Images of Slaves Reaching Freedom


Source: Harper’s Weekly, 31 January 1863

Once the Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect in January 1863, slaves escaping to Union lines were no longer in limbo, but effectively free. They might still be called “contraband” but the word no longer accurately defined their status, as escaped slaves were no longer confiscated property.

Their arrival in Union lines sometimes elicited curiosity from northern journalists reporting on the Civil War. One such group caught the attention of Alfred Waud, a combat artist embedded with the Army of the Potomac. His illustration of them appeared in the January 31, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The periodical did not specify Waud’s location when making this drawing, but in all likelihood it was near the Army of the Potomac’s winter camp at Falmouth, Virginia, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, where the rebels had dealt the federals a costly defeat the month before in the heights above the town.

Alfred Waud added the following commentary on his illustration for Harper’s Weekly, writing:

There is something very touching in seeing these poor people coming into camp—giving up all the little ties that cluster about home, such as it is in slavery, and trustfully throwing themselves on the mercy of the Yankees, in the hope of getting permission to own themselves and keep their children from the auction-block. This party evidently comprises a whole family from some farm: the mule cart, without a particle of leather about its rope harness, and with a carpet thrown over it for wagon-cover, is unique in its dilapidation. The old party with the umbrella is a type. Down on the Peninsula it appeared constantly on the Sabbath. No matter how fine a day, the old darkeys, clad in ancient dress-suits, white cotton gloves, and tall bell hats, always made their appearance with large ‘Gampish’ umbrellas—as I conjecture an insignia of respectability. Somehow or other the ladies of the colored persuasion manage to get hoops, although bonnets and other fashionable frivolities are out of their reach.

One of the females represented in the picture had a nearly white child, a girl; and, young and old, all seemed highly delighted at getting into our lines. Let us hope they may fare better than the thousands who found a refuge from the institution in Alexandria last year; the poor creatures died there as though a plague had smitten them.

Clearly, slavery then was sufficiently horrible and the prospect of freedom sufficiently alluring that many slaves would get away at the earliest opportunity, risking themselves to rickety wagons and grave punishment if captured, and bringing their families with them lest a loved one be left behind in bondage and become the object of retaliation meted out by vengeful owners.

Photographers also captured for posterity slaves reaching Union lines. One such famous image, a stereoscope, was taken six months before Waud’s illustration (around the time of Second Bull Run) roughly in the same place, showing slaves arriving in Union lines after apparently just having forded the Rappahannock River.



RSV1862Here is a close-up of the escaped slaves pictured in the stereoscope above. Like the slaves in the Waud illustration, they appear to be another family unit with another unsteady-looking wagon, which did not even have a makeshift cover to shield them from oppressive summer sun. Apparently, those problems were not enough to deter a journey to seek freedom within Union lines. Neither was fact that in late July, early August when the photo was taken that Abraham Lincoln had not yet publicly committed himself to their freedom. Not a lot would keep many slaves from seeking freedom during the Civil War, even if it was only the prospect of such. (If readers need a reminder of why, <click here>.)

While neither the group in the Alfred Waud illustration or the photograph show joy in their arrival at Union lines, their actions speak louder than the images. No doubt they were tired after their long and dangerous journey, and probably more than a little apprehensive about the reception they would receive, and still a little unsure they really were free. Yet they truly had arrived in freedom, and would experience its joys and realities in the days, weeks, months, and years to come. In any case, they were definitely no longer slaves, and that was the important thing, and we in 2013 are indebted to the artists and photographers that captured the moment that freedom arrived for them.


About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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