Contraband on Cairo Levee

Click image to enlarge

Contraband on Cairo Levee
Sophie Wessel
Oil on canvas
39.62 x 29.5 in.
DuSable Museum of African American History, purchased from Illinois State Historical Library

Why are there African Americans waiting on this levee with Union Soldiers? They are “contraband of war,” runaway slaves transported by Union forces from the South to Cairo, Illinois, a town located where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers meet. Cairo was home to one of the Civil War’s largest “contraband camps.” An 1862 law prohibited the return of slaves to their former owners, and these camps were built to house them.

Artist Sophie Wessel shows former slaves walking, talking, and resting, likely waiting to be moved from the river to the main camp. Note the steamboat—the Union hired such vessels to carry soldiers, runaway slaves, and supplies throughout the South.

Contraband camps were unhealthy—people lived in poorly constructed shelters, and inadequate sanitation made disease common. Though the Union eventually embraced emancipation, few white Northerners felt that blacks were their social or political equals. This prejudice contributed to the terrible conditions in the camps.

These free men and women thus faced new challenges, and the artist is emphasizing this in the painting. The struggle and sacrifice people made for freedom and equality was on the minds of many during the Civil Rights Movement, when Wessel made the painting. Although the war ended in 1865, not until 1964 did African Americans finally gain equal rights under United States law. The “contrabands” on Cairo’s levee were taking only the first steps on what would be a hundred year journey to justice in the United States.

1. Look at the seated man at the bottom left. Does he look tired? What could he be thinking about? Where is he looking towards?

2. What do you think Sophie Wessel was trying to convey in this painting? How does the painting make you feel, and why?

Further reading:
National Archives. “Teaching with Documents: The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the Civil War.” National Archives.

National Park Service. “Civil War Series: The Civil War's Black Soldiers: Contraband of War.” National Park Service.

©DuSable Museum of African American History