My Project

Gibson, James F, photographer. A Group of “contrabands.” United States Virginia, 1862. [Hartford, Conn.: The War Photograph & Exhibition Co., No. 21 Linden Place] Photograph.

A Freedom No Greater Than Bondage: Black Refugees and Unfree Labor at the Dawn of Mass Incarceration.

During the Civil War and Reconstruction, countless formerly enslaved persons were incarcerated by the Union army. Their stories remain inadequately told, as narratives that celebrate the Union army and how they “freed” the enslaved continue to be privileged in the historiography and public memory. My project looks at how the US military used force, violence, and spatial control to compel refugees to work. The conditions of refugees were intimately tied to that of Black prisoners, and, at times, they were one and the same; refugees became prisoners as military officers made discreet decisions as to how they were going to be treated. The Union military justice system, which expanded to police rebels and the politics of white civilians, held enslaved and formerly enslaved persons as its captives, as military police and courts arrested and tried them for various offenses. White southerners also brought trumped-up charges against Black southerners, thus taking advantage of martial law. For some enslaved-turned-prisoner, freedom was not to be had through the army of deliverance.

Portrait of William Headly, a self-liberated refugee from slavery. Civil War contraband. United States, None. [Between 1862 and 1865] Photograph.

There was no plan in this exodus, no Moses to lead it. Unlettered reason or the mere inarticulate decision of instinct brought them to us. Often the slaves met prejudices against their color more bitter than any they had left behind. But their own interests were identical, they felt, with the objects of our armies: a blind terror stung them, an equally blind hope allured them, and to us they came.

John Eaton, Superintendent of Contrabands.

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