Cargo and Contraband during the Civil War

Today’s post is written by Stephanie Stegman, the special media projects volunteer at the National Archives at Fort Worth. This is the third post in a three-part series. (If you missed them,  follow these links to the first and second  posts.)

Cargo – it was the main business of the New Orleans Custom House.  After the captain submitted his manifest, employees inspected the vessel’s cargo and appraised the cargo’s value.  Then, they collected taxes or stored merchandise in the Custom House’s bonded warehouses.  These records of commerce are part of Record Group 36: Records of the U.S. Customs Service, 1745 – 1997, preserved at the National Archive at Fort Worth.

Before the Civil War, there were two different types of cargo that came into the Port of New Orleans.  Each required a different list, or manifest.  The Cargo Manifest was for all goods onboard the vessel with a description of each package, its contents, and the owner or shipper.


(ARC ID 6210353) Cargo manifest of S.S. Texas from Galveston to New Orleans arrived March 5, 1860

The second dealt with human cargo.  Slaves were not recognized as passengers (who were listed on a separate form) but, rather, cargo “held to service and labor.”  The Slave Manifest was for all enslaved persons (and occasionally free persons of color) onboard with a list of each person’s name, sex, age, height, color, and owner.  In 1860, the Steam Ship Texas made weekly trips between the Galveston and New Orleans.  On one such trip, the S.S.Texas had both types of cargo: 140 bales of cotton and 28 slaves from New Braunfels, Texas near San Antonio. 

ARC ID 6210358 Front and back of Slave manifest of S.S. Texas from La Salle to New Orleans arrived March 5, 1860

Louisiana’s state-owned slaves also participated in state commerce as they worked to clear obstructions along the Mississippi river ways.  However, Slave Manifests are the only records in the New Orleans Custom House’s collection that show the city’s booming slave trade before the war.  The 1807 slave trade law prohibited the importation of slaves from foreign countries into the United States.  Therefore, the master of the ship had to sign the Slave Manifest to testify to the validity of his human cargo, just like he signed for merchandise.

After the Union captured New Orleans in May 1862, President Lincoln reopened the port to commerce and the U.S. Treasury declared some goods contraband of war.  In September, the Foreign Entry and Clearance Clerk at the New York Custom House warned his superior that, while not contraband, other goods had the potential to impact the war.  The clerk estimated over 25,000 oz. of quinine and other “indispensible medicine[s]” had been shipped from New York to New Orleans since June.  “[M]any other articles sadly needed in the Rebel army, it is believed, have found their way into rebel hands,” wrote the clerk, “…and if so, the opening of these ports may be considered of doubtful benefit, and may perhaps be the means of prolonging the war.”

ARC ID 6016161 New York Customs Collector Ciran Barney wrote the U.S. Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase about the concerns of clerk Sidney J. Norton.  Collector Ciran Barney to S.P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, 09/18/1862

With Union loyalists in charge of the Custom House, goods entering New Orleans still went through inspection and appraisal.  In November 1862, the Brig Poinsett entered the Port of New Orleans bound from Boston.  Its manifest showed 269 tons of cargo and a crew of 9 men.  The charcoal was not allowed to land while the cherry juice and cordials, subsequently, were confiscated by a Customs House inspector after he discovered that they were, in fact, whiskey.

ARC ID 6016138  Coaster’s Manifest for Brig Poinsett of Boston, 1862

Commerce continued during the war, but the volume and type of cargo had changed.

[Editor’s note: This post was updated to reflect the correct spelling of New Braunfels, Texas and not “New Brunsfels, Texas” as originally posted.]

2 thoughts on “Cargo and Contraband during the Civil War

  1. Hi – I love the article (and the series), as I am a minor amateur historian (especially the Civil War). However, I would like to change one tiny thing. In Ms. Stedman’s article she notes “New Brunsfels, Texas near San Antonio” which is not true. The city is correctly identified as “New Braunfels” on the manifest. Having spent many hours there, it is one of the neatest cities in Texas.

  2. If you look closely at the SS Texas slave manifest, the slaves were coming from A.J. Chambers, a shipper in New Braunfels, Texas, not New Brunsfels. Sorry to nitpick.

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