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Chapter 3 Contraband Camps I am much interested in the contrabands within our lines. They tell me there are from eight to ten thousand. They are daily increasing at Edisto, and I have induced the general to send a regiment to Edisto. —Samuel F. Du Pont For thousands of contrabands, many of them former plantation slaves, freedom meant the sudden loss of regular sustenance from their white masters. Some possessed valuable skills as carpenters, mechanics, barbers , boatmen, and the like, but the majority of slaves had spent their lives as household servants or field hands dependent on their masters for food, provisions, and clothing. Slaves often tended their own small garden plots, fished or collected oysters for their own use, or earned money by trading items or hiring themselves out. When they fled to safety on Union warships, however, most arrived with few provisions or household items and had to be fed, clothed, and protected. Although Union naval officers welcomed runaways on their vessels, they worried that if kept on board for any length of time, these fugitive slaves might exhaust the ships’ supplies. Commanding officers preferred to retain the ablebodied male contrabands as crew members and put the others ashore. Union operations along the southern coast in 1861 created opportunities for hundreds of slaves to seek freedom either on Union ships or in areas occupied by Union forces. When General T. W. Sherman’s men occupied Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861, Hilton Head Island and Beaufort became refuges for hundreds of contrabands, who joined the thousands of slaves abandoned at Port Royal and the nearby Sea Islands by their white owners. Now, in effect, free, these former slaves soon became the responsibility of the government. This timely arrival of so many fugitive slaves at Port Royal proved a god- 64 Bluejackets and Contrabands send to Sherman, however, who willingly employed them as laborers to unload supplies and provisions at Port Royal, where the lack of adequate wharfage forced his troops to unload ships through the surf across the beaches. Sherman’s quartermasters also needed laborers to build roads, erect warehouses and other buildings, and construct defenses. To shelter and provide for these former slaves, Sherman ordered temporary “contraband camps” set up at Beaufort and on Hilton Head for those now employed as laborers for the Union, and he assigned responsibility for them to the chief quartermaster, Captain Rufus Saxton.1 In addition to the hundreds of slaves who had fled their masters, an estimated 8,000 blacks remained on plantations in areas now occupied by Union forces. As “de facto freed people” no longer dependent on their old masters, most were willing to work for their former drivers, but others were not averse to helping themselves to provisions in pantries and storehouses. Furthermore, having been abandoned by their former owners, hundreds of these newly freed slaves now faced a winter without adequate food and clothing. The superintendent of the contraband camp on Hilton Head Island, Barnard K. Lee Jr., confirmed this fact. Testifying in 1863 before the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission , Lee recalled, “I commenced with 60 or 70 at my camp, male and female. They were very destitute and were mainly slaves from Hilton Head & St. Helena islands. They came in rapidly in parties of 10, 20, 50, and 100.”2 In February 1862 Edward L. Pierce reported to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase that 600 contrabands resided at the Hilton Head camp, 279 of them from the mainland, 77 from Hilton Head Island, 62 from nearby Pinckney Island, 38 from St. Helena Island, 8 from Port Royal, 7 from Spring, and 1 from Danfuskie. An estimated 600 more freed people had gathered at Beaufort. Shortly after the occupation of Port Royal, Lee was instructed to assure those contrabands hired as laborers that they would be paid “a reasonable sum” for their work. The government issued the contrabands blankets and clothing captured from the rebels , fed the women and children without charge, and built what Pierce’s report called “commodious barracks” for them, with a guard to protect their quarters. Guards had become necessary in the wake of reports that Union soldiers on foraging expeditions had taken food and livestock from the newly freed slaves, sometimes looting and pillaging their possessions and terrifying many. In his report, Pierce expressed concern about the soldiers and sailors mingling with the newly freed people, explaining that he had met with Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont about the situation...


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