Most of them were born in captivity, some third or fourth generation slaves — possessions of other human beings. Servitude was all they knew. Their skills were limited to what they had acquired while working on the farms or plantations on which they were imprisoned, and few had been allowed to learn to read. They were not only physically enslaved, but they were held captive by illiteracy. When the prospect of freedom became a real possibility for slaves in 1861 America, they were ill-prepared for the realities of life outside of bondage.
Freedom’s just another word for
nothin’ left to lose
The call of freedom far outweighed the fear of the unknown and the lack of preparedness for what lay ahead for most slaves during the early years of the American Civil War. Thousands fled their enslavement, and as northern troops moved into the South, the fugitives logically sought freedom and shelter behind Union lines. Initially, many northern generals sent the escapees back into slavery because southern law demanded it. But in May of 1861, when General Benjamin Butler learned that slaves were being used in the southern war effort, he declared the refugees “contraband of war” because they were property the enemy could use against them. This declaration caused an increase in the number of slaves fleeing and seeking Union protection
In the eyes of slave owners, the escaped slaves were simply run-aways. But after the Battle of Shiloh in early April of 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant not only proclaimed them contraband of war, he encouraged the development of a community to support the refugees in their transition into freedom. The Secretary of War had forbidden transporting ex-slaves to the northeast, and Grant was fearful that the large influx of cold, ragged and hungry escapees would disrupt his soldier’s morale, so contraband camps were a viable solution. Meeting the physical needs was foremost, but looming large was the challenge of helping them make the transition from slavery to freedom. Throughout the South, contraband camps were established, and those institutions provided the first small steps in the long road ahead for thousands of people.
Union occupied Corinth, Mississippi was home to one of the most successful contraband camps of the Civil War, a model camp that was operational for a little over a year. Located in the northern part of Mississippi, a short distance from Shiloh, Corinth had been the scene of another well-known battle. Few people however, are likely aware of the Corinth Contraband Camp that operated with impressive functionality from late 1862 until the end of 1863.
Let freedom ring
Nearly 6,000 ex-slaves began their transition to freedom at the Corinth Contraband Camp. Initially, they were put to work bringing in the remaining cotton crop to aid the government, but later they were allowed to work and farm for themselves. In the early days the refugees lived in tents, but they were eventually authorized to build their own quarters. Cutting trees in the nearby forest, they built substantial cabins, a general store and a hospital. There was also a small, rustic church, and with guidance, they laid out streets and created a small, functional village. A cooperative farm program was instituted, and the residents grew cotton and vegetables, which they were taught to market. At its height, the camp was making a profit of several thousand dollars. They were taxed, just as they would be when they were fully free, with the money collected helping the old and infirm. Missionary groups from around the country were summoned to teach reading, and by August of 1863, nearly 1,000 former slaves had learned to read through the efforts of those volunteer literacy groups.
Freedom eventually meant fighting for their own cause. Some of the men had been trained, armed and put in charge of security at the camp, and when the Emancipation Proclamation was implemented, that training effort led to the formation of a new Union regiment. The 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment of African Descent consisted of approximately 1,000 men, (So named because so many had fled Alabama) but was later re-named the 55th United States Colored Troop.
The loss of a substantial number of able bodied men was the beginning of the ultimate downfall of the Corinth Contraband Camp. Addionally, pertinent military orders and the death of some key camp people, resulted in the residents being moved to the President’s Island Contraband Camp in Memphis, Tennessee in December of 1863. The move was harsh and disappointing, and they were forced to reside in a more traditional refugee facility for the remainder of the war.
Little is left of the Corinth Contraband Camp where so many began their lives as free people. Today however, a stunning collection of bronze monuments gives visitors to the site a glimpse into the lives of the men, women and children who briefly resided there, experiencing their first taste of life outside of captivity.
Through the remarkable talent of Memphis artist Andrea Lugar, visitors are made aware of the meaningful contribution the contraband camp provided for thousands of human beings. The impressive monuments offer some insight into how the residents began their journey. The bronzes, which were cast at the Lugar Bronze Foundry in Eads, Tennessee, depict camp inhabitants performing everyday chores, once duties of enslavement, now undertaken as stepping stones toward a new life. www.lugarfoundry.com
The unfortunate demise of the camp at Corinth was one of the fatalities of the Civil War. “The black men, women, and children at Corinth had demonstrated their determination to be free, their eagerness to learn, and their willingness to work. They had patiently accepted white tutelage. But in the end their attitudes and aspirations mattered little. For as Corinth had been born of the war, so, too, it was a casualty of the war.”
Slaves were not legally considered free until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. For most of the contrabands, full emancipation did not take place until the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery in late 1865, but for thousands their road to liberation was made a little easier because of the foundation they received at the Corinth Contraband Camp.
Boundless. “From Slaves to Contraband to Free People.” Boundless U.S. History. Boundless, 10 Jul. 2015. Retrieved 10 Jul. 2015 from https://www.boundless.com/u-s-history/textbooks/boundless-u-s-history-textbook/the-civil-war-1861-1865-18/emancipation-during-the-war-131/from-slaves-to-contraband-to-free-people-707-4621/
Song lyric, ”Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose” from Me and Bobby McGee by Kris Kristofferson
Photos: Deborah Fagan Carpenter