A group of "contrabands" in Cumberland Landing, Virginia. In 1861, Union soldiers refused to send slaves who came to Fort Monroe back to their owners. (Library of Congress)

If you were a slave child 150 years ago, your life would be hard. How hard? Harder if you worked on a huge plantation in the Deep South rather than on a smaller one in Virginia or Maryland. Harder if you worked in the fields rather than in the house. And hardest if your owner used cruel punishments or broke up your family by selling off a parent or sibling.

Let’s pretend you’re a house servant in southeastern Virginia. You are busy with chores at least from dawn till dusk, but it’s easier than field work. At night you sleep on a mat somewhere in the Big House instead of in a slave cabin with your mother and siblings. (Your father doesn’t live with your family because he belongs to the owner of a nearby plantation.)

Life for slave child

What do you do all day? Whatever you’re told to do. Let’s say your main job is caring for one of the white family’s children who is a bit younger than you. You are that child’s personal servant and companion. The two of you might also be friends, but no one would ever forget that you are the property of that other child’s family.

Because you spend a lot of time around the master’s family, you often listen to the grown-ups talk. That’s how you hear about a man named Abraham Lincoln, who is against the spread of slavery. That’s how you know that “secession” and “the Confederacy” are important, even though you don’t know what the words mean. And that’s how you learn there might be a war between North and South. You hid your excitement when you heard that, because you knew people in the North hated slavery.

Talk of an invasion

Last month, you pretended you weren’t listening when the family’s oldest son announced that Yankees had invaded Virginia and he was leaving home to fight them. (You figured out that “Yankees” meant Northerners.) And you pretended not to care when the master told the family that thousands more Yankee soldiers had come to Fort Monroe — and that they had camps outside the fort, too. The frightened faces around the table told you that the fort and those soldiers were nearby, and you wondered what would happen next — and what it would mean to you.

What happened next was important to slaves throughout the South. Three slaves seeking freedom fled to Fort Monroe. The Union commander there decided that the U.S. law that runaway slaves must be returned to their masters had no effect in Confederate Virginia, so he refused to return the men to their master. Instead, he let them stay at the fort and work for the Union army.

Fleeing to safety

By June, whole families of slaves were making their way to Fort Monroe. As word spread, more and more slaves took refuge in Union camps. They probably worked as hard there as they had on the plantations. Maybe even harder. Their living conditions were usually crowded and unhealthful. And the soldiers thought of them as property, just as their owners had. They were called “contrabands,” or items taken from the enemy.

So if you had found your way from the plantation to Fort Monroe in June 1861, your life would still be hard and you still wouldn’t be free. But you would have taken an important step toward freedom.

—Carolyn Reeder

Reeder writes a series giving readers a kid’s-eye view of the Civil War. Her books include “Shades of Gray” and “Captain Kate.