There exists in the history of the Civil War, a gap in the story of African American participation in the struggle. Much discussed is the Underground Railroad, the use of black troops in both armies, John Brown's Raid, and the Freedman's Bureau. Left largely unexplored is the use of runaway slaves and contraband in the Union Army during the opening days and months of the struggle. Between the time the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861 and the authorizing of Black Troops by the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in January 1863, the Union Army grappled with the conflicts raised by the South's "peculiar institution."
Historical accounting of the Reconstruction era has seen a broad shift in interpretation. And, as the interpretation shifted, so too did the actual genesis of the reconstruction phenomenon evident following the War. The firm placement of Reconstruction in the years following the War became fluid as historians like Willie Lee Rose began to argue that the concepts, issues, and problems of Reconstruction are evident as early as the Port Royal Experiment.
On November 7, 1861, federal troops led by Commodore S. F. Du Pont fired upon and eventually seized the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Upon landing his troops, Du Pont found only abandoned plantations and thousands of abandoned slaves. It was here that both federal troops and ardent abolitionists began to answer the questions regarding the transition between slave and free. It was at Port Royal that the first black troops were raised, the first schooling of slaves began, and the power of a wage earner to affect his employment situation was explored. All this transpired at a time when the future of slavery had yet to be determined. Furthermore, this "experiment" served as a "proving ground" for those involved in the postwar Reconstruction plan. (1)
However, war records and slave narratives, along with newspaper and magazine accounts, show that the legal, political, and social phenomenon witnessed during the Reconstruction era were evident well before the inception of the Port Royal experiment. While nobody could have known at the time, the dynamics explored by the Union Army in dealing with both slaves and contraband would be reflected again at Port Royal, South Carolina and again during Post-war Reconstruction.
Opening Days, 1861-1862
From the outset of the War, slaves infiltrated Union lines looking for protection and an active role to play in the struggle. No clear-cut policy existed to address the use of contrabands in the Union army and at the outset of the struggle the number of fugitive or captured slaves was comparatively small. However, as the war progressed the number of slaves captured as well as those fleeing bondage increased exponentially. Where in the conflict, and in society, did the contraband fit?
As the slave issue and the issue of emancipation became intertwined with the war cause, the Army Headquarters quickly established a laissez faire approach. It was not the place of the Army to settle the question between master and slave. All fugitive slaves who sought asylum in Army camps were to be returned to their rightful owners regardless of their owner's loyalties.
In the field however, facing a massive labor shortage and desiring the quasi-luxury of servants, officers and troops in the field began to argue for the use of the contraband and runaway slaves. Against orders, many Army camps continued to use contraband and runaway slave labor for construction, cooking, and servants. In addition to menial labor, Army officers used the contrabands and runaways as sources of information on Confederate troops, activities, and sympathizers. Army camps continued the use of contraband and runaway labor up until the Emancipation Proclamation. It is this internal conflict that foreshadowed the social, political, and economic issues that would arise at Port Royal and again during Reconstruction. …