The Condition of the Contrabands in Washington




The Condition of the Contrabands in Washington 

Christian Recorder: November 1, 1862

AME minister and good friend of Turner, J. P. Campbell, had this personal letter published in the Christian Recorder from Turner on November 1, 1862. In it, Turner discusses the condition of enslaved people coming to Washington, DC seeking freedom.

Keywords: Contraband

Rev. J. P. CAMPBELL and others,—Yours of the 2d inst., requesting me to give a succinct account of the contrabands and all that appertains to their condition is before me. And in order to better enable me to give a true and proper delineation of their wants and necessities, I procured the assistance of John T. Castin, who accompanied me to the odious camps where the contrabands are now located.

The first place we visited was the camp of Captain Warner, where we found I judge, about four hundred of all sorts and sizes. And here we stopped to make observations and propose interrogatories commensurate to the object in view. Captain Warner, being a gentleman of large benevolence, as well as a true philanthropist, invited us into his quarters and tendered us all the information desired, and then volunteered his services to conduct us to several of their tents, which we found, to our very agreeable disappointment in many instances, much more comfortable than we had anticipated.

They have good military tents, cooking utensils, and the captain stated plenty of common provisions, but not the kind of delicacies adopted to the wants and disordered systems of the sick, especially the kind of nourishment required for sick children, of which these were a large proportion.

He further informed us that there was a great want of proper clothing; particularly, such as socks of various sizes, shirts for men and clothing for children; and as the weather grew colder the exigencies of all kinds of clothing would be considerably enhanced. And I would further state, that our communications with the contrabands led us to a still stronger credence in the above statements, from their very many corroborative attestations.

Having made the necessary investigations in this department, we preceded to the camp of Rev. J. D. Nichols, into which we were admitted without any restrictions, indispensable to the completion of our mission.

Here were nearly seven hundred contrabands, ranging from infants to sires of eighty winters, many of whom were very sick and most earnestly craving that kind of nourishment suitable to their condition.

We were there informed by the superintendent that they stood in great need of at least a thousand blankets. The matron, a distinguish lady from Boston, also told us that all kinds of clothing were in great demand; that many of the women were merely clothed in rags, and had no changeable apparel even to serve them while they washed what they had on. “But,” said she, “anything and everything in the shape of clothing would be most gratefully received, for unless Providence opens up some merciful way by which their needs can be supplied, the winter’s chilling, blasting, wind will carry many of the half naked contrabands to a premature grave.” And she very particularly emphasize upon the needs of the little children, who were not able to help themselves.

We also saw many who were very comfortably clothed, and a very large proportion of others just the contrary. Indeed, some were very finely dressed. But there appeared to be many things over which they had great reason to grieve. The superintendent, however, assured us that the Government would provide stoves, tents, wood, cooking utensils, and such like things, plentifully for the winter campaign, but that blankets, bedticking, etc,. could not be obtained from that source, and all assistance given in that direction would be most gratefully acknowledged. I am happy also to state that the greater number of the contrabands who have come to Washington, display an amount of enterprise highly commendable. Hundreds of them never go to the camps provided for them, but seek immediate employment. They say if the government will free them, they ask no other favors. But hundreds are compelled to remain at the camps, because it is impossible to procure a house or a room in which to stop. And to the honor of the Washington people, many of them have thrown open their finest parlors, given up their kitchens, garrets, and even closets to shelter these escaping sons of humanity, and every day we are besieged by contrabands hunting houses. I assure you if we had house room and remunerative employment proportional to the demand, this benevolent appeal would not have to be made. And those who have disseminated it, that the contrabands are all a set of lazy, trifling dupes, are liars to the back bone. But I must congratulate you and your noble-hearted people for that laudable spirit of generosity which has prompted you to engage in such a distinguish enterprise.

I think with what our people in Washington are doing, and with what you are willing to do North, for the relief of the contrabands, we could establish a regular hospital. They suffer mostly in sickness, and it is pretty good dying, out of a camp of seven hundred, for four or five die nightly….I see them often moving along the streets so sick and weak that they can hardly wag. Death seems to be figured in their countenance, and yet, nowhere to go, no where to rest that weary fevered head, that fainting frame. But it would be needless to try and describe what passes before my actual observation, or to descant the arguments favorable to a colored hospital, for the picture would be too horrible. The fact is, we need a colored hospital, and the next question is, can we have it. I answer, we can if we try. Let the generous hearts of the great North unite of the subject and Baltimore and Washington do the same, and in the short time we will have a house fitted out properly officered with intelligent men of our race, with every thing necessary for the sick and afflicted. One cent per week from our people would support as fine a hospital as could be desired. And I believe that many would be willing to give from one to five dollars per month for the sustenance of an institution of that kind. Besides, many of our white friends would greatly aid in the project, and the moral influence which would grow out of it would tell with thrilling effect upon our opposers and calumniators. It would furthermore, turn the attention of our people to the great subject of their own responsibility or to the help-yourself doctrine, which must ultimately triumph, if we ever triumph. I hope you and your congregation will give this matter some consideration, and if the plan is approved of, neither myself nor congregation will be found wanting in the sphere which must help to its achievement. Lest I weary you, I forbear. Your brother in Christ,

H. M. Turner