Edwin Forbes, "Chapter LIX: The Reliable Contraband," Thirty Years After: An Artist's Memoir of the Civil War, (New York: Fords, Howard & Hulbert [c1890]) 233-234.



While this name was given in derision to the unfortunate race who were so unconsciously the cause of the great rebellion, there was to those who saw and knew them a touch of pathetic realism in its appropriateness. I do not know of a single instance when one of them proved false to a trust. Their assistance to the sick and wounded was invaluable, and their lives were often imperilled in efforts of appreciation and gratitude to the Union army. Their dark faces were often beacon-lights to escaped prisoners, who, hungry and footsore and oftentimes wounded, were piloted with patient courage and passed from hand to hand with an admonition that those who received the charge should be faithful to the trust.

The knowledge of the intricate wood-paths and river-fords which the colored people had gained in stolen night visits about the country, aided greatly in simplifying the movements of the Union army. When an important movement was contemplated, the commanding officer would send for some negro in the neighborhood, and if, after close questioning the man was evidently familiar with the surrounding country, his services would be secured. When the column moved he would take position beside the commanding officer at the head, and guide the column through swamps and woods that were apparently impassable, with the intelligence of an Indian hunter.

The name "contraband" was a popular taking up of the ingenious declaration of General Benjamin F. Butler, who, in the early days of the war, asserted that escaped slaves, being capable of rendering aid and comfort to the enemy if returned to the Rebel lines, were "contraband of war," and therefore to be made use of by the Union forces. The name "reliable contraband" was at first used frequently by the army correspondents, who reported startling probabilities or important movements of the enemy on the authority of some frightened refugee, and the epithet was continued ironically because of the unreliable intelligence they sometimes brought into the Union lines. Any discrepancy in statement, however, came from a lack of knowledge and not a desire to mislead. The secessionists were always cautious about making statements in the presence of the slaves relative to the number or movements of their armies, and the slaves in their bondage were of course ignorant of local geography; so it is not to be wondered at that they failed to estimate the numbers of an army or give an accurate account of its movements.

The colored fugitives who made their way to our lines were always welcomed and their grotesqueness was a source of amusement to the cavalry outposts. They often came with valuable information, yet many times with exaggerated and indefinite reports. For instance, if asked about the enemy's numbers, they would reply "Oh! dar was a right smart lot of 'em, massa, mo' dan I eber see befo',"--a statement which though literally true, meant but very little.

The negroes were of invaluable assistance in the East in the construction of works of defence--rifle-pits, earthworks, forts, camps, etc., and they were gradually taken into the forces and utilized as non-combatants in many ways--as body servants, cooks, drivers, grooms, laborers, and wherever they could save work or time for the soldiers.

Later on, when it was decided after much discussion to enlist and arm them, and give them a chance to fight as well as work for their liberty, they gave a splendid account of themselves. As soldiers, the colored troops exhibited their reliable qualities, chiefly on the bloody battle fields of the West, notably at Fort Pillow and the battle of Nashville under General Thomas. They displayed splendid courage and discipline, and proved that the country had not erred in arming them. Their position was particularly trying, as the enemy at first refused to give them quarter, and capture at that period meant death.

Through the trials of the great struggle their fidelity never wavered and their dearly bought emancipation was but just recompense for their long years of servitude.

 

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An American Antiquarian Society Online Exhibition
Curated by Lucia Z. Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College

All primary sources in this exhibit are in the collections of the American Antiquarian Society.
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