In 1861, three escaped slaves fled to the Union’s Fort Monroe in Virginia. Under the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), they should have been returned to their Confederate owners. But the fort commander, Benjamin Butler, a qualified attorney, deemed that the Confederacy had seceded and therefore become a foreign – and hostile – power, and the slaves could thereby be considered ‘contraband of war’. Subsequent Acts both ratified this form of confiscation, then prohibited the return of escaped slaves. As word spread among southern slave communities, a substantial slave shanty town, named ‘Grand Contraband Camp’, developed under Fort Monroe’s protection, and the practice extended over all areas of the Confederacy that fell into Union hands. Further directives specified the ‘contrabands’ should not be treated as slaves but paid for their work, a practice endorsed when enlistment in the Union Army was permitted. Charitable bodies worked in the camps providing education and material support.
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