"Contrabands" in Alexandria

One of Mercy Street's characters with perhaps the most compelling back story (not that we know much of it, at least not now) is Aurelia, the African American laundress who is victimized by the brutish steward, Mr. Bullen. I don't remember if they specifically refer to her as a "contraband," but I know the word came up during the program. Here's a little background.

In the summer of 1861, three enslaved men entered Fortress Monroe, a Union held area near Norfolk, Virginia. They had been building fortifications for the Confederacy. The general in charge, Benjamin Butler, justified allowed them to remain behind Union lines with twisted reasoning: because they were the "property" of the enemy, they were contraband and did not have to be returned.

Word spread. Fortress Monroe had 700 "contrabands" by summer's end. Blacks entered Union territory elsewhere, including Alexandria. Most people in Alexandria came from elsewhere in Virginia. Sadly, those from Maryland could be returned because, while slave-holding, Maryland did not secede and was therefore not at war with the Federal government.

By the end of 1862, there were perhaps 1,500 refugees in Alexandria, supposedly the responsibility of the War Department. In Alexandria, as elsewhere, the Federal response ranged from cruelty to indifference to paternalism, and occasionally, very occasionally kindness and respect. (Actually, I have not come upon anyone in an official capacity with this last response, but surely there was someone.)


One thing to note--as I hope we see with Aurelia as the series unfolds--they were more than victims. They made the difficult, risky choice to flee into the unknown. Those shown here had a horse and, apparently, some military protection, but others left by foot, alone, often with small children. Besides attending to their survival needs of food and shelter, they sought work and schooling--several schools for children and adults sprang up in Alexandria as they did elsewhere. It was illegal for a black person to become literate in the antebellum South. Quite rightly, many of their advocates recognized the inadequacy of the word "contraband," which reinforced the property aspect of things. As Frederick Douglass was known to say in early 1862, the term "applies more to a pistol than a person."

After passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks from the Confederacy would be considered free by the Union. However, in 1862 (the time of this episode of Mercy Street), the status was far more ambiguous. Slavery had been outlawed in Washington in April 1862, but not in Alexandria.

Let's hope that Aurelia is not subject to the brutality of the hospital steward and she has additional champions besides Sam, the free black man who came to the hospital from Philadelphia. (Minor quibble--I do like him, but so far he is a little too perfect in the midst of everyone else's human foibles). In my research in Alexandria, I have not seen any such case--but, of course, many like this one would not have been reported. (There are several prosecuted cases of rape by Union soldiers.)

Julia Wilbur came to Alexandria to advocate on behalf of the "contrabands" (yes, she did regularly use that word.")