During the Civil War, hundreds of slaves were released from bondage by Union forces before they were officially freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. This photograph (albumen print), taken by Timothy O’Sullivan in 1862, shows perhaps the largest group of enslaved African Americans ever to be photographed at one time. O’Sullivan was a pre-eminent Civil War photographer who visited this region of the South from about November 1861 to March 1862. The people in the photograph were the property of James Joyner Smith. When Union forces entered the Beaufort area in 1861, Smith and his fellow slaveholders fled their plantations, leaving their slaves behind.
Because there was no clear federal policy at this time concerning freed slaves, individual commanders made their own decisions as to how to handle this peculiar form of “contraband.” The people in this picture have bundles with them, suggesting that they are preparing to be relocated. Their destination remains a mystery, but if they were treated as most others in their position, they were probably moved into a refugee camp or taken to work for the Union army.
Image Credit: Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California