Cartooning Contraband: Humor in Harper’s Weekly

ECW welcomes back guest author Cameron Sauers

Figure 1: John McLenan’s June 29 1861 “Contraband of War” cartoon.

No major battle had yet occurred in May of 1861, but a major military decision had already altered the course of war. Union General Benjamin Butler had decided the fate of three slaves who escaped from a Confederate colonel to Union lines at Fortress Monroe. Butler, though no anti-slavery man, could not bring himself to return the slaves in an act that would certainly aid the Confederate war effort.[1] Butler’s on the spot decision to declare these slaves “contraband” of war set in motion a chain of events that would influence popular print and literary culture.

The June 29, 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly featured a cartoon by John McLenan titled “Contraband of War.” (figure 1)[2] McLenan’s cartoon features two “contraband” at Fortress Monroe contemplating their fate. This cartoon relied on common mid-19th century visual tropes to appeal to its Northern audience, who would have found humor, not horror, in the racialized depiction of African Americans. Cultural historian Robert Darnton argues that the best point of entry in a foreign time, space, and culture is through humor that does not strike the outsider as funny.[3] This post uses McLenan’s cartoon to investigate how Northern audiences understood the process of emancipation and what impact emancipation had on American popular literary and visual culture.

Antebellum Americans found frequent entertainment in minstrel culture. Some of the first instances of American popular identity that appeared in the 1830s were the emergence of minstrel shows that especially appealed to Northern audiences, particularly in urban areas, where paternal beliefs about the civilizing power of slavery held less sway.[4] Literary historian Cameron Nickels notes that minstrels:

looked comically grotesque, with large lips and teeth, woolly hair, a wide nose, and big feet with an elongated heel. The most clearly identifying aspect of the caricature, on stage and in print, was a way of speaking that included comic malapropisms, odd speech mannerisms of various kinds, and above all a dialect, a simplistic inventory of bad grammar and peculiar pronunciations. [5]

Figure 2: McLenan’s credit in the June 29 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

The humorous appeal of minstrel culture, both on stage and in print, transcended political affiliation. Both established Republican and Democratic newspapers understood that the appeal of minstrelsy was in entertainment, not instruction about race.[6] Though political and popular culture frequently overlap, minstrel cartoons were humorous for Americans across the political spectrum who silently (or not so silently) shared the common perception that African Americans were racially inferior.

John McLenan, the cartoonist responsible for “Contraband of War”, was one of antebellum America’s leading cartoonists. The 1850s were a vibrant time for comics, as humor magazines increasingly relied on visual imagery.[7] McLenan was just 33 years old when the “Contraband of War” was published in Harper’s Weekly.[8] McLenan regularly illustrated for Harper’s Weekly.[9] A scholar of political cartoons believes McLenan’s cartoons to be relatively cutting edge because of his experimentation with “caricature, movement, and depictions of time.” [10] In the same issue of Harper’s Weekly that McLenan contributed “Contraband of War” is also one of the 40 cartoons that he sketched for the serialization of Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, one of two Dickens novels that McLenan would cartoon for American publication.(see figures two and three).[11] The cartoon “Contraband of War” was a part of McLenan’s move towards political satire during the 1850s that especially intensified in 1861 as the nation broke out in Civil War.[12]

Figure 3: McLenan’s cartoon for Great Expectations in the June 29 1861 Harper’s Weekly.

A unique set of historical circumstances provided context for “Contraband of War.” Three enslaved men, Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend approached Union pickets stationed outside Fortress Monroe on May 24, 1861. The men were shortly thereafter interviewed by the Fort’s commander, Benjamin Butler, who had to decide their fate.[13] At this stage, the Union army was not yet fighting a war for emancipation. Union commanders were ordered to “take great care” in handling the institution of slavery to prevent alienating slaveholding border states and potential recruits, who were willing to fight for the Union, but not abolition. But these three slaves were owned by a Confederate officer who employed their labor in building earthworks and fortifications and was soon going to take them to South Carolina, away from their families.[14] Butler, under the Fugitive Slave Act, was obligated to return the refugees, but as a cunning lawyer, Butler argued that the Act did not apply to the Confederacy because they had seceded from the Union. The labeling of the men as “contraband”, though it denied their humanity by relegating them to the same status of captured Southern arms and animals, did also provide Butler the ground to not return them.[15] Historian Kate Masur notes that “contraband” had long been used to describe property and now also implied the transitional status of the people to whom it now also referred. They were neither property with a clear owner (as in slavery) nor free people, but something in between.[16] Butler’s approach “focused on labor they could provide rather than their status as individuals, and thus avoided any consideration of a relationship between the U.S. government and the men as individuals.”[17] The Fort Monroe incident inspired countless other enslaved peoples to escape to Union lines and provided labor to the Federal government to obtain the status of “contraband” – not freedpeople.[18]

An analysis of McLenan’s cartoon reveals how American political beliefs and racial attitudes were used in satire and humor. McLenan’s physical depiction of African Americans relies on visual characteristics of minstrel culture, including exaggeratedly large feet and racialized facial features. The text accompanying the “Contraband of War” parodies the situation facing African Americans: “Heah’s dis chile been mor’n sebenty yeahs one ob de cullud race, an’ been called a niggah, a chattels, an institution, an’ now he’s a contraban‘. I s’pose de out-cum will be dissniggar will lose his postion on de face ob de airth altogeder-dat’s so!”  This caption uses exaggerated speech patterns to satirize African Americans, much like in minstrel stage performances. The caption also demonstrates the precarious legal definition of contraband.

Figure 4: “A Mild Shock for Our Virtuous Friend, Mr. John Bull” also by John McLenan. This demonstrates McLenan’s usage of racialized depictions throughout the Civil War.

Early in the war, Northern discussions of enslaved peoples rarely involved the enslaved as individual actors “making personal decisions or struggling with ethical dilemmas.”[19] The term “contraband” captures how the North had not yet settled on emancipation as a war aim but yet would be complicit in freeing the human property of Confederate sympathizers.[20] New York lawyer and army officer Charles Cooper Nott observed in late 1862 that “never was a word so speedily adopted by so many people in so short a time…[the term contraband] leaped instantaneously to its new place, jostling aside the circumlocution colored people,’ the extrajudicial persons of African descent,’ the scientific negro,’ the slang nigger,’ and the debasing ‘slave.”[21] In her study of wartime popular literature, Alice Fahs contends that  Northerners’ reliance on the term “contraband” “reassured white Northerners that even in freedom African Americans remained no more than property and that familiar images from minstrelsy retained their currency in wartime as a mode of imagining blacks.”[22]

The “Contraband of War” cartoon was part of a broader trend in American’s depictions of “contraband” during the Civil War.  In Kate Masur’s study of the term contraband, Masur argues that Northerners tended to view contraband as “illiterate, unworldly, and disorderly in their appearance and personal relationships.”[23] As evidence of the widespread understanding of contraband, Masur notes that “artists’ sketches printed as engravings in magazines and weekly newspapers depicted groups of contrabands as heterogeneous and pathetic.” Importantly, these cartoons and sketches of contrabands also portrayed them as victims of a war they did not fully understand. [24] McLenan’s cartoon posits the contraband as at the mercy of the Civil War: “I s’pose de out-cum will be dissniggar will lose his postion on de face ob de airth altogeder-dat’s so!” McLenan’s cartoon shows how Northern audiences were wrangling with the meaning and potential outcomes of the war.

Figure 5: This untitled cartoon by John McLenan uses an almost identical figure to the one seen in “Contraband of War.”

Civil War Americans relied on the existing visual vocabulary of minstrel culture to depict contraband during the Civil War. Northerners frequently depicted contrabands in popular culture not from empathy to their plight, but because escaped slaves demonstrated the weakening power of Southern planters. Northerners relied on racialized depictions of African Americans to solidify their own racial stereotypes and prejudices, especially as some white laborers felt threatened by the addition of free African Americans into the labor force.[25] Portraying and labeling contrabands as such was a way to preserve the superiority of free white male labor and existing racial stratification by reassuring “white Northerners that even in freedom African Americans remained no more than property…”[26] Minstrel culture made a powerful statement to the free labor ideology of Northern whites who believed that the fulfillment of man’s role in society was to sell his labor.[27] Specific to the “Contraband of War” cartoon, the contraband has been classified as property and denied any sense of selfhood, as he watches others exact authority over every aspect of his life. The cartoon’s caption concludes “s’pose de out-cum will be dissniggar will lose his postion on de face ob de airth altogeder-dat’s so” which demonstrates Fiona McWilliam’s argument that “more than a hint of many white Northerners’ wish[ed]… that African Americans would simply disappear from American life and that redefining them as ‘contrabands’ would hasten the process.”[28]

John McLenan’s cartoon “Contraband of War” demonstrates the intersection of popular literature and visual culture in Civil War America. McLenan, a popular cartoonist of his time, relied on the existing visual vocabulary of minstrel culture that depicted African Americans with comically exaggerated and racialized features. Though intending to be humorous, McLenan’s cartoon drives at the seriousness of the uncertain position that “contraband” African American refugees faced during the Civil War. Confiscating human beings as the plunder of war released the enslaved but failed to fully free them. At the time of the “Contraband of War” cartoon, the Civil War was not yet a war for liberation. But by the war’s end, Union armies had become armies of liberation, including African American soldiers. Though they assented to – if not advocated for – the advancement of African Americans, Civil War Americans found much amusement in depictions of their plight.


Cameron Sauers is a member of the Gettysburg College class of 2021 where he is a History major with minors in Public History and Civil War Era Studies. Cameron currently serves as a Fellow at the Civil War Institute and Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Gettysburg College Journal of the Civil War Era. Cameron has published articles in the Tufts Historical Review, the Macksey Journal at Johns Hopkins University, and the Gettysburg College Historical Journal. Cameron has also interned at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Reach Cameron on twitter @Cam_Sauers.

[1] Stephen Kantrowitz, More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889. (New York: Penguin Press, 2012), 278. At the outbreak of the war, Butler was an ardent Democrat who offered the first troops he raised to be used to put down a slave revolt, rather than the rebellion.

[2] John McLenan, “Contraband of War”, Harper’s Weekly (June 29 1861).

[3] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History.(New York: Basic Books, 1984), 77.

[4] Katrina Dyonne Thompson, Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery. (Urbanna, IL: University of Illinois, 2014), 4-5. Eric Lott, Love & Theft: Northern Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. (Oxford: Oxford University, 2013), 2-6.

[5] Cameron Nickels, Civil War Humor. (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2010), 1.

[6] Mark E. Neely, Jr. The Boundaries of American Political Culture in the Civil War Era. (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, 2005), 12.

[7] Alex Beringer, “Transatlantic Picture Stories: Experiments in the antebellum American Comic Strip.” American Literature 87 no.3 (2015), 456 and 484.

[8] Phillip V. Allingham “The Illustrations for “Great Expectations” in “Harper’s Weekly” (1860-61) and in the Illustrated Library Edition (1862)—”Reading by the Light of Illustration” Dickens Study Annual 40 (2009), 118-119.

[9] Beringer, “Transatlantic Picture Stories,” 468.

[10] Beringer, “Transatlantic Picture Stories,” 457.

[11] Allingham, “The Illustrations for Great Expectations,” 117.

[12] Kjell Knudde, “John McLenan,” Lambiek Comiclopeida. Last Updated 18 January 2020. Accessed 29 April 2020

[13] Chandra Manning,  Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War. (New York, Knopf, 2016), 171.

[14]Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. (London: Oxford University, 1964), 14.

[15] Patrick Rael, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865. (Athens, GA. University of Georgia Press, 2015), 259. The term “contraband” has been replaced in modern studies by the terms freedmen and more recently, freedpeople and refugees. I use “contraband” in this paper to demonstrate the linkage between the cartoon’s title, the term “contraband”, and prevailing racial ideologies.

[16] Kate Masur, “A Rare Phenomenon of Philological Vegetation”: The Word “Contraband” and the Meanings of Emancipation in the United States” The Journal of American History 93 no.4 (March 2007), 1051.

[17] Manning, Troubled Refuge, 173.

[18] Kantrowitz, More Than Freedom, 279.

[19] J. Matthew Gallman, Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 223.

[20] Gallman, Defining Duty in the Civil War, 223.

[21] Masur, “A Rare Phenomenon of Philological Vegetation,” 1051.

[22] Alice Fahs, The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North & South 1861-1865. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 152.

[23] Masur, “A Rare Phenomenon of Philological Vegetation,” 1053.

[24] Masur, “A Rare Phenomenon of Philological Vegetation,” 1056.

[25]Fahs, Imagined Civil War, 151-152.

[26] Fahs, Imagined Civil War, 152.

[27] See Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. (London: Oxford University, 1970).

[28] Fiona McWilliam, “Louisa May Alcott’s “My Contraband” and Discourse on Contraband Slaves in Popular Print Culture” Studies in American Fiction 42  no.1 (Spring 2015), 56.

3 Responses to Cartooning Contraband: Humor in Harper’s Weekly

  1. This article contains within it all the inherent contradictions in terminology that the Civil War raised or created. The Constitution never used the word slave. It referred to them as “persons otherwise held to service or labor”. Pre war, this use of the word “persons” was crucial in understanding the Republican and abolitionist opposition to such rulings as Dred Scott, and to the more zealous slaveholders equation of their slaves as mere property. In order to embrace Butler’s slick lawyer’s sophistry on “contraband”, the Unionists had to in effect accept the slaveholders definition of the slave. They also had to deny the logic of Lincoln’s own position on the legality of secession. If secession was not legal, it was only not legal because of the Constitution. Unfortunately, that meant all of the Constitution would still apply to the Southern states, including the Fugitive Slave Law, and the original Fugitive Slave provision in the Constitution. The Law was not invalidated until 1864. One can understand military necessity. It doesn’t make it Constitutional. Lincoln knew this. It explained his haste on the 13th Amendment.

  2. In “The Scorpion’s Sting” Oakes discusses multiple examples of war time conditions overriding slavery, in the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Seminole War, where the Army turned away slave catchers, since the agreement the government had concluded with the Indians promised not to return Blacks to slavery. As J.Q. Adams observed, war interferes with slavery in everyway that slavery can be interfered with.

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