- Louisa May Alcott’s “My Contraband” and Discourse on Contraband Slaves in Popular Print Culture
In May 1861, three field-hands belonging to a Rebel officer, Colonel Mallory, escaped to Union lines at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. After interrogating the men, General Benjamin Butler took in the escaped slaves and when their master demanded their return, Butler refused. According to Edward L. Pierce’s November 1861 article in the Atlantic Monthly, “The Contrabands at Fortress Monroe,” the three men stated their master was “taking them to Carolina to be employed in military operations there.”1 Pierce continues, stating that since Butler had no instructions nor was there any precedent in this matter, “an analogy drawn from international law was applied. Under that law, contraband goods, which are directly auxiliary to military operations, cannot in time of war be imported by neutrals into an enemy’s country, and may be seized as lawful prize when the attempt is made so to import them.”2 And so these three men found themselves transformed from “slave” to “contraband of war” and were put to work in Butler’s camp. The number of contrabands did not remain at three; though as if a “mysterious spiritual telegraph” contacted them, writes Pierce, more and more slaves fled to “the freedom fort” until, at one point, Butler found himself in command of over nine-hundred contrabands.3 Fortress Monroe of course was not an isolated instance, and as the Civil War dragged on, more and more slaves would escape to Union lines, ushering in a new era in America’s history.
Almost two years after Pierce’s report, the Atlantic Monthly published another, albeit fictional, account of contraband slaves in its November 1863 issue, Louisa May Alcott’s “The Brothers” (later published as “My Contraband”).4 The story is a first-person [End Page 51] account of Union nurse Faith Dane and her mixed-race contraband servant, Bob (later renamed “Robert”). Nurse Dane and Robert work together to care for a special patient, a sick Confederate captain who has been separated from the rest of the hospital’s patients. In a shocking turn of events, the narrator reveals that the Rebel captain is actually Robert’s half-brother—and that Robert plans to kill him for kidnapping and raping Robert’s wife, Lucy. Nurse Dane is able, though, to successfully sway Robert from murder; indeed by the story’s end he is transformed into a bona fide hero after fighting—and dying—in the Battle of Fort Wagner. Yet at the same time the story is explicitly subversive in its attention to interracial desire—that is, Nurse Dane’s attraction to Robert, whom she claims is “hers” several times over throughout the story. Dane cannot come to terms with the warring identities Robert embodies; she is drawn to Robert the “man” but is repelled, if not repulsed, by Robert the slave.
Extant criticism on Alcott’s story has examined dynamics of race and gender via Robert’s mixed-race status as well as Alcott’s depiction of interracial desire. This essay seeks to contribute to the existing critical conversation surrounding “My Contraband” by examining two intersecting points: the political and public debate surrounding contraband slaves and the ways in which this debate manifested itself in Northern media. Read in the context of this debate, Alcott’s “My Contraband” becomes both a response to portrayals of contraband slaves and indicative of the very same racial anxieties embedded in these (oftentimes racist) renderings. Although Alcott’s portrayal of Robert is far from the many explicitly racist depictions of contrabands found in Northern media, Robert’s limited interiority and perhaps most tellingly, his inability to envision his own future, speaks to the story’s uncertain conclusion as to where African Americans fit in American society. As Alice Fahs remarks, “popular war literature reveals that a discussion of the meanings of the war occurred across a much wider range of representations than is usually thought to be the case”; studying these wartime writings and illustrations, then, “forces us to expand our ideas of the cultural meanings of the war.”5 Turning to popular depictions of contrabands not only complicates...