The last edition of Civil War Emancipation featured a letter, dated September 18, 1861, from Gen. John E. Wool at Fortress Monroe in Virginia, asking Secretary of War Simon Cameron what to do with the–by one account–1,800 contraband slaves under his protection. He wrote:
SIR: … I would be much gratified if you would tell me what I am to do with the negro slaves that are almost daily arriving at this post from the interior. Am I to find food and shelter for the women and children who can do nothing for themselves? Thus far we have been able to employ in various ways most of the adults. It appears to me some positive instructions should be given in regard to what shall be done for the number that will be accumulated in and about this post during the approaching winter. I hope you will give me instructions on this very important subject. Humanity requires that they should be taken care of.
Clearly, Wool anticipated there would soon be more contrabands at Fortress Monroe than he could support. Yet his letter and Cameron’s reply alluded to a developing solution to this problem: put the escaped slave of rebel owners to work for the Union. Cameron wrote to Wool on September 20:
GENERAL: … You will as early as practicable send to General McClellan at this place all negro men capable of performing labor accompanied by their families. They can be usefully employed on the military works in this vicinity.
What had begun as an improvisation by Gen. Benjamin Butler during Summer 1861 became official federal policy by the autumn. Pay the contrabands essentially to do the same work for the Union that they would have done as slaves for the Confederacy. It was a double win for the Lincoln Administration. They deprived the Confederates of militarily useful slave labor, while utilizing those same workers on a free labor basis to help their cause.
The idea first became official policy in the U.S. Navy, which had long put free blacks to work on its ships and shore installations because it had no other choice–the mid-nineteenth-century navy was simply too unattractive to limit its personnel to white men. It was natural for them, under the circumstances in Fall 1861, and with August’s Confiscation Act in place, to add contrabands to its forces as the Atlantic Blockading Squadron had been picking escaped slaves out of the ocean all summer. On September 25, 1861, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles issued the following order to the commander of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron. It read:
The Department finds it necessary to adopt a regulation with respect to the large and increasing number of persons of color, commonly known as ‘contrabands.’ now subsisted at the navy yards and on board ships-of-war. These can neither be expelled from the service, to which they have resorted, nor can they be maintained unemployed, and it is not proper that they should be compelled to render necessary and regular services without compensation. You are therefore authorized, when their services can be made useful, to enlist them for the naval service, under the same forms and regulations as apply to other enlistments. They will be allowed, however, no higher rating than ‘boys,’ at a compensation of ten dollars per month and one ration per day.
So in September 1861, the U.S. Navy formally incorporated escaped slaves into its ranks, albeit limited to the lowliest position. But they became official members of the U.S. Navy.
The U.S. Army, lacking a consistent history of African Americans as mustered-in members, did formalize the use of black laborers not long after, when in mid-October and early November, Gen. John E. Wool issued orders for the pay and rationing of contraband laborers in his command. His order of October 14, 1861 read:
All colored persons called contrabands employed as-servants by officers and others residing within Fort Monroe or outside of the fort at Camp Hamilton and Camp Butler will be furnished with their subsistence and at least $8 per month for males and $4 per month for females by the officers and others employing them.
So much of the above-named sums as may be necessary to furnish clothing to be decided by the chief quartermaster of the department will be applied to that purpose, and the remainder will be paid into his hands to create a fund for the support of those contrabands who are unable to work for their own support.
All able-bodied colored persons who are under the protection of the troops of this department and who are not employed as servants will be immediately put to work in either the engineer’s or quartermaster’s department.
While at the bottom of the heap as common laborers, nonetheless an official place for escaped slaves within the Union army and navy was a momentous step forward on the road to emancipation. They now in the eyes of the U.S. government had a formal position not as property, but as people worthy of earning a wage and keeping it for their own benefit. They might not yet be free people, but federal authorities were now treating them as free people.