Return to Port Royal Experiment
Edward L. Pierce
"The Contrabands at Fortress Monroe,"
November 1861

Atlantic Monthly
In the month of August, 1620, a Dutch man-of-war from Guinea entered James River and sold "twenty negars." Such is
the brief record left by John Rolfe, whose name is honorably associated with that of Pocahontas. This was the first
importation of the kind into the country, and the source of existing strifes. It was fitting that the system which from that
slave-ship had been spreading over the continent for nearly two centuries and a half should yield for the first time to the
logic of military law almost upon the spot of its origin. The coincidence may not inappropriately introduce what of
experience and reflection the writer has to relate of a three-months' soldier's life in Virginia.

On the morning of the 22d of May last, Major-General Butler, welcomed with a military salute, arrived at Fortress
Monroe, and assumed the command of the Department of Virginia. Hitherto we had been hemmed up in the peninsula
of which the fort occupies the main part, and cut off from communication with the surrounding country. Until within a few
days our forces consisted of about one thousand men belonging to the Third and Fourth Regiments of Massachusetts
militia, and three hundred regulars. The only movement since our arrival on the 20th of April had been the expedition to
Norfolk of the Third Regiment, in which it was my privilege to serve as a private. The fort communicates with the
main-land by a dike or causeway about half a mile long, and a wooden bridge, perhaps three hundred feet long, and
then there spreads out a tract of country, well wooded and dotted over with farms. Passing from this bridge for a
distance of two miles northwestward, you reach a creek or arm of the bay spanned by another wooden bridge, and
crossing it you are at once in the ancient village of Hampton, having a population of some fifteen hundred inhabitants.
The peninsula on which the fort stands, the causeway, and the first bridge described, are the property of the United
States. Nevertheless, a small picket-guard of the Secessionists had been accustomed to occupy a part of the bridge,
sometimes coming even to the centre, and a Secession flag waved in sight of the fort. On the 13th of May, the Rebel
picket-guard was driven from the bridge, and all the Government property was taken possession of by a detachment of
two companies from the Fourth Regiment, accompanied by a dozen regulars with a field-piece, acting under the orders
of Colonel Dimick, the commander of the post. They retired, denouncing vengeance on Massachusetts troops for the
invasion of Virginia. Our pickets then occupied the entire bridge and a small strip of the main-land beyond, covering a
valuable well; but still there was no occupation in force of any but Government property. The creation of a new military
department, to the command of which a major-general was assigned, was soon to terminate this isolation. On the 13th
of May the First Vermont Regiment arrived, on the 24th the Second New York, and two weeks later our forces
numbered nearly ten thousand.

On the 23d of May General Butler ordered the first reconnoitring expedition, which consisted of a part of the Vermont
Regiment, and proceeded under the command of Colonel Phelps over the dike and bridge towards Hampton. They
were anticipated, and when in sight of the second bridge saw that it had been set on fire, and, hastening forward,
extinguished the flames. The detachment then marched into the village. A parley was held with a Secession officer, who
represented that the men in arms in Hampton were only a domestic police. Meanwhile the white inhabitants, particularly
the women, had generally disappeared. The negroes gathered around our men, and their evident exhilaration was
particularly noted, some of them saying, "Glad to see you, Massa," and betraying the fact, that, on the approach of the
detachment, a field-piece stationed at the bridge had been thrown into the sea. This was the first communication
between our army and the negroes in this department.

The reconnaissance of the day had more important results than were anticipated. Three negroes, owned by Colonel
Mallory, a lawyer of Hampton and a Rebel officer, taking advantage of the terror prevailing among the white inhabitants,
escaped from their master, skulked during the afternoon, and in the night came to our pickets. The next morning, May
24th, they were brought to General Butler, and there, for the first time, stood the Major-General and the fugitive slave
face to face. Being carefully interrogated, it appeared that they were field-hands, the slaves of an officer in the Rebel
service, who purposed taking them to Carolina to be employed in military operations there. Two of them had wives in
Hampton, one a free colored woman, and they had several children in the neighborhood. Here was a new question, and
a grave one, on which the Government had as yet developed no policy. In the absence of precedents or instructions,
an analogy drawn from international law was applied. Under that law, contraband goods, which are directly auxiliary to
military operations, cannot in time of war be imported by neutrals into an enemy's country, and may be seized as lawful
prize when the attempt is made so to import them. It will be seen, that, accurately speaking, the term applies exclusively
to the relation between a belligerent and a neutral, and not to the relation between belligerents. Under the strict law of
nations, all the property of an enemy may be seized. Under the Common Law, the property of traitors is forfeit. The
humaner usage of modern times favors the waiving of these strict rights, but allows,--without question, the seizure and
confiscation of all such goods as are immediately auxiliary to military purposes. These able-bodied negroes, held as
slaves, were to be employed to build breastworks, to transport or store provisions, to serve as cooks or waiters, and
even to bear arms. Regarded as property, according to their master's claim, they could be efficiently used by the
Rebels for the purposes of the Rebellion, and most efficiently by the Government in suppressing it. Regarded as
persons, they had escaped from communities where a triumphant rebellion had trampled on the laws, and only the
rights of human nature remained, and they now asked the protection of the Government, to which, in prevailing treason,
they were still loyal, and which they were ready to serve as best they could.

The three negroes, being held contraband of war, were at once set to work to aid the masons in constructing a new
bakehouse within the fort. Thenceforward the term "contraband" bore a new signification, with which it will pass into
history, designating the negroes who had been held as slaves, now adopted under the protection of the Government. It
was used in official communications at the fort. It was applied familiarly to the negroes, who stared somewhat, inquiring,
"What d' ye call us that for?" Not having Wheaton's "Elements" at hand, we did not attempt an explanation. The
contraband notion was adopted by Congress in the Act of July 6th, which confiscates slaves used in aiding the
Insurrection. There is often great virtue in such technical phrases in shaping public opinion. They commend practical
action to a class of minds little developed in the direction of the sentiments, which would be repelled by formulas of a
broader and nobler import. The venerable gentleman, who wears gold spectacles and reads a conservative daily,
prefers confiscation to emancipation. He is reluctant to have slaves declared freemen, but has no objection to their
being declared contrabands. His whole nature rises in insurrection when Beecher preaches in a sermon that a thing
ought to be done because it is a duty, but he yields gracefully when Butler issues an order commanding it to be done
because it is a military necessity.

On the next day, Major John B. Cary, another Rebel officer, late principal of an academy in Hampton, a delegate to the
Charleston Convention, and a seceder with General Butler from the Convention at Baltimore, came to the fort with a
flag of truce, and, claiming to act as the representative of Colonel Mallory, demanded the fugitives. He reminded
General Butler of his obligations under the Federal Constitution, under which he claimed to act. The ready reply was,
that the Fugitive-Slave Act could not be invoked for the reclamation of fugitives from a foreign State, which Virginia
claimed to be, and she must count it among the infelicities of her position, if so far at least she was taken at her word.

The three pioneer negroes were not long to be isolated from their race. There was no known channel of communication
between them and their old comrades, and yet those comrades knew, or believed with the certainty of knowledge, how
they had been received. If inquired of whether more were coming, their reply was, that, if they were not sent back,
others would understand that they were among friends, and more would come the next day. Such is the mysterious
spiritual telegraph which runs through the slave population. Proclaim an edict of emancipation in the hearing of a single
slave on the Potomac, and in a few days it will be known by his brethren on the Gulf. So, on the night of the Big Bethel
affair, a squad of negroes, meeting our soldiers, inquired anxiously the way to "the freedom fort."

The means of communicating with the fort from the open country became more easy, when, on the 24th of May, (the
same day on which the first movement was made from Washington into Virginia,) the Second New York Regiment made
its encampment on the Segar farm, lying near the bridge which connected the fort with the main-land, an encampment
soon enlarged by the First Vermont and other New York regiments. On Sunday morning, May 26th, eight negroes stood
before the quarters of General Butler, waiting for an audience.

They were examined in part by the Hon. Mr. Ashley, M. C. from Ohio, then a visitor at the fort. On May 27th, forty-seven
negroes of both sexes and all ages, from three months to eighty-five years, among whom were half a dozen entire
families, came in one squad. Another lot of a dozen good field-hands arrived the same day; and then they continued to
come by twenties, thirties, and forties. They were assigned buildings outside of the fort or tents within. They were set to
work as servants to officers, or to store provisions landed from vessels,--thus relieving us of the fatigue duty which we
had previously done, except that of dragging and mounting columbiads on the ramparts of the fort, a service which
some very warm days have impressed on my memory.

On the 27th of May, the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, the First Vermont, and some New York regiments made an
advance movement and occupied Newport News, (a promontory named for Captain Christopher Newport, the early
explorer,) so as more effectually to enforce the blockade of James River. There, too, negroes came in, who were
employed as servants to the officers. One of them, when we left the fort, more fortunate than his comrades, and aided
by a benevolent captain, eluded the vigilance of the Provost Marshal, and is now the curiosity of a village in the
neighborhood of Boston.

It was now time to call upon the Government for a policy in dealing with slave society thus disrupted and disorganized.
Elsewhere, even under the shadow of the Capitol, the action of military officers had been irregular, and in some cases
in palpable violation of personal rights. An order of General McDowell excluded all slaves from the lines. Sometimes
officers assumed to decide the question whether a negro was a slave, and deliver him to a claimant, when, certainly in
the absence of martial law, they had no authority in the premises, under the Act of Congress,--that power being
confided to commissioners and marshals. As well might a member of Congress or a State sheriff usurp the function.
Worse yet, in defiance of the Common Law, they made color a presumptive proof of bondage. In one case a free negro
was delivered to a claimant under this process, more summary than any which the Fugitive-Slave Act provides. The
colonel of a Massachusetts regiment showed some practical humor in dealing with a pertinacious claimant who asserted
title to a negro found within his lines, and had brought a policeman along with him to aid in enforcing it. The shrewd
colonel, (a Democrat he is,) retaining the policeman, put both the claimant and claimed outside of the lines together to
try their fleetness. The negro proved to be the better gymnast and was heard of no more. This capricious treatment of
the subject was fraught with serious difficulties as well as personal injuries, and it needed to be displaced by an
authorized system.

On the 27th of May, General Butler, having in a previous communication reported his interview with Major Cary, called
the attention of the War Department to the subject in a formal dispatch,--indicating the hostile purposes for which the
negroes had been or might be successfully used, stating the course he had pursued in employing them and recording
expenses and services, and suggesting pertinent military, political, and humane considerations. The Secretary of War,
under date of the 30th of May, replied, cautiously approving the course of General Butler, and intimating distinctions
between interfering with the relations of persons held to service and refusing to surrender them to their alleged
masters, which it is not easy to reconcile with well-defined views of the new exigency, or at least with a desire to express
them. The note was characterized by diplomatic reserve which it will probably be found difficult long to maintain.

The ever-recurring question continued to press for solution. On the 6th of July the Act of Congress was approved,
declaring that any person claiming the labor of another to be due to him, and permitting such party to be employed in
any military or naval service whatsoever against the Government of the United States, shall forfeit his claim to such
labor, and proof of such employment shall thereafter be a full answer to the claim. This act was designed for the
direction of the civil magistrate, and not for the limitation of powers derived from military law. That law, founded on salus
republicae, transcends all codes, and lies outside of forms and statutes. John Quincy Adams, almost prophesying as he
expounded, declared, in 1842, that under it slavery might be abolished. Under it, therefore, Major-General Fremont, in
a recent proclamation, declared the slaves of all persons within his department, who were in arms against the
Government, to be freemen, and under it has given title-deeds of manumission. Subsequently President Lincoln limited
the proclamation to such slaves as are included in the Act of Congress, namely, the slaves of Rebels used in directly
hostile service. The country had called for Jacksonian courage, and its first exhibition was promptly suppressed. If the
revocation was made in deference to protests from Kentucky, it seems, that, while the loyal citizens of Missouri
appeared to approve the decisive measure, they were overruled by the more potential voice of other communities who
professed to understand their affairs better than they did themselves. But if, as is admitted, the commanding officer, in
the plenitude of military power, was authorized to make the order within his department, all human beings included in
the proclamation thereby acquired a vested title to their freedom, of which neither Congress nor President could
dispossess them. No conclusive behests of law necessitating the limitation, it cannot rest on any safe reasons of military
policy. The one slave who carries his master's knapsack on a march contributes far less to the efficiency of the Rebel
army than the one hundred slaves who hoe corn on his plantation with which to replenish its commissariat. We have not
yet emerged from the fine-drawn distinctions of peaceful times. We may imprison or slaughter a Rebel, but we may not
unloose his hold on a person he has claimed as a slave. We may seize all his other property without question, lands,
houses, cattle, jewels; but his asserted property in man is more sacred than the gold which overlay the Ark of the
Covenant, and we may not profane it. This reverence for things assumed to be sacred, which are not so, cannot long
continue. The Government can well turn away from the enthusiast, however generous his impulses, who asks the
abolition of slavery on general principles of philanthropy, for the reason that it already has work enough on its hands. It
may not change the objects of the war, but it must of necessity at times shift its tactics and its instruments, as the
exigency demands. Its solemn and imperative duty is to look every issue, however grave and transcendent, firmly in the
face; and having ascertained upon mature and conscientious reflection what is necessary to suppress the Rebellion, it
must then proceed with inexorable purpose to inflict the blows where Rebellion is the weakest and under which it must
inevitably fall.

On the 30th of July, General Butler, being still unprovided with adequate instructions,--the number of contrabands
having now reached nine hundred,--applied to the War Department for further directions. His inquiries, inspired by good
sense and humanity alike, were of the most fundamental character, and when they shall have received a full answer the
war will be near its end. Assuming the slaves to have been the property of masters, he considers them waifs
abandoned by their owners, in which the Government as a finder cannot, however, acquire a proprietary interest, and
they have therefore reverted to the normal condition of those made in God's image, "if not free-born, yet
free-manumitted, sent forth from the hand that held them, never to return." The author of that document may never win
a victor's laurels on any renowned field, but, depositing it in the archives of the Government, he leaves a record in
history which will outlast the traditions of battle or siege. It is proper to add, that the answer of the War Department, so
far as its meaning is clear, leaves the General uninstructed as to all slaves not confiscated by the Act of Congress.

The documentary history being now completed, the personal narrative of affairs at Fortress Monroe is resumed.

The encampment of Federal troops beyond the peninsula of the fort and in the vicinity of the village of Hampton was
immediately followed by an hegira of its white inhabitants, burning, as they fled, as much of the bridge as they could. On
the 28th of May, a detachment of troops entered the village and hoisted the stars and stripes on the house of Colonel
Mallory. Picket-guards occupied it intermittently during the month of June. It was not until the first day of July that a
permanent encampment was made there, consisting of the Third Massachusetts Regiment, which moved from the fort,
the Fourth, which moved from Newport News, and the Naval Brigade, all under the command of Brigadier-General
Pierce,--the camp being informally called Camp Greble, in honor of the lieutenant of that name who fell bravely in the
disastrous affair of Big Bethel. Here we remained until July 16th, when, our term of enlistment having expired, we bade
adieu to Hampton, its ancient relics, its deserted houses, its venerable church, its trees and gardens, its contrabands,
all so soon to be wasted and scattered by the torch of Virginia Vandals. We passed over the bridge, the rebuilding of
which was completed the day before, marched to the fort, exchanged our rifle muskets for an older pattern, listened to a
farewell address from General Butler, bade good-bye to Colonel Dimick, and embarked for Boston. It was during this
encampment at Hampton, and two previous visits, somewhat hurried, while as yet it was without a permanent guard, that
my personal knowledge of the negroes, of their feelings, desires, aspirations, capacities, and habits of life was mainly
obtained.

A few words of local history and description may illustrate the narrative. Hampton is a town of considerable historic
interest. First among civilized men the illustrious adventurer Captain John Smith with his comrades visited its site in
1607, while exploring the mouth of James River to find a home for the first colonists. Here they smoked the calumet of
peace with an Indian tribe. To the neighboring promontory, where they found good anchorage and hospitality, they
gave the name of Point Comfort, which it still bears. Hampton, though a settlement was commenced there in 1610, did
not become a town until 1705. Hostile fleets have twice appeared before it. The first time was in October, 1775, when
some tenders sent by Lord Dunmore to destroy it were repulsed by the citizens, aided by the Culpepper riflemen. Then
and there was the first battle of the Revolution in Virginia. Again in June, 1813, it was attacked by Admiral Cockburn
and General Beckwith, and scenes of pillage followed, dishonorable to the British soldiery. Jackson, in his address to
his army just before the Battle of New Orleans, conjured his soldiers to remember Hampton. Until the recent
conflagration, it abounded in ancient relics. Among them was St. John's Church, the main body of which was of imported
brick, and built at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The fury of Secession irreverently destroyed this memorial of
antiquity and religion, which even a foreign soldiery had spared. One inscription in the graveyard surrounding the
church is as early as 1701, and even earlier dates are found on tombstones in the fields a mile distant. The
Court-House, a clumsy old structure, in which was the law-office of Colonel Mallory, contained judicial records of a very
early colonial period. Some, which I examined, bore date of 1634. Several old houses, with spacious rooms and high
ornamented ceilings, gave evidence that at one time they had been occupied by citizens of considerable taste and
rank. A friend of mine found among the rubbish of a deserted house an English illustrated edition of "Paradise Lost," of
the date of 1725, and Boyle's Oxford edition of "The Epistles of Phalaris," famous in classical controversy, printed in
1718. The proximity of Fortress Monroe, of the fashionable watering-place of Old Point, and of the anchorage of
Hampton Roads, has contributed to the interest of the town. To this region came in summer-time public men weary of
their cares, army and navy officers on furlough or retired, and the gay daughters of Virginia. In front of the fort, looking
seaward, was the summer residence of Floyd; between the fort and the town was that of John Tyler. President Jackson
sought refuge from care and solicitation at the Rip Raps, whither he was followed by his devoted friend, Mr. Blair. So at
least a contraband informed me, who said he had often seen them both there.

Nevertheless, the town bore no evidence of thrift. It looked as though it were sleepy and indolent in the best of times,
having oysters for its chief merchandise. The streets were paved, but the pavements were of large irregular stones,
and unevenly laid. Few houses were new, and, excepting St. John's Church, the public edifices were mean. All these
have been swept away by the recent conflagration, a waste of property indefensible on any military principles. The
buildings might have furnished winter-quarters for our troops, but in that climate they were not necessary for that
purpose, perhaps not desirable, or, if required, could be easily replaced by temporary habitations constructed of
lumber imported from the North by sea. But the Rebel chiefs had thrown themselves into heroic attitudes, and while
playing the part of incendiaries, they fancied their action to be as sublime as that of the Russians at Moscow. With such
a precedent of Vandalism, no ravages of our own troops can hereafter be complained of.

The prevailing exodus, leaving less than a dozen white men behind, testifies the political feelings of the people. Only
two votes were thrown against the ordinance of Secession. Whatever of Union sentiment existed there had been swept
away by such demagogues as Mallory, Cary, Magruder, Shiels, and Hope. Hastily as they left, they removed in most
cases all their furniture, leaving only the old Virginia sideboard, too heavy to be taken away. In a few exceptional cases,
from the absence of the owner or other cause, the house was still furnished; but generally nothing but old letters, torn
books, newspapers, cast-off clothing, strewed the floors. Rarely have I enjoyed the hours more than when roaming from
cellar to garret these tenantless houses. A deserted dwelling! How the imagination is fascinated by what may have
there transpired of human joy or sorrow,--the solitary struggles of the soul for better things, the dawn and the fruition of
love, the separations and reunions of families, the hearth-stone consecrated by affection and prayer, the bridal throng,
the birth of new lives, the farewells to the world, the funeral train.

But more interesting and instructive were the features of slave-life which here opened to us. The negroes who
remained, of whom there may have been three hundred of all ages, lived in small wooden shanties, generally in the
rear of the master's house, rarely having more than one room on the lower floor, and that containing an open fireplace
where the cooking for the master's family was done, tables, chairs, dishes, and the miscellaneous utensils of household
life. The masters had taken with them, generally, their waiting-maids and house-servants, and had desired to carry all
their slaves with them. But in the hasty preparations,--particularly where the slaves were living away from their master's
close, or had a family,--it was difficult to remove them against their will, as they could skulk for a few hours and then go
where they pleased. Some voluntarily left their slaves behind, not having the means to provide for them, or, anticipating
a return at no distant day, desired them to stay and guard the property. The slaves who remained lived upon the little
pork and corn-meal that were left and the growing vegetables. They had but little to do. The women looked after their
meagre household concerns, but the men were generally idle, standing in groups, or sitting in front of the shanties
talking with the women. Some began to serve our officers as soon as we were quartered in the town,--while a few others
set up cake-stands upon the street.

It was necessary for the protection of the post that some breastworks should be thrown up, and a line was planned
extending from the old cemetery northward to the new one, a quarter of a mile distant. Our own troops were disinclined
to the labor, their time being nearly expired, and they claiming that they had done their share of fatigue duty both at the
fort and at Newport News. A member of Brigadier-General Pierce's staff--an efficient officer and a humane
gentleman--suggested the employment of the contrabands and the furnishing of them with rations, an expedient best
for them and agreeable to us. He at once dictated a telegram to General Butler in these words:--"Shall we put the
contrabands to work on the entrenchments, and will you furnish them with rations?" An affirmative answer was promptly
received on Monday morning, July 8th, and that was the first day in the course of the war in which the negro was
employed upon the military works of our army. It therefore marks a distinct epoch in its progress and in its relations to
the colored population. The writer--and henceforth his narrative must indulge in the frequent use of the first
person--was specially detailed from his post as private in Company L of the Third Regiment to collect the contrabands,
record their names, ages, and the names of their masters, provide their tools, superintend their labor, and procure their
rations. My comrades smiled, as I undertook the novel duty, enjoying the spectacle of a Massachusetts Republican
converted into a Virginia slave-master. To me it seemed rather an opportunity to lead them from the house of bondage
never to return. For, whatever may be the general duty to this race, to all such as we have in any way employed to aid
our armies our national faith and our personal honor are pledged. The code of a gentleman, to say nothing of a higher
law of rectitude, necessitates protection to this extent. Abandoning one of these faithful allies, who, if delivered up,
would be reduced to severer servitude because of the education he had received and the services he had performed,
probably to be transported to the remotest slave region as now too dangerous to remain near its borders, we should be
accursed among the nations of the earth. I felt assured that from that hour, whatsoever the fortunes of the war, every
one of those enrolled defenders of the Union had vindicated beyond all future question, for himself, his wife, and their
issue, a title to American citizenship, and become heir to all the immunities of Magna Charta, the Declaration of
Independence, and the Constitution of the United States.

Passing through the principal streets, I told the contrabands that when they heard the court-house bell, which would
ring soon, they must go to the court-house yard, where a communication would be made to them. In the mean time I
secured the valuable services of some fellow-privates, one for a quarter-master, two others to aid in superintending at
the trenches, and the orderly-sergeant of my own company, whose expertness in the drill was equalled only by his
general good sense and business capacity. Upon the ringing of the bell, about forty contrabands came to the yard. A
second exploration added to the number some twenty or more, who had not heard the original summons. They then
came into the building, where they were called to order and addressed. I had argued to judges and juries, but I had
never spoken to such auditors before in a court-room. I told them that the colored men had been employed on the
breastworks of the Rebels, and we needed their aid,--that they would be required to do only such labor as we ourselves
had done,--that they should be treated kindly, and no one should be obliged to work beyond his capacity, or if
unwell,--and that they should be furnished in a day or two with full soldiers' rations. I told them that their masters had
said they were an indolent people,--that I did not believe the charge,--that I was going home to Massachusetts soon
and should be glad to report that they were as industrious as the whites. They generally showed no displeasure, some
even saying, that, not having done much for some time, it was the best thing for them to be now employed. Four or five
men over fifty years old said that they suffered from rheumatism, and could not work without injury. Being confirmed by
the by-standers, they were dismissed. Other old men said they would do what they could, and they were assured that
no more would be required of them. Two of them, provided with a bucket and dipper, were detailed to carry water all the
time along the line of laborers. Two young men fretted a little, and claimed to be disabled in some way. They were told
to resume their seats, and try first and see what they could do,--to the evident amusement of the rest, who knew them
to be indolent and disposed to shirk. A few showed some sulkiness, but it all passed away after the first day, when they
found that they were to be used kindly. One well-dressed young man, a carpenter, feeling a little better than his
associates, did not wear a pleasant face at first. Finding out his trade, we set him to sawing the posts for the
entrenchments, and he was entirely reconciled. Free colored men were not required to work; but one volunteered,
wishing, as he said, to do his part. The contrabands complained that the free colored men ought to be required to work
on the entrenchments as well as they. I thought so too, but followed my orders. A few expressed some concern lest their
masters should punish them for serving us, if they ever returned. One inquired suspiciously why we took the name of
his master. My reply was, that it was taken in order to identify them,--an explanation with which he was more satisfied
than I was myself. Several were without shoes, and said that they could not drive the shovel into the earth. They were
told to use the picks. The rest of the forenoon being occupied in registering their names and ages, and the names of
their masters, they were dismissed to come together on the ringing of the bell, at two, P.M.

It had been expressly understood that I was to have the exclusive control and supervision of the negroes, directing their
hours of labor and their rests, without interference from any one. The work itself was to be planned and superintended
by the officers of the Third and Fourth Regiments. This exclusive control of the men was necessarily confided to one,
as different lieutenants detailed each day could not feel a responsibility for their welfare. One or two of these, when
rests were allowed the negroes, were somewhat disgusted, saying that negroes could dig all the time as well as not. I
had had some years before an experience with the use of the shovel under a warm sun, and knew better, and I wished I
could superintend a corps of lieutenants and apply their own theory to themselves.

At two, P.M., the contrabands came together, answered to their names, and, each taking a shovel, a spade, or a pick,
began to work upon the breastworks farthest from the village and close to the new cemetery. The afternoon was very
warm, the warmest we had in Hampton. Some, used only to household or other light work, wilted under the heat, and
they were told to go into the cemetery and lie down. I remember distinctly a corpulent colored man, down whose cheeks
the perspiration rolled and who said he felt badly. He also was told to go away and rest until he was better. He soon
came back relieved, and there was no more faithful laborer among them all during the rest of the time. Twice or three
times in the afternoon an intermission of fifteen minutes was allowed to all. Thus they worked until six in the evening,
when they were dismissed for the day. They deposited their tools in the court-house, where each one of his own accord
carefully put his pick or shovel where he could find it again,--sometimes behind a door and sometimes in a sly corner or
under a seat, preferring to keep his own tool. They were then informed that they must come together on the ringing of
the bell the next morning at four o'clock. They thought that too early, but they were assured that the system best for
their health would be adopted, and they would afterwards be consulted about changing it. The next morning we did not
rise quite so early as four, and the bell was not rung till some minutes later. The contrabands were prompt, their names
had been called, and they had marched to the trenches, a quarter of a mile distant, and were fairly at work by half-past
four or a quarter before five. They did excellent service during the morning hours, and at seven were dismissed till
eight. The roll was then called again, absences, if any, noted, and by half-past eight they were at their post. They
continued at the trenches till eleven, being allowed rests, and were then dismissed until three, P.M., being relieved four
hours in the middle of the day, when, the bell being rung and the roll called, they resumed their work and continued till
six, when they were dismissed for the day. Such were the hours and usual course of their labor. Their number was
increased some half dozen by fugitives from the back-country, who came in and asked to be allowed to serve on the
entrenchments.

The contrabands worked well, and in no instance was it found necessary for the superintendents to urge them. There
was a public opinion among them against idleness, which answered for discipline. Some days they worked with our
soldiers, and it was found that they did more work, and did the nicer parts--the facings and dressings--better. Colonels
Packard and Wardrop, under whose direction the breastworks were constructed, and General Butler, who visited them,
expressed satisfaction at the work which the contrabands had done. On the 14th of July, Mr. Russell, of the London
"Times," and Dr. Bellows, of the Sanitary Commission, came to Hampton and manifested much interest at the success
of the experiment. The result was, indeed, pleasing. A subaltern officer, to whom I had insisted that the contrabands
should be treated with kindness, had sneered at the idea of applying philanthropic notions in time of war. It was found
then, as always, that decent persons will accomplish more when treated at least like human beings. The same principle,
if we will but credit our own experience and Mr. Rarey, too, may with advantage be extended to our relations with the
beasts that serve us.

Three days after the contrabands commenced their work, five days' rations were served to them,--a soldier's ration for
each laborer, and half a ration for each dependant. The allowance was liberal,--as a soldier's ration, if properly cooked,
is more than he generally needs, and the dependant for whom a half-ration was received might be a wife or a
half-grown child. It consisted of salt beef or pork, hard bread, beans, rice, coffee, sugar, soap, and candles, and where
the family was large it made a considerable pile. The recipients went home, appearing perfectly satisfied, and feeling
assured that our promises to them would be performed. On Sunday fresh meat was served to them in the same manner
as to the troops.

There was one striking feature in the contrabands which must not be omitted. I did not hear a profane or vulgar word
spoken by them during my superintendence, a remark which it will be difficult to make of any sixty-four white men taken
together anywhere in our army. Indeed, the greatest discomfort of a soldier, who desires to remain a gentleman in the
camp, is the perpetual reiteration of language which no decent lips would utter in a sister's presence. But the negroes,
so dogmatically pronounced unfit for freedom, were in this respect models for those who make high boasts of civility of
manners and Christian culture. Out of the sixty-four who worked for us, all but half a dozen were members of the
Church, generally the Baptist. Although without a pastor, they held religious meetings on the Sundays which we passed
in Hampton, which were attended by about sixty colored persons and three hundred soldiers. The devotions were
decorously conducted, bating some loud shouting by one or two excitable brethren, which the better sense of the rest
could not suppress. Their prayers and exhortations were fervent, and marked by a simplicity which is not infrequently
the richest eloquence. The soldiers behaved with entire propriety, and two exhorted them with pious unction, as
children of one Father, ransomed by the same Redeemer.

To this general propriety of conduct among the contrabands entrusted to me there was only one exception, and that
was in the case of Joe ----; his surname I have forgotten. He was of a vagrant disposition, and an inveterate shirk. He
had a plausible speech and a distorted imagination, and might be called a demagogue among darkies. He bore an ill
physiognomy,--that of one "fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils." He was disliked by the other contrabands, and had
been refused admission to their Church, which he wished to join in order to get up a character. Last, but not least,
among his sins, he was accustomed to boat his wife, of which she accused him in my presence; whereupon he justified
himself on the brazen assumption that all husbands did the same. There was no good reason to believe that he had
already been tampered with by Rebels; but his price could not be more than five dollars. He would be a disturbing
element among the laborers on the breastworks, and he was a dangerous person to be so near the lines; we therefore
sent him to the fort. The last I heard of him, he was at the Rip Raps, bemoaning his isolation, and the butt of our
soldiers there, who charged him with being a "Secesh," and confounded him by gravely asserting that they were such
themselves and had seen him with the "Secesh" at Yorktown. This was the single goat among the sheep.

On Monday evening, July 15th, when the contrabands deposited their tools in the court-house, I requested them to stop
a moment in the yard. I made each a present of some tobacco, which all the men and most of the women use. As they
gathered in a circle around me, head peering over head, I spoke to them briefly, thanking them for their cordial work
and complimenting their behavior, remarking that I had heard no profane or vulgar word from them, in which they were
an example to us,--adding that it was the last time I should meet them, as we were to march homeward in the morning,
and that I should bear to my people a good report of their industry and morals. There was another word that I could not
leave without speaking. Never before in our history had a Northern man, believing in the divine right of all men to their
liberty, had an opportunity to address an audience of sixty-four slaves and say what the Spirit moved him to utter,--and I
should have been false to all that is true and sacred, if I had let it pass. I said to them that there was one more word for
me to add, and that was, that every one of them was as much entitled to his freedom as I was to mine, and I hoped they
would all now secure it. "Believe you, boss," was the general response, and each one with his rough gravelly hand
grasped mine, and with tearful eyes and broken utterances said, "God bless you!" "May we meet in Heaven!" "My name
is Jack Allen, don't forget me!" "Remember me, Kent Anderson!" and so on. No,--I may forget the playfellows of my
childhood, my college classmates, my professional associates, my comrades in arms, but I will remember you and your
benedictions until I cease to breathe! Farewell, honest hearts, longing to be free! and may the kind Providence which
for-gets not the sparrow shelter and protect you!

During our encampment at Hampton, I occupied much of my leisure time in conversations with the contrabands, both at
their work and in their shanties, endeavoring to collect their currents of thought and feeling. It remains for me to give
the results, so far as any could be arrived at.

There were more negroes of unmixed African blood than we expected to find. But many were entirely bleached. One
man, working on the breastworks, owned by his cousin, whose name he bore, was no darker than white laborers
exposed by their occupation to the sun, and could not be distinguished as of negro descent. Opposite our quarters was
a young slave woman who had been three times a mother without ever having been a wife. You could not discern in her
three daughters, either in color, feature, or texture of hair, the slightest trace of African lineage. They were as
light-faced and fair-haired as the Saxon slaves whom the Roman Pontiff, Gregory the Great, met in the markets of
Rome. If they were to be brought here and their pedigree concealed, they could readily mingle with our population and
marry white men, who would never suspect that they were not pure Caucasians.

From the best knowledge I could obtain, the negroes in Hampton had rarely been severely whipped. A locust-tree in
front of the jail had been used for a whipping-post, and they were very desirous that it should be cut down. It was used,
however, only for what are known there as flagrant offences, like running away. Their masters, when in ill-temper, had
used rough language and inflicted chance blows, but no one ever told me that he had suffered from systematic cruelty
or been severely whipped, except Joe, whose character I have given. Many of them bore testimony to the great
kindness of their masters and mistresses.

Separations of families had been frequent. Of this I obtained definite knowledge. When I was registering the number of
dependants, preparatory to the requisition for rations, the answer occasionally was, "Yes, I have a wife, but she is not
here." "Where is she?" "She was sold off two years ago, and I have not heard of her since." The husband of the woman
who took care of the quarters of General Pierce had been sold away from her some years before. Such separations are
regarded as death, and the slaves re-marry. In some cases the bereft one--so an intelligent negro assured me--pines
under his bereavement and loses his value; but so elastic is human nature that this did not appear to be generally the
case. The same answer was given about children,--that they had been sold away. This, in a slave-breeding country, is
done when they are about eight years old. Can that be a mild system of servitude which permits such enforced
separations? Providence may, indeed, sunder forever those dearest to each other, and the stricken soul accepts the
blow as the righteous discipline of a Higher Power; but when the bereavement is the arbitrary dictate of human will,
there are no such consolations to sanctify grief and assuage agony.

There is a universal desire among the slaves to be free. Upon this point my inquiries were particular, and always with
the same result. When we said to them, "You don't want to be free,--your masters say you don't,"--they manifested
much indignation, answering, "We do want to be free,--we want to be for ourselves." We inquired further, "Do the house
slaves who wear their master's clothes want to be free?" "We never heard of one who did not," was the instant reply.
There might be, they said, some half-crazy one who did not care to be free, but they had never seen one. Even old
men and women, with crooked backs, who could hardly walk or see, shared the same feeling. An intelligent
Secessionist, Lowry by name, who was examined at head-quarters, admitted that a majority of the slaves wanted to be
free. The more intelligent the slave and the better he had been used, the stronger this desire seemed to be. I
remember one such particularly, the most intelligent one in Hampton, known as "an influential darky" ("darky" being the
familiar term applied by the contrabands to themselves). He could read, was an exhorter in the Church, and officiated in
the absence of the minister. He would have made a competent juryman. His mistress, he said, had been kind to him,
and had never spoken so harshly to him as a captain's orderly in the Naval Brigade had done, who assumed one day to
give him orders. She had let him work where he pleased, and he was to bring her a fixed sum, and appropriate the
surplus to his own use. She pleaded with him to go away with her from Hampton at the time of the exodus, but she
would not force him to leave his family. Still he hated to be a slave, and he talked like a philosopher about his rights. No
captive in the galleys of Algiers, not Lafayette in an Austrian dungeon, ever pined more for free air. He had saved
eighteen hundred dollars of his surplus earnings in attending on visitors at Old Point, and had spent it all in litigation to
secure the freedom of his wife and children, belonging to another master, whose will had emancipated them, but was
contested on the ground of the insanity of the testator. He had won a verdict, but his lawyers told him they could not
obtain a judgment upon it, as the judge was unfavorable to freedom.

The most frequent question asked of one who has had any means of communication with the contrabands during the
war is in relation to their knowledge of its cause and purposes, and their interest in it. One thing was evident,--indeed,
you could not talk with a slave who did not without prompting give the same testimony,--that their masters had been
most industrious in their attempts to persuade them that the Yankees were coming down there only to get the
land,--that they would kill the negroes and manure the ground with them, or carry them off to Cuba or Hayti and sell
them. An intelligent man who had belonged to Colonel Joseph Segar--almost the only Union man at heart in that region,
and who for that reason, being in Washington at the time the war began, had not dared to return to Hampton--served
the staff of General Pierce. He bore the highest testimony to the kindness of his master, who, he said, told him to
remain,--that the Yankees were the friends of his people, and would use them well. "But," said David,--for that was his
name,--"I never heard of any other master who talked that way, but they all told the worst stories about the Yankees,
and the mistresses were more furious even than the masters." David, I may add, spite of his good master, longed to be
free.

The masters, in their desperation, had within a few months resorted to another device to secure the loyalty of their
slaves. The colored Baptist minister had been something of a pet among the whites, and had obtained subscriptions
from some benevolent citizens to secure the freedom of a handsome daughter of his who was exposed to sale on an
auction block, where her beauty inspired competition. Some leading Secessionists, Lawyer Hope for one, working
somewhat upon his gratitude and somewhat upon his vanity, persuaded him to offer the services of himself and his
sons, in a published communication, to the cause of Virginia and the Confederate States. The artifice did not succeed.
He lost his hold on his congregation, and could not have safely remained after the whites left. He felt uneasy about his
betrayal, and tried to restore himself to favor by saying that he meant no harm to his people; but his protestations were
in vain. His was the deserved fate of those in all ages who, victims of folly or bribes, turn their backs on their fellows.

Notwithstanding all these attempts, the negroes, with rare exceptions, still believed that the Yankees were their friends.
They had learned something in Presidential elections, and they thought their masters could not hate us as they did,
unless we were their friends. They believed that the troubles would somehow or other help them, although they did not
understand all that was going on. They may be pardoned for their want of apprehension, when some of our public men,
almost venerable, and reputed to be very wise and philosophical, are bewildered and grope blindly. They were
somewhat perplexed by the contradictory statements of our soldiers, some of whom, according to their wishes, said the
contest was for them, and others that it did not concern them at all and they would remain as before. If it was explained
to them, that Lincoln was chosen by a party who were opposed to extending slavery, but who were also opposed to
interfering with it in Virginia,--that Virginia and the South had rebelled, and we had come to suppress the rebellion,--and
although the object of the war was not to emancipate them, yet that might be its result,--they answered, that they
understood the statement perfectly. They did not seem inclined to fight, although willing to work. More could not be
expected of them while nothing is promised to them. What latent inspirations they may have remains to be seen. They
had at first a mysterious dread of fire-arms, but familiarity is rapidly removing that.

The religious element of their life has been noticed. They said they had prayed for this day, and God had sent Lincoln
in answer to their prayers. We used to overhear their family devotions, somewhat loud according to their manner, in
which they prayed earnestly for our troops. They built their hopes of freedom on Scriptural examples, regarding the
deliverance of Daniel from the lions' den, and of the Three Children from the furnace, as symbolic of their coming
freedom. One said to me, that masters, before they died, by their wills sometimes freed their slaves, and he thought
that a type that they should become free.

One Saturday evening one of them asked me to call and see him at his home the next morning. I did so, and he handed
me a Bible belonging to his mistress, who had died a few days before, and whose bier I had helped to carry to the family
vault. He wanted me to read to him the eleventh chapter of Daniel. It seemed, that, as one of the means of keeping
them quiet, the white clergymen during the winter and spring had read them some verses from it to show that the South
would prevail, enforcing passages which ascribed great dominion to "the king of the South," and suppressing those
which subsequently give the supremacy to "the king of the North." A colored man who could read had found the latter
passages and made them known. The chapter is dark with mystery, and my auditor, quite perplexed as I read on,
remarked, "The Bible is a very mysterious book." I read to him also the thirty-fourth chapter of Jeremiah, wherein the
sad prophet of Israel records the denunciations by Jehovah of sword, pestilence, and famine against the Jews for not
proclaiming liberty to their servants and handmaids. He had not known before that there were such passages in the
Bible.

The conversations of the contrabands on their title to be regarded as freemen showed reflection. When asked if they
thought themselves fit for freedom, and if the darkies were not lazy, their answer was, "Who but the darkies cleared all
the land round here? Yes, there are lazy darkies, but there are more lazy whites." When told that the free blacks had
not succeeded, they answered that the free blacks have not had a fair chance under the laws,--that they don't dare to
enforce their claims against white men,--that a free colored blacksmith had a thousand dollars due to him from white
men, but he was afraid to sue for any portion of it. One man, when asked why he ought to be free, replied,--"I feed and
clothe myself and pay my master one hundred and twenty dollars a year; and the one hundred and twenty dollars is just
so much taken from me, which ought to be used to make me and my children comfortable." Indeed, broken as was their
speech and limited as was their knowledge, they reasoned abstractly on their rights as well as white men. Locke or
Channing might have fortified the argument for universal liberty from their simple talk. So true is it that the best thoughts
which the human intellect has produced have come, not from affluent learning or ornate speech, but from the original
elements of our nature, common to all races of men and all conditions in life; and genius the highest and most cultured
may bend with profit to catch the lowliest of human utterances.

There was a very general desire among the contrabands to know how to read. A few had learned; and these, in every
instance where we inquired as to their teacher, had been taught on the sly in their childhood by their white playmates.
Others knew their letters, but could not "put them together," as they said. I remember of a summer's afternoon seeing a
young married woman, perhaps twenty-five years old, seated on a door-step with her primer before her, trying to make
progress.

In natural tact and the faculty of getting a livelihood the contrabands are inferior to the Yankees, but quite equal to the
mass of the Southern population. It is not easy to see why they would be less industrious, if free, than the whites,
particularly as they would have the encouragement of wages. There would be transient difficulties at the outset, but no
more than a bad system lasting for ages might be expected to leave behind. The first generation might be unfitted for
the active duties and responsibilities of citizenship; but this difficulty, under generous provisions for education, would
not pass to the next. Even now they are not so much behind the masses of the whites. Of the Virginians who took the
oath of allegiance at Hampton, not more than one in fifteen could write his name, and the rolls captured at Hatteras
disclose an equally deplorable ignorance. The contrabands might be less addicted than the now dominant race to
bowie-knives and duels, think less of the value of bludgeons as forensic arguments, be less inhospitable to innocent
sojourners from Free States, and have far inferior skill in robbing forts and arsenals, plundering the Treasury, and
betraying the country at whose crib they had fattened; but mankind would forgive them for not acquiring these
accomplishments of modern treason. As a race, they may be less vigorous and thrifty than the Saxon, but they are
more social, docile, and affectionate, fulfilling the theory which Channing held in relation to them, if advanced to
freedom and civilization.

If in the progress of the war they should be called to bear arms, there need be no reasonable apprehension that they
would exhibit the ferocity of savage races. Unlike such, they have been subordinated to civilized life. They are by nature
a religious people. They have received an education in the Christian faith from devout teachers of their own and of the
dominant race. Some have been taught (let us believe it) by the precepts of Christian masters, and some by the
children of those masters, repeating the lessons of the Sabbath-school. The slaveholders assure us that they have all
been well treated. If that be so, they have no wrongs to avenge. Associated with our army, they would conform to the
stronger and more disciplined race. Nor is this view disproved by servile insurrections. In those cases, the insurgents,
without arms, without allies, without discipline, but throwing themselves against society, against government, against
everything, saw no other escape than to devastate and destroy without mercy in order to get a foothold. If they
exterminated, it was because extermination was threatened against them. In the Revolution, in the army at Cambridge,
from the beginning to the close of the war, against the protests of South Carolina by the voice of Edward Rutledge, but
with the express sanction of Washington,--ever just, ever grateful for patriotism, whencesoever it came,--the negroes
fought in the ranks with the white men, and they never dishonored the patriot cause. So also at the defence of New
Orleans they received from General Jackson a noble tribute to their fidelity and soldier-like bearing. Weighing the
question historically and reflectively, and anticipating the capture of Richmond and New Orleans, there need be more
serious apprehension of the conduct of some of our own troops recruited in large cities than of a regiment of
contrabands officered and disciplined by white men.

But as events travel faster than laws or proclamations, already in this war with Rebellion the two races have served
together. The same breastworks have been built by their common toil. True and valiant, they stood side by side in the
din of cannonade, and they shared as comrades in the victory of Hatteras. History will not fail to record that on the 28th
day of August, 1861, when the Rebel forts were bombarded by the Federal army and navy, under the command of
Major-General Butler and Commodore Stringham, fourteen negroes, lately Virginia slaves, now contraband of war,
faithfully and without panic worked the after-gun of the upper deck of the Minnesota, and hailed with a victor's pride the
Stars and Stripes as they again waved on the soil of the Carolinas.
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Edward Pierce
Benjamin Butler