"Contrabands at Headquarters of General Lafayette" photographer: Matthew Brady. 

In the Civil War, a contraband was commonly known as a fugitive slave who fled from their plantation to find safety behind Union lines. Slaves that crossed the Union lines were considered “property” and in turn some officers refused to return them to their “owners.”  A contraband of war often times worked laboriously to support the Union, though they faced exploitation in the form of lowered wages compared to whites. In 1863, after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went  into effect, these “contrabands” and all black men, freed or fugitive, could officially offer their services militarily and fight as soldiers in the Union Army. 

If I thought, had any idea, that I’d ever be a slave again, I’d take a gun and just end it all right away. Because you’re nothing but a dog. You’re not a thing but a dog.

Fountain Hughes, 1949

"Headquarters at a Farmhouse" by Matthew Brady 

U.S. National Archives 

The United States Army began accepting freedmen to fight in the Civil War in 1863. 

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In the American Civil War, a drummer boy, had many responsibilities and did much more than just keep a steady rhythm while marching.They also assisted wounded soldiers on the battle field. Dropping their drums, they were quick to carry the wounded to safety. But primarily they served as a form of communication. As musicians they sounded the orders of retreat, when meals were being served, and when the soldiers were expected to go to sleep and wake up in the morning. Many heroic tales have come from drummers in the Civil War who showed courage and dedication to their cause. 

Regiment marching down a village street (credit: Matthew Brady/National Archives) ca. 1863 Gettysburg, Penn.

On the morning of November 19th, 1863, up to twenty thousand people crowded into the small town of Gettysburg to honor and recognize the brave souls that died in battle four months earlier. Edward Everett spoke first, and two hours later, President Abraham Lincoln stood at the podium and delivered what is recognized as one of the most famous speeches in American history. (This photo is of the procession to the cemetery grounds.)

Library of Congress; caption: Cumberland Landing, Va. Federal encampment on Pamunkey River, Va. 

ca May 1862

Andrew Jackson Smith(1843-1932) of the 55th Massachusetts is a recipient of the Medal of Honor for his gallantry at the Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina, 1864. Late in the afternoon on November 30 the 55th and 54th Massachusetts pursued opposing forces into a thick, swampy region where artillery fire became very intense and made infantry movements nearly impossible. While the regiments reorganized an exploding shell killed the 55th’s Color-Sergeant and Smith quickly retrieved the regimental colors and carried them for the entirety of the battle. The day was gruesome, leaving one third of the enlisted men dead or wounded, and yet Smith never let the battle flags fall into the hands of the enemy. President Bill Clinton presented the honor to the descendants of Smith at the White House in 2001.

Wounded soldiers rest following the Battle of the Wilderness, May 1864


This gruesome battle began on May 5th in Spotsylvania, Virginia. Over the next three days, over 29,000 soldiers would be either dead, wounded or missing. And although the Union had a numbers advantage with over 100,000 soldiers, they would suffer higher casualties.

The forest fires that swept through the battlefield are perhaps as integral to the memories of this battle as Pickett’s Charge is to Gettysburg. These fires are known to have trapped and killed many wounded soldiers who were disabled or too weak to escape.  

Fort Prentiss 1861


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By April of 1865 the Civil War had resulted in over a million casualties, devastating poverty and destruction, and an entire race very close to freedom. Four years of battle lead up to the moment Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House sitting in these very chairs that now belong to the Smithsonian.

(via Civil War Artifacts in the Smithsonian | History & Archaeology | Smithsonian Magazine)

The Anaconda Plan or “Scott’s Great Snake,” named after its developer Winfield Scott, was a strategy that called for strong blockades along southern ports and for the Union to gain control of the Mississippi River in order to separate the seceding states in two. For the Confederacy no ports meant it couldn’t sell its number one cash crop… cotton. And without capitalizing on this important resource the seceding states suffered financially. Control of the Mississippi was key  and after it fell into Union control, the Confederacy was again severely weakened.  The image of this strategy looks similar to that of an anaconda, working itself around its enemy, and strangling it from the outside in.  

Sherman’s March to the Sea


Beginning in November of 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman led an overwhelming amount of soldiers from Atlanta to Savannah leaving a path of destruction meant to strike fear into the hearts of the  Southern civilians as well as destroy anything that may be useful or of value to the Confederate army. Railroad lines were destroyed, building burned to the ground, and livestock and crops were stolen. The march ended in December, and concluded the 300 mile long, 50 mile wide trail of destruction that was a great blow to Southern moral. 

Francis E. Brownell formally received the Medal of Honor in 1877 for killing James Jackson-the murderer of Elmer Ellsworth, colonel of the 11th New York, in May of 1861. Chronologically, Brownell’s actions were the first to be seen as worthy of receiving the Medal of Honor.

Quaker Guns: black-painted logs made to resemble large canons to make the enemy believe a fort was heavily guarded. It is understandable that Confederates had to resort to this tactic more often because of their lesser amount of factories and supplies.

(photograph is dated March, 1862) 

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