Group of Contrabands

Acrylic on wood
5 3/16 x 8 ¼ inches
Credit Line:
Private Collection

From the war’s very beginning, escaped slaves showed up at Union encampments. Despite the Federal law requiring their return to the slave owners, Union officers let them stay, citing the war strategy to seize property of the enemy to hinder its ability to wage war. The term for this plunder was “contraband,” which came to be used for escaped slaves. In an effort to aid large numbers of fugitive men, women, and children, the Union Army devised contraband camps. This painting illustrates how a contemporary artist can help us see history, as Grooms sets his painting of African Americans against a framed backdrop reminiscent of a quilt, similar to one that might have been made by the enslaved. The source for the painting is a James Gibson 1862 photograph of slaves in Cumberland Landing.