Sunday, May 25, 2014

Who Really Needs to be "Set Free"? Civil War Contraband Patriotic Envelope

    I've always enjoyed the variety of designs printed on the Civil War Patriotic Covers I've collected.  Most are straight forward in meaning, e.g. the flag on the envelope shows you support the Union or the Confederacy;  or the text below the picture makes the political point, often adding an edge to the political message portrayed in the picture itself.  But some covers I've pondered what exactly is the message the artist is presenting?  I may catch the general message of Pro-Union or Pro-Confederacy, but I find myself coming back to look at the cover and wondering if I really have gotten the cover's political point?

    This Union Patriotic Cover is one of those.  It's clearly Anti-Confederacy in it's general tone.  But in what way are the Southern States listed on this envelope like "contraband"? 
I'se Contraband
Civil War Union Patriotic Envelope

    First, we should start by examining the definitions of "contraband":  Webster's 4th Edition College Dictionary (1999) gives the following definitions:  
1) unlawful or prohibited trade 
2) goods forbidden by law to be imported or exported; smuggled merchandise 
3) war materiel which may be intercepted and seized by a belligerent when shipped to their enemy by a neutral country 
4) during the Civil War, a black slave who fled to, or was smuggled or found behind the Union lines.

    The tag "contraband" to describe slaves coming into Union controlled territory arises from Gen. Benjamin Butler's classification of three slaves who escaped to Fortress Monroe, Hampton VA in 1861 shortly after Fort Sumter being fired upon.  Gen. Butler refused to return the slaves to their owner by labeling them "contrabands of war", something/someone to be denied to a belligerent to prevent him from having an advantage.  It was Butler's way to justify not returning the escaped slaves to their master in the face of having no official Federal administrative policy about freeing the slaves.

    Now back to the cover we're looking at here.  It has the picture of a black man centered within a ten point star.  There are ten states listed (VA, NC, TX, GA, LA, AR, AL, MS, FL, SC).  Technically eleven states seceded and joined together to form the Confederacy.  Tennessee is missing from the list on this cover.  The ten states listed on the cover had all been admitted to the Confederacy by the end of May 1861.  Tennessee was admitted July 2, 1861.  This may or may not give us a suggestion of time when the cover was printed up.
    When I first saw this cover I thought it was just conveying a general abolitionist message like:  "Free the slaves in the South".  But as I've handled it and thought about how the artist put together the picture, I've come to wonder if it's a poke at the Confederacy in another way.  Who really needs to be "Set Free"?
   Perhaps the artist is saying:  the unlawfully held "material" are the ten states which the Confederate government is now holding.  In a broader sense, the populations of those ten states are now just as enslaved as the black slaves fleeing north to find freedom.  The cover's statement "I'se contraband" becomes a cry for help to Northern brethren to come and set their Southern brethren free from the oppressive secessionist government that really has no right to hold power over these ten states.  In a sly slap at the supporters of the Confederacy in these ten states, the artist is saying "you really do not realize what's happening to you. . . you need to be set free just like the black slaves that are coming north to find their freedom".

    Too much time on my hands, you say?  Well, like I said, this is one of the patriotic covers that I've reproduced and thought about.  The artist who drew up the design put in the details with a purpose.  If you have a different interpretation, send me a comment.