I only learned today that "contraband" during the Civil War referred to runaway slaves who were liberated when they appeared in Union military camps. This was about the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. President Lincoln was hesitant to make the war about human rights, knowing that if he did, states that had slaves and were loyal to the Union, would join the Confederacy if they believed their right to hold slaves was threatened.
However, when approximately 600,000 slaves escaped to Union territories and army camps, the military leaders had to decide whether to keep them or send them back to their owners. Most decided to keep them, and declared that they were "contraband," seized during a military encounter. Many of these former slaves joined the Union cause to fight against the South.
Ultimately, the Emancipation Proclamation was finally adopted, freeing all slaves taken during military defeats of the enemy; states that were a part of the Union freed their slaves; and, the passage of the 13th Amendment outlawed the keeping of slaves.
With the information above, "contraband" had new meaning for me when I read Louisa May Alcott's "My Contraband," also known as "The Brothers." Ms. Alcott was a staunch abolitionist and feminist. She actually served as a nurse in a Union hospital in Georgetown in D.C. for several weeks.
In light of this, the story takes on implications of possibly being a story that did or could have actually occurred, something she might have observed. Alcott's ability to convey Robert's pain, as well as Miss Dane's sympathetic reaction to his experiences evoke a strong emotional response in the reader.
What strikes me as an unusual aspect of the story is the fact that Robert lives between the world of the blacks and the whites because of his white father. He is a man trapped between two worlds, belonging to neither. His half-brother takes Robert's wife, Lucy, and rapes her, seemingly while she is pregnant.
'I never saw my baby, Ma'am.'
I broke down then; and though my eyes were too dim to see, I felt the touch of lips upon my hands, heard the sound of departing feet, and knew my contraband was gone.
If I were to write about this story, I might address the plight of the freed slave becoming a free citizen of the United States in the North. Or I might write about the plight of a slave who had no rights in the face of a white owner. Alcott provides a character from the North (Miss Dane) who has a strong sense of morality who is able to put race aside when many people in the United States were unable to: perhaps you could write about the women of the North who volunteered their time and energies to helping treat the injured, regardless of race, or those who worked to help freed slaves begin a new life, which are things Miss Dane does in the story.