Contraband Concentration Camps

(June 10, 2019) Less than two months after the Civil War started, Union Major General Benjamin Butler declared three escaped slaves “contraband” of war. It yielded justification for his refusal to return them to their master. Lincoln’s Congress picked-up the precedent and strengthened it with laws over the next year or so. As a result, captured or escaped slaves were permitted to stay behind Union lines. In a legal sense they were not “free,” but neither would they be forced to return to slavery.

As their number grew, however, they were concentrated into contraband camps. When established, such camps were usually located near Union armies. By the end of the war there were about one hundred such camps throughout the South. But due to unhealthy living conditions and inadequate medical care, they were also death traps. Mortality averaged about 25%, nearly as high as the 28% of the Confederacy’s infamous Andersonville prison whose commander was executed as a war criminal after the war.*

When I referred to the internments as “Contraband Concentration Camps” at an online Civil War forum recently, you would have thought I had ordered a lynch mob to march on Maxine Waters’s office.  Evidently, some critics falsely surmised that I was implying the camps massacred blacks en-mass. Perhaps they assumed that the deliberate genocide at Nazi camps typified all historical concentration camps. Those who knew better feigned ignorance and joined the bandwagon of forum critics who smeared me as racist despite the forum’s prohibitions on ad hominem attacks.

In reality, a number of governments aside from Nazi Germany had concentration camps. America used them during World War II. Although we referred to them as “internment camps” their purpose was to concentrate persons of Japanese descent into isolated locations managed by the federal government and policed by U. S. troops. The British used them in the Second Boer War from 1900 to 1902. Closer to our Civil War, the Spanish used them sporadically for thirty years starting in 1868 during the conflicts for Cuban independence. Pictured below is a drawing of one Cuban camp during the 1890s.

Nineteenth Century Cuban Concentration Camps

Even a casual reading of the U. S. Library of Congress’s description of Cuba’s nineteenth century  “Reconcentration” policy suggests the similarities to Civil War Contraband Camps.

[The royal commander] understood very quickly that the key to a Spanish victory over the insurgents was to strip the guerrillas of their abilities to live off the land and camouflage themselves in groups of civilians. To this end, he began a policy of moving Cuban civilians to central locations where they would be under the control of the Spanish army. In addition, he put the entire island under martial law.

The policy had disastrous consequences. Unlike many concentration camps in the twentieth century, the idea was to keep the Cuban civilians alive and protected until the Spanish were victorious. Unfortunately at least 30% perished from lack of proper food, sanitary conditions, and medicines. The policy generated severe anti-Spanish feeling in the United States which helped propel it into war in 1898.

Like the Civil War contraband camps, the Spanish ones were intended to concentrate non-combatants and keep them out the fighting. The mortality rates were also similar even though neither the Cuban or Civil War camps deliberately massacred residents. The chief difference was that the contraband camps contained sympathizers of the established U. S. government whereas many of the occupants in the Cuban camps sympathized with the island’s Rebels.

In sum, considering the high mortality in the contraband camps, it broadens our perspective of the Civil War to realize that they were essentially a type of concentration camp. While they were not as wicked as the Nazi camps, they were far more nefarious than the American Japanese “Internment” camps of World War II. We should no longer permit them to be described euphemistically.

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* Gains M. Foster, “The Limitations of Federal Health Care for Freedmen, 1862 – 1868,” The Journal of Southern History, (Vol. 48, No. 3) August, 1982, 358

1 thought on “Contraband Concentration Camps

  1. Jim Brown

    There is an interesting story of something similar to the “concentration camp” you mention located in Natchez, MS… supposedly manned with ‘freed’ slaves… there was a massive loss of life imposed on them.., today it is referred to as ‘The Devil’s Punch Bowl’… for some reason, this and similar stories don’t get enough publicity or coverage…


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