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The Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves was a law passed by the United States Congress during the American Civil War forbidding the military to return escaped slaves to their owners. As Union armies entered Southern territory during the early years of the War, emboldened slaves began fleeing behind Union lines to secure their freedom. Some commanders put the slaves to work digging entrenchments, building fortifications, and performing other camp work. Such slaves came to be called "contraband," a term emphasizing their status as captured enemy property. Other Army commanders—particularly Democrats—returned the slaves to their owners. Congress reacted by approving on March 13, 1862 an act prohibiting the military from sending escaped slaves back into slavery.

Text of the act[]

An Act to make an additional Article of War.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That hereafter the following shall be promulgated as an additional article of war for the government of the army of the United States, and shall be obeyed and observed as such:

Article —. All officers or persons in the military or naval service of the United States are prohibited from employing any of the forces under their respective commands for the purpose of returning fugitives from service or labor, who may have escaped from any persons to whom such service or labor is claimed to be due, and any officer who shall be found guilty by a court-martial of violating this article shall be dismissed from the service.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That this act shall take effect from and after its passage.

APPROVED, March 13, 1862.[1]


  1. U.S., Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations of the United States of America, vol. 12 (Boston, 1863), p. 354.

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