Within These Walls
Updated: Aug 20
The Contraband Camp and Hospital in the Nation’s Capital
On a parcel of swampy land in northwest Washington, D.C. a tented camp and hospital once stood that served thousands of the formerly enslaved and black soldiers during the American Civil War. Known as Contraband Camp, it contained one of the few hospitals that treated Black people in Washington, D.C. and whose staff, including nurses and surgeons, were largely African American.
Over 40,000 women and men escaping enslavement sought refuge and freedom in Washington, D.C. during the war after the passage of the DC Emancipation Act of 1862 freeing all enslaved persons in Washington, D.C. As the Union Army advanced on southern strongholds, thousands of African Americans made their way across Union lines, becoming what was known as "contraband." This term was used by the Union Army to describe formerly enslaved people whose status in society at that time was unclear and undefined. The increasing numbers of contraband coming into Washington created a dilemma for the Union Army. How would these men, women, and children find food, shelter, and medical care? In an effort to meet this challenge, the Union Army established a camp and hospital to serve them. It became a safe haven for the formerly enslaved and a center of contraband relief efforts in Washington, D.C.
As formerly enslaved people began arriving in the nation’s capital in early 1862, General James Wadsworth, commander of the Military District of Washington, ordered these men, women and children to be temporarily housed at Duff Green’s Row, a group of tenements on the east side of the U.S. Capitol. As summer approached, Wadsworth transferred direct control of all contraband in Washington to Reverend Danforth B. Nichols, a Methodist minister associated with several relief organizations aiding the formerly enslaved. After an outbreak of smallpox in the tight and unsanitary quarters of Duff Green’s Row, Nichols relocated the contraband residents to a group of abandoned barracks in a sparsely populated area northwest of the city known as Camp Barker.
Located on a piece of land bounded by R, S, Twelfth and Thirteenth Streets N.W., this remote location was more isolated than Duff Green’s Row and kept this group of contraband farther away from the general population of the city. Nichols’ goal in moving the contraband to this site was to isolate them from the city’s population and help reduce the chances of a city-wide smallpox epidemic.
At Camp Barker, the army built one-story frame buildings and tented structures to use as hospital wards and temporary housing which became known as Contraband Camp and Hospital. In addition to the hospital wards, there was a stable, commissary, dead house, ice room, kitchen, laundry, dispensary, and living quarters as well as a separate and segregated small pox tented ward.
Within the camp, thousands of contraband found refuge and medical care. It was not uncommon to see 40 to 50 arrivals in a single day. By the end of 1863, Contraband Camp had processed over 15, 000 individuals. Living quarters were small, occupied by 12 to 14 people where they cooked, ate, and slept and invariably contracted diseases and illnesses from close contact in poor and overcrowded living conditions. When residents became ill, they were often moved to the hospital for treatment.
At the hospital, civilian patients often shared wards with wounded black soldiers from the United States Colored Troops. These soldiers did not always have access to adequate medical care within African American regiments due to a lack of available and competent surgeons and limited medical supplies. The staff of Contraband Hospital provided much needed care and comfort to this often neglected group of soldiers.
In May 1863, the newly commissioned Black medical officer, Major Alexander T. Augusta, took the helm as surgeon-in-charge at Contraband Hospital replacing a white surgeon. With his appointment, it was necessary to change the racial makeup of the staff since white surgeons would not serve alongside a Black surgeon or be their subordinate. Augusta’s appointment gave him the distinction of being the first African American to head a hospital in the United States. Several Black surgeons would join Augusta including Anderson R. Abbott and William P. Powell, Jr. who were appointed acting assistant surgeons under Augusta’s direction. Half of all known Black surgeons who served during the Civil War were appointed to Contraband Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Contraband Camp survived for over a year before being disbanded in December 1863, but Contraband Hospital now known as Freedmen’s Hospital continued to provide medical care to Black civilians and soldiers. It moved its location several times before settling at the site of Howard University in 1868 when it became the teaching hospital for the university’s newly formed medical department.
Although the war ended in 1865, the work of surgeons and nurses continued as the sick and wounded remained in area hospitals. Medical care was still needed by the thousands of contraband who had sought refuge in Washington and now made it their home. Freedmen’s Hospital continued to serve the population of Washington, D.C. over the next 100 years, expanding its facilities and offering its services to both Black and white patients.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed a bill that would officially transfer the hospital to Howard University. Moving into new facilities in March 1975, Freedmen’s Hospital officially became known as Howard University Hospital and today, continues the tradition of providing medical care to the Washington, D.C. community.
Contraband and Freedmen’s Hospital endured through the Civil War and into the 21st century not only because of the needs of the community, but because of the women and men who dedicated themselves to the hospital’s survival. The hospital’s ability to withstand the test of time can best be articulated by a quote from The Story of Freedmen’s Hospital: the hospital "owed its longevity…most of all to the dedication of [those] who committed their careers to its survival and growth. They refused to let the nation forget that this was no ordinary hospital, but part and symbol of a larger commitment to those America had enslaved and grudgingly freed.”
© Jill L. Newmark