Work's Over

December 21, 1861, page 801

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Scenes among the Beaufort Contrabands


Before the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, questions arose concerning the legal status and the practical treatment of slaves who escaped across Union military lines. The Confederacy insisted that the Union abide by the Fugitive Slave Act and return the slaves to their masters. In May 1861 Union General Benjamin Butler refused to comply, and labeled the runaway slaves, whom the Confederacy considered to be property, as "contraband of war" (i.e., seized property). But for nearly a year there was no official policy; consequently, some Union commanders offered shelter to fugitive slaves, while others turned them away. In March 1862 Congress prohibited, under threat of court-martial, the return of slaves to their masters.

In conquered areas of South Carolina, agents of the federal government were sent to supervise labor at camps constructed for the contrabands. The federal government wanted to ensure that the cotton crop would be harvested and shipped to Northern textile factories. The illustration depicts contrabands from the southeastern section of South Carolina relaxing (the men and children) or doing chores (most of the women) after a long, hard day of work.


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