Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

M.A. in History


Arch Dalrymple III Department of History

First Advisor

April Holm

Second Advisor

Deirdre Cooper Owens

Third Advisor

John R. Neff

Relational Format



This thesis covers the exploitation of contraband laborers during the American Civil War in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, the South Carolina Sea Islands, and Washington, D.C. In addition, it analyzes the actions of Union military commanders charged with care of the contrabands, and the failure of the federal government to create a uniform policy outlining how military officials should treat the contrabands. The thesis covers abuses ranging from failure to pay wages to a lack of medical care to the construction of disease-ridden camps to the impressment of contrabands for labor or military enlistment. It argues that military commanders in all three regions, despite numerous differences, including a military campaign in Virginia, leasing in South Carolina, and a lack of farmland in Washington, mistreated contraband laborers in order to reduce government relief expenditures, avoid dependency, instill an ideology of self-reliance, and focus resources on the war effort. The federal government, meanwhile, did little to stop such abuses or create a policy banning the mistreatment of contrabands. The thesis examines each region chronologically and provides comparative analysis throughout. As the evidentiary base, it uses letters of military officers, newspapers, military reports, correspondence, and other records, petitions sent to Congress and the President, letters from missionaries, aid workers lessees, and other Northern observers, and letters and petitions written by the contrabands themselves. The research for this thesis was completed at the University of Virginia, Duke University, the University of North Carolina, The College of William and Mary, the Library of Virginia, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives in Washington, D.C.



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