First Step Toward Freedom: Women in Contraband Camps In and Around the District of Columbia During the Civil War

Lauren H. Roedner '13, Gettysburg College

This paper was also presented at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research 2012 (NCUR) in Ogden, Utah.


A white Quaker abolitionist woman from Rochester, New York was not a likely sight in occupied Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War where violence, suffering, death and racial inequality were rampant just south of the nation’s capital. Julia Wilbur was used to a comfortable home, her loving family, an enjoyable profession as a teacher, and the familiar comfort of many, often like-minded, friends. However instead of continuing that “easy” life, Julia embarked on a great adventure as a missionary to work with “contrabands-of-war”. More commonly known as fugitive slaves, these refugees needed shelter, medicine, food, clothes, and many other necessities of life as they continued toward true freedom. Julia became an ally who dedicated her life to providing donated necessities, advocacy, schooling and hope for a brighter future. Through personal, intimate diaries and correspondence with close friends and fellow volunteers spanning over fifty years, the story of Julia Wilbur; her faith, family, fortitude, and overall feistiness in the face of danger, moral inequality and established institutions, is woven together in a unique, inspiring, unpublished story.