CONTRABAND OF WAR
On April 23, 1861, eleven days after the firing on Fort Sumter and six days after the Virginia legislature approved an ordinance of secession, the steamship Logan left the city of Baltimore bound for Fredericksburg, Virginia. William Ringgold, a free black working as a steward, was aboard the vessel as it ventured south. When the ship landed, Confederates impressed it and the crew, sending both to the York River to transport workers and troops from West Point to Yorktown and Gloucester Point. For the next eight months, Ringgold helped deliver thousands of black workers to construct vital fortifications on the lower Peninsula.1 The Confederacy’s basic defensive strategy soon became dependent on their labor.
From the start of the war, some members of the Virginia Peninsula’s enslaved community viewed the conflict as a potential path to liberation. Because many people in the North were not yet ready to support emancipation, however, it was unclear whether the Federals offered blacks the best opportunity for improving their lives, especially since masters went to great effort to deceive their slaves concerning Yankee intentions. Nevertheless, many slaves on the lower Peninsula quickly made contact with Federal troops, setting in motion a process that resulted in the Lincoln administration’s policy of protecting runaways who had been forced to labor for the Confederacy. When Union troops first arrived in the area, white Virginians fled the lower Peninsula and left hundreds of their slaves behind, creating a situation that helped to cause one of the first land battles of the Civil War. As in previous wars, African Americans labored and may have even fought for both armies as they slowly gathered in the region. Just weeks after the war began, Northerners were already paying close attention to the activities of African Americans on the Virginia Peninsula.