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Roanoke River Cho wanRi v e r Atlantic Ocean N S E W 0 miles 100 50 Baltimore Washington, D.C. Richmond Yorktown Ft. Monroe Norfolk Charleston Wilmington Savannah Brunswick Fernandina Jacksonville Georgetown Plymouth Washington New Bern Georgetown Goldsboro Beaufort Potomac R iver She n a n d o a hRiver Rappahannock River JamesRiver C a p e F e a r River Santee River Cape Fear Great Dismal Swamp Bull's Bay R i v e r N e u s e R i v e r Maryland Virginia North Carolina South Carolina Georgia Florida O h i o Atlantic coastline Introduction  questions later. Fugitives often endured bad weather and a lack of food, and in an effort to avoid pickets and patrols, they took routes through marshes, swamps, and creeks; they swam across rivers or took to the water in dugouts, canoes, and rowboats that could overturn or ground on sandbars. Those slaves caught escaping faced certain and often severe punishment. According to the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, runaway slaves were to be returned to their masters. However, in 1861, as the number of blacks seeking asylum increased, Union Army commanders began to ignore the law and employ the runaways in army camps and on army fortifications. Using international law as his justification, on May 23, 1861, General Benjamin F. Butler declared slaves the property of the enemy and subject to confiscation. By defining slaves as “contraband of war,” Butler was able to argue that refusing to return them to their owners would deprive the enemy of valuable labor. Secretary of War Simon Cameron upheld Butler’s definition of contraband in a letter written on May 30, 1861, and gave Butler the authority to employ slaves in government service and pay them for their labor. The newly freed people thus became known as “contrabands.” During the course of the war, the Union Army pressed thousands of black fugitives into service as servants, laborers, cooks, laundresses, and informants.6 To the surprise of Union Navy officers on ships blockading the southern coast, African Americans also began to seek freedom and sanctuary on board federal vessels lying in rivers, creeks, inlets, and sounds. When the Navy Department created the Atlantic Blockading Squadron in 1861 under the command of Louis M. Goldsborough, neither he nor any of his commanding officers anticipated this development. These men, women, and children came from plantations or villages near the coast, from cities such as Savannah and Charleston, and from as far as 200 miles inland, following paths on their own initiative or assisted by persons or organizations that had probably been aiding African American slaves for decades. Union Navy commanders occasionally returned these fugitives to the masters who came to claim them, but in most instances they refused to send them back into slavery. After March 1862 they were forbidden by law to do so. The navy sent a large number of these contrabands to southern ports such as Port Royal or gathered them in contraband camps along the coast, but they also shipped some contrabands north. Always short on manpower, the Union Navy encouraged the able-bodied males to enlist. As crewmen of navy ships and gunboats, these black sailors served alongside their white shipmates on blockade duty, on expedi-  Bluejackets and Contrabands tions up rivers and creeks, or in naval landing parties; some of them were injured or killed. Although historians of the Civil War occasionally mention the contribution of free blacks and fugitive slaves to the North and South Atlantic Blockading Squadrons’ war effort, there has been no full-length treatment of the relationship between the Union Navy and African Americans , especially contrabands. This study describes the often mutually beneficial relationship between the officers and men of both blockading squadrons and the men and women they assisted to freedom or gathered into contraband colonies and from whom they obtained vital information and services as sailors, river pilots, stevedores, guides, skilled mechanics , purveyors of fresh meat and produce, cooks, laundresses, spies, and boat crews. Because most African American slaves and many free blacks were not permitted by law to learn to read and write, they left behind few letters and journals describing their journeys to freedom and their wartime experiences. To uncover their contributions to the Potomac Flotilla and to the North and South Atlantic Blockading Squadrons during the war, historians and scholars must rely on official Union Navy and Union Army reports and the letters and diaries of...


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