Top: Group of “contrabands” at Foller’s house, 1862. Bottom: Cast of Mercy Street.
Top: James F. Gibson/Library of Congress. Bottom: PBS.

A simple Google search for slavery photos will often bring up a photo of a group of slaves sitting in front of a log cabin. But there’s history behind that photo, and those slaves weren’t ordinary slaves.

The photo was taken at a contraband camp 1862 in Cumberland Landing, Va. If you’re not familiar with the term “contraband,” the second season of the PBS series Mercy Street will be there to educate you in January.

Mercy Street is set during the Civil War and is inspired by true stories. It is centered around doctors, volunteer nurses, civilians, and free and enslaved African Americans and how they all come together at Mansion House Hospital, a luxury hotel that was transformed into a Union Army Hospital in the Union-occupied city of Alexandria, Va. The series will continue to capture the centrality of slavery, race and the Civil War in the larger context of American life and history in the upcoming second season, as well as tell the story of the contraband.


In celebration of Juneteenth, which is also known as Freedom Day, the cast of Mercy Street re-created the 1862 contraband camp photo.


“‘The contraband’ was the term used by Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler to give asylum to free slaves of Confederate masters who were looking for asylum. He decided to keep them and use their labor for the Union cause. He knew that if he sent them back, their labor would be used for the Confederate cause. This action paved the way for the Emancipation Act,” Audrey Davis, the director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, told The Root.

To learn more about the contraband, tune in to Mercy Street’s second season, which is set to air in January. You can also catch up with the first season on PBS.