BlackFacts Details

Contraband Hospital, 1862-1863: Health Care For the First Freedpeople

In the article below Jill L. Newmark, exhibition specialist in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, describes thefirst hospital sponsored by the United States government specifically to meet the health care needs of the ex-slaves during the Civil War.  The Contraband Hospital as it was called, eventually became the Howard University Hospital in 1975.

On a parcel of swampy land in northwest Washington, D.C. bounded by 12th, 13th, R and S Streets N.W., a tented camp and hospital once stood that served thousands of escaped slaves and black soldiers during the American Civil War.  Known as Contraband Camp, it contained one of the few hospitals that treated blacks in Washington, D.C. during the war and whose staff, including nurses and surgeons, were largely African American.    

Over 40,000 escaped slaves sought refuge and freedom in Washington, D.C. after the passage of the D.C. Emancipation Act of 1862 freeing all enslaved persons in the District of Columbia.  As the Union Army advanced on southern strongholds, thousands of African Americans made their way across Union lines, becoming what was known as contraband.”  The increasing numbers of contraband coming into Washington created a dilemma for the Federal Government and the Union Army responsible for both the protection of the capital and the pursuit of victory over the Confederates.  How would these African American 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 these former slaves and a center of government sponsored contraband relief efforts in Washington, D.C.

Contraband Camp and Hospital were constructed as one-story frame buildings and tented structures built by the Union Army to serve as temporary housing and hospital wards for black civilians and soldiers.  Separate wards for men and women were established as well as