From the lowest soldiers to the highest generals to the people in towns near battles, there was no denying that everyone was affected by the Civil War. Sleepy towns became overrun with soldiers, and newly-escaped slaves for the first time their lives worked for money, though not without risk to themselves. As bleak as it sounds to us today, at the start of the war escaped slaves were often returned to their masters when found by Union troops. It wasn’t until the Confiscation Acts were passed in 1861 that “fugitive” slaves could be legally employed by the Union Army. Or rather, they were technically considered property. However, unlike the chatel slavery system they had wages and some amount of freedom.
Wages for contrabands were extremely low at first, rising to $1 per day by 1863 (the same year the Emancipation Proclamation was issued). For reference in 1862, a colonel made between $95 and $110 per month with stipends for food, clothing, horses, and paid servants.
Group of “contrabands” in 1862 as they were classified by the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Contrabands were escaped slaves who worked for the Union. For many of the former enslaved it was the first time they had ever earned a wage. Via/ Library of Congress
Contraband camp in Virginia. Notice the creative resuse of the fireplace on this lot which once held a building. Via/ Library of Congress
Hospital at Fredericksburg, Va., May 1864. Photograph shows soldiers outside a brick hospital building in Fredericksburg, Virginia, recovering from wounds received during the battles in the “Wilderness campaign.” Woman seated in doorway is volunteer nurse Abby Hopper Gibbons from New York City. Via/ Library of Congress
Fredericksburg, Va. Nurses and officers of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, 1864. Woman seated in center with umbrella identified as volunteer nurse Abby Hopper Gibbons of New York City with her daughter Sarah Hopper Emerson Gibbons seated at left. Woman standing at the far left is Mrs. General Barlow. Via/ Library of Congress
North Anna River, Virginia. Pontoon bridge across North Anna, below railroad bridge, where a portion of the 2nd Corps under Gen. Hancock crossed, May 23d, 1864. Via/ Library of Congress
These generals have wine, tobacco, and have taken on the care of a puppy. The staff of Gen. Fitz-John Porter; Lts. William G. Jones and George A. Custer reclining, 1862. Yes, this is the same general Custer who would later lose at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Via/ Library of Congress