could exercise.3 Lately, scholars have begun to turn to the Union military as a key instrument in slavery’s destruction, while bearing in mind that military forces are “unreliable vehicles for emancipation, bringing heartbreak as well as liberation.”4 Just as the institution of slavery was shot through with violence and tragedy, so too was its destruction, in the United States no less than the rest of the world, and several scholars have recently worked with great seriousness of purpose to counter excessive focus on liberation with unflinching depiction of the heartbreak.5 Their attention to the jaggedness of wartime emancipation makes it even more surprising that the destruction of U.S. slavery in the midst of the Civil War actually did achieve the irreversible abolition of legal slavery, in contrast to the many other times and places in North American and world history in which wartime emancipation was...


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