The dynamics of runaway journeys changed dramatically during the Civil War.
Beginning in June 1861, enslaved people near Fortress Monroe, Virginia, began
to trickle into Union lines and offer their services to the federal
authorities. General Benjamin Butler called them "contraband." In the following
months, the trickle turned into a torrent as thousands of runaways
made their way to Army lines. Some Union generals refused to accept them, returning them to their owners, but Congress prohibited this early in
1862. By the time Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1,
1863, tens of thousands of men, women, and children had made it out of bondage.
Those who escaped found their new situation to be nearly as desperate as
the circumstances they had left behind. Union soldiers beat, robbed, and raped
them, and they were forced to live in contraband camps without proper
sanitation, shelter, or supplies. Although the army was ordered to provide
clothing, rations, and medical care, and freedmen's aid societies sought to aid
Southern African Americans, most runaways suffered greatly from exposure and
One of the most important changes that occurred during this period was
the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union Army. Prior to 1862, they were
excluded from the army, although some served as spies, scouts, cooks,
teamsters, officers' servants, and laborers. In May 1862, the federal
government began to recruit African Americans. A majority of the approximately
186,000 black men who served during the war were from the Southern states,
including 93,000 from the seceded states and 40,000 from the border slave
states. Many among them were runaways. Despite being paid less than
their white counterparts, they participated in several battles,
acquitting themselves with courage and dignity.
Few escapees during the war sought retribution against their former
owners. Seeking a new life in freedom, they rarely found it necessary to attack
the slaveholders as federal troops moved into their sections. Group violence
most often occurred in Louisiana, where owners had a long history of oppressive
treatment and punishment. When they attempted to move them to remote
backcountry areas, some of the enslaved assaulted
overseers before fleeing.
By the end of the war, a large but undetermined number of the nearly
four million enslaved men, women, and children had become runaways. As in the
prewar period, few among them left the region of their birth. Most found a life
in freedom fraught with suffering, pain, hunger, disease, and fear. The war,
however, ended forever the phenomenon of runaways.