African American Refugees
African American refugees cross the Rappahannock River in Virginia under the watchful eyes of Union soldiers in August 1862. Uprooted from their lives as either enslaved or free blacks, they carry their belongings with them. Two African American women, their faces obscured, sit amid their worldly possessions in the wagon. A young boy without shoes, at right, rides his horse bareback.
With the outbreak of war, thousands of enslaved people, either on foot or in wagons, set off to reach Union lines in an effort to liberate themselves. Following the controversial lead of Union general Benjamin F. Butler at Fort Monroe, Virginia, in 1861, federal officials designated slaves who escaped to Union lines as "contraband," refusing to return them to their owners despite the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. As many historians have noted, it was the actions of the slaves themselves—their very human desire for freedom—that pushed emancipation into a prominent position in the Union's efforts to win the war. United States president Abraham Lincoln issued a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862; this was followed by the final Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 that freed the slaves in the states that had seceded. The U.S. Congress confirmed those executive orders on January 31, 1865, by passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery throughout the United States.