African American Refugees
African American refugees cross the Rappahannock River in Virginia under the watchful eyes of Union soldiers in August 1862. Two women, their faces obscured, sit with their worldly possessions in the wagon. A young boy without shoes, at right, rides his horse bareback.
With the outbreak of the Civil 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.