The Union general Benjamin Franklin Butler claimed to be the first to apply the term “contraband” to escaped slaves in May 1861.
Contrabands were slaves who fled to or were taken behind Northern lines during the Civil War prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. Early in the war, the North had no established policy to deal with escaped slaves. Many Union officers returned the slaves as required under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Others believed that returning the slaves was aiding the Confederates.
The Union general Benjamin Franklin Butler claimed to be the first to apply the term “contraband” to escaped slaves in May 1861. Three slaves had escaped to the Union lines in Virginia and stated that they had been made to work on Confederate defenses. When a Confederate officer demanded their return, Butler refused, remarking that since they were property, as claimed by the Confederacy, and were being used in war against the United States, they were legitimate contraband of war. Butler used the slaves to construct fortifications but also gave them rations and pay. Butler’s solution was quickly adopted by other Northern officers. It gained legal standing in August 1861 when the U.S. Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, declaring legal the seizure of all Southern property used to aid the rebellion–including slaves.
Major General David Hunter, in command of the North’s Southern Department on Hilton Head, South Carolina, took Butler’s idea one step further when on April 13, 1862, he declared slaves behind his lines to be confiscated and free. He organized male contraband slaves into the First South Carolina Volunteer Regiment, outfitting them with blue coats and red pants and using them as guards and laborers. President Abraham Lincoln disallowed Hunter’s declaration but remained silent about the First South Carolina Volunteers. In September 1862 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, to go into effect on January 1, 1863, asserting that all slaves in the rebellion were “forever free.”
Nalty, Bernard C. Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military. New York: Free Press, 1986.
Trudeau, Noah Andre. Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862–1865. New York: Little, Brown, 1998.