”What Shall be Done with the Contrabands?”

It is an atmosphere both festive yet filled with curiosity. It is an arrangement of tables filled with the written word of America. The words and images spill out across the tables with humor, with poignancy, in rhyme and in the marketing jargon of the day, dressed in color or black and white, yet all share in the simple, yet powerful quality of revelation. None more than the item I selected at the 3rd annual “Adopt A Book” fundraiser for the American Antiquarian Society, now becoming a welcome tradition.

The item I adopted was a 4 page “Soldier?s Newsletter” published by the 8th Vermont Volunteer Regiment, dated May 16, 1863 from the deep south in Brashear City, Louisiana. The 8th Vermont was different from many regiments for it was raised, armed, and equipped under the direct authority of the United States government through General Benjamin Butler. It wintered at Camp Holbrook in Brattleboro, VT, then with sealed orders left for New York City and preceded by sail to the Gulf of Mexico and landed in New Orleans May 12, 1862. As viewed by Captain S.E. Howard in the writing of the regimental history in 1892, the people of the City of New Orleans were “in a state of ugliness and vindictiveness hardly to be expressed. Men and women seemed to be filled with the spirit of the Evil one.” (See the 8th Vermont Infantry Regimental History, 1892 Revised Roster, by Captain S. E. Howard available online at the website Vermont in the Civil War).

The 8th was active in establishing order in the La Fourche District, across the Bay from New Orleans, and in late October of 1862 began a campaign to open up the Opelousas Railroad all the way to Brashear City. By December of 1862, the 8th along with other units under the command of General Weitzel successfully completed their mission. They must have spent some time in Brashear City, for the issue of the “Soldier?s Newsletter” AAS has is Vo. 1, No. 10 indicating that there were nine previous issues. And this is typical of regimental news papers: troops staying in a specific location for some time, camp life having a mind-numbing impact on their morale, thus some enterprising soldier, perhaps with a printer background or a former teacher, begins publishing the equivalent of a home town newspaper. The newspaper is read and re-read, and often mailed home to the family, which according to Vince Golden, the news print guru of the AAS, is often how we still find well preserved copies of such valuable items.

On the first page of this “Soldier?s Newsletter” is a thoughtful and well written poem in seven stanzas very much in the Victorian tradition. It is entitled “Lines of Memory” and commemorates a highly regarded Captain of Company K named John S. Clark who died, not on the battlefield, but from disease. His loss was deeply mourned. This type of material is what we would have expected from such a newspaper, and while we can appreciate its sincerity and sense of loss of a gentleman leader, we would be fooled if we thought it contained no surprises….for there is far more to these Vermonters than meets the eye. And their “hometown newspaper” tells a far broader and deeper story of America?s Civil War than you could possibly imagine.

On page 3, the 1st column, the writer asks the question, “What shall be done with the Contrabands?”, ?contrabands of war? being term used to describe those formerly enslaved soldierwho made their way to freedom by escaping their masters servitude through the safety of the Union lines. The writer goes on to say that such a question:

is losing its knottiness, as the nation loses its naughtiness, and as it is more clearly seen what they can do and are doing for us. They are bringing millions of dollars worth of cotton and sugar, which their own labor has produced, from the swamps, and sly corners where the treacherous rebels had hid them, within reach of our steamers, and so off to markets. An shall we act on the ?penny-wise and pound-foolish? plan of neglecting, starving and abusing these persons, rather than treat them as we should other unfortunate fellow citizens in the same circumstances? God forbid. (p.3)

Note the line, “unfortunate fellow citizens”. There is a distinct sense of equality in that phrase and it puts this Vermont Regiment into the same class as the Massachusetts regiments from the Worcester area (the 15th, 25th, 36th, 51st) with profound abolitionist feelings so well described in Dr. Janette Greenwood?s new book, First Fruits of Freedom: The Migration of Former Slaves and their Search for Equality in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1862-1900 (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

The language employed in this “Soldier?s Newsletter” is instructional for us here of the 21st century for it is strong and as William Lloyd Garrison would say, “unequivocal”, as any language used to describe those formerly enslaved. The writer talks about the government “making soldiers of the able-bodied Contrabands here” and goes on to discuss the process of the formation of a state of “Home Colonization Society” where the formerly enslaved are assisted in the establishment of schools, churches, press and other means of community “with such supplies as may be necessary to the full and fair trial of the Free labor system, on a plan which recognizes the Manhood of the black, and his right to the proceeds of his own labor, in his native land, and also to more than an ?equal right with a rebel? to enjoy under the protection of the American flag the rights of an American citizen.” (p.3)

For more about recently freed African American’s education, see AAS’s online exhibition curated by Prof. Lucia Knoles called Northern Visions of Race, Region, & Reform in the press and letters of freedmen and freedmen’s teachers in the Civil War era.

The language employed in the “Soldier’s Newsletter” is a powerful instrument in gauging beliefs for it was not just “for the Union” that these men left their Green Mountain Valley?s and ventured forth into the deep south to wade through the mosquito infested waters of Louisiana or to stand shoulder to shoulder with comrades, firing at close range at their enemy. No, there was something else. These printed words provide us with the insight to better understand the motivation of these young men as they stood engaged in the nation?s defining conflict. The words, “the Manhood of the Black”, “…the rights of an American citizen” speak to a recognition and an awareness of these basic rights due these formerly enslaved men and women. There is also a recognition of personal conduct of these Vermont men turned warriors. Also included in the “Soldier’s Newsletter” is a speech by General Daniel Ullman to his officers when his brigade was temporarily being reassigned. Ullman  admonished them to act as “Christian gentleman” and those people who would soon become their  responsibility should be treated as men:

They were our equals in the line of sight of God who made us all -that the black man was quick to read character and would with almost preternatural instinct read whether we were men-gentlemen-or otherwise; adding that not from us, but from the evidence of those under our charge, would we be judged by our treatment of them. (p.4)

The leadership of this 8th Vermont asked their men to answer a higher calling, that the values they stood for would not be trampled by the fates and horrors of war, that somehow, they would persevere as honorable men.

As we turn our thoughts to our veterans following this Memorial Day 2010 and we recall the great sacrifices they and their families have made and continue to make, these words speak through the centuries to us today. For once again, our nation is at war, and once again the challenge to us as a people and as a nation is not that our bravery will be questioned, but rather we will be viewed by how well we treat those we are there to protect and to restore their basic rights. It is a challenge today in Afghanistan and Iraq as it was in 1863 along the bayous of Louisiana. The writer, quite possibly A. W. Eastman, Editor & Proprietor of the “Soldier’s Newsletter”, calls us through the ages as soldiers, as citizens, as a nation. Paraphrasing General Ullman, our Vermont editor writes, “…conjuring us by every high and holy feeling to act circumspectly, he wished us the best success in our labors.” (p.4)

We would do well to follow that advice.

3 thoughts on “”What Shall be Done with the Contrabands?””

  1. John S. Clark, the captain of Company K, who died of dysentery and was mourned in the newsletter, is my great great grandfather. I would be greatful if I could somehow get a pdf file of the newsletter sent to my email address above. I’m sure my family would be very excited to see such a thing.
    Thank you, Niel Clark Woodward

  2. WOW! Thank you so much Jackie! I will try bringing it up on screen as soon as I get home. There was reference to a poem in it that I want to set to music. Thank you again! -Niel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *