Contraband slaves at Yorktown

Thousands of fugitive slaves fled to the Union lines at Yorktown after the Confederate retreat in May 1862. This archival picture from Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's campaign shows some of the slaves encountered at Allen's Farm in York County. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress / September 22, 2011)

When the Union army marched into Yorktown on May 4, 1862, the battered old waterfront village was virtually deserted.
    After a monthlong siege, one white woman and two blacks were the only inhabitants the hastily retreating Confederates left behind to greet the stunned troops of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan.
    Still, it didn't take long for the first fugitive slave to come and ask for asylum inside the ramparts where American colonists had won the Revolution. By mid-1863, that slave had been followed by more than 12,000 others.
    "Colored people for miles around flocked to Yorktown as soon as [it was] occupied by our troops ... The old and young, male and female, came in, bringing all their earthly possessions," wrote Lt. Eugene Nash of the 44th New York.
    "They were extremely happy and hopeful ... They sang, they danced, they prayed ... The dawn of a new life had come. No person who witnessed that scene can forget it." Few observers would forget the chaos that followed their arrival, either.
   
'DISGUSTING' CONDITIONS
    The Union army was quick to give sanctuary to its enemy's labor force. Still, harried Yorktown commander Erasmus Keyes found himself grappling with how to shelter and feed the horde that came in "mostly without shoes, sufficient clothing, blankets" - nearly a year after Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler's landmark decision to harbor the first fugitive slaves at Fort Monroe.
    Within weeks, Keyes was drawing upon military stores, issuing increasingly large amounts of corn meal, shoes and clothing to the refugees. He also began organizing labor details that employed the so-called "contraband slaves" - who were not considered free - to rebuild the fortifications.
    By the time Brig. Gen. Isaac Wistar arrived in June 1863, however, the endless tide of slaves had spawned "the most disgusting" conditions he had "ever seen in a military post."
    "The fortifications enclosed perhaps a couple of hundred acres, inside of which - besides the dirty, idle and neglected troops - were gathered over 12,000 refugee Negroes supported in idleness on government rations, and lying about without any order under any ragged shelter they could get, in every stage of filth, poverty disease and death," Wister reported.
    "The roadways, parade ground, gun platforms, and even the ditches and epaulements were encumbered by these poor wretches."
    So appalled was Wistar by what he found that he refused to post his men within the earthworks. And when he took command in mid-July, he quickly "put a large force at work laying out and erecting Negro quarters three fourths of a mile outside the fort."
   
'NICE, NEAT, TIDY' SLABTOWN
    That led to two sprawling contraband communities, including "Slabtown" located near Yorktown and "Acretown" in what is now Lackey. A third settlement rose outside Union lines at Gloucester Point.
    "These weren't haphazard communities. They were well-organized and well-built," says Colonial National Historical Park historian Diane K. Depew, describing "nice, neat, tidy" neighborhoods of 400 and 500 cabins.
    "If you walk down past the National Cemetery on the battlefield, you can still find some of the streets of Slabtown."
    By December 1863, Quaker missionaries were operating a school and store. They also were gathering seed and farming supplies to enable the contrabands to cultivate garden plots of half-acre and more.
    So strong did these settlements become that nearly 150 years later Lackey still survives outside the gates of Yorktown Naval Weapons Station. Slabtown remained intact until the 1970s, when the Park Service purchased the property and demolished the houses to restore the landscape of the historic 1781 battlefield.
    Despite that loss, two Slabtown graveyards can still be seen near the National Cemetery. Historic Shiloh Baptist Church - which moved a half-mile away - still boasts an active congregation.
    "They haven't forgotten where they came from," Depew says.
    "They still have records that go back to 1863."