Self-emancipation during the Civil War: Remembering the Corinth Contraband Camp, MS


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Statue and markers near the entrance to the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

The Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War is winding down. In a scant few months, we will observe the 150th anniversary of Confederate general Robert E Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, which signaled the beginning of the end of the Civil War. This is a good moment to reflect on how the War was commemorated these past few years.

One disappointment of the Sesquicentennial, in my opinion, has been the relative lack of attention given to contrabands/runaways/self-emancipated slaves.

During the War, over a hundred thousand enslaved African Americans escaped their masters and sought refuge from bondage behind Union lines. At the start of the War, Union policy was to return these freedom seekers to their owners; the goal was to maintain the owners’ loyalty to, and support for, the Union cause. That policy unraveled as the Union came to see the slaves as valuable and necessary allies in the war against the Confederate regime.

Over time the Union evolved new policies, under which slaves who escaped their masters would be given asylum, usually in war refugee/labor camps that were in or near army encampments or forts. These places were variously called contraband camps or freedom colonies or freedom villages. The escaped slaves were called ‘contraband’ by northerners, on the basis that they were property that was seized from Confederates. I do not know if the self-emancipators defined themselves using this northerners’ lexicon.

There has been a very good focus during the Sesquicentennial, I think, on the role of African descent soldiers during the War, due in part to the efforts of African American reenactors and living historians. But the black southern soldier was a subset of a larger group of people who escaped bondage. And the story of that larger group hasn’t seen as much attention, as I look back at the spate of events and activities since the Sesquicentennial period began in 2011.

Many of the stories of these former slaves are about families, women and children especially, taking huge risks, and enduring much suffering in the process, to gain their freedom. Even if these families were successful in reaching a contraband camp, they sometimes lived in harsh conditions. Many of their menfolk joined the United States armed forces; by the War’s end, over 135,000 men from Confederate or Union slave states joined the US army, and thousands more joined the navy. With the men gone, black women were forced to care for themselves, their children and the elderly, in places that might seem like war refugee camps today. Groups like the American Missionary Association aided the military in providing educational and other services to the freedmen and women.

We know much about the black men who joined the armed forces because of the records that were kept about their service. But literacy, gender, age (again, many of these former slaves were children) and other factors have resulted in a more spare record of the former slaves at these camps.

This is not to say that the memory of these folks has been completely ignored in the commemorative landscape, that is, the public and non-public spaces which memorialize the past. An exemplary public site for the recognition of the runaways is the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi, near the state border with Tennessee.

End of Slavery Civil War exhibit in Corinth, Mississippi

Statues inside the Civil War Interpretive Center at Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi; featuring an African American Union soldier and a freedwoman taking a class.
Image Source: Photo/Copyright by Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright. Photo is not in the public domain. 

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Statue of freedwoman and child reading a book at the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

The Camp is a National Park Service (NPS) site, and part of the larger Shiloh National Park complex. This is from the NPS description of the site:

As Federal forces occupied major portions of the South, enslaved people escaped from farms and plantations and fled to safety behind Union lines. Once President Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862, the number of freedom seekers increased considerably in Union occupied Corinth.The Corinth Contraband Camp was established by Union General Grenville M. Dodge to accommodate these refugees.

The camp featured numerous homes, a church, school and hospital. The freedmen cultivated and sold cotton and vegetables in a progressive cooperative farm program. By May 1863, the camp was making a clear profit of $4,000 to $5,000 from it enterprises. By August, over 1,000 African American children and adults gained the ability to read through the efforts of various benevolent organizations.

Although the camp had a modest beginning, it became a model camp and allowed for approximately 6,000 ex-slaves to establish their own individual identities. Once the Emancipation Proclamation was implemented, nearly 2,000 of the newly freed men at the Corinth Contraband Camp had their first opportunity to protect their way of life and made up a new regiment in the Union army. Since most of the men came from Alabama, the unit was named the 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment of African Descent, later re-designated the 55th United States Colored Troops.

In December 1863, the camp was moved to Memphis and the freedmen resided in a more traditional refugee facility for the remainder of the war.

The Corinth Contraband Camp was the first step on the road to freedom and the struggle for equality for thousands of former slaves.Today a portion of the historic Corinth Contraband Camp is preserved to commemorate those who began their journey to freedom there in 1862-1863. This land now hosts a quarter mile walkway which exhibits six life-size bronze sculptures depicting the men, women, and children who inhabited the camp.​

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Statue of United States Colored Troops solider at the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
The 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment of African Descent, later re-designated the 55th United States Colored Troops, was formed at the Corinth Camp.

Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

One of the wonderful things about the statues in the park is that women are so well represented. The inclusiveness is important, and for visitors, informative and even enlightening.

The Corinth site is in northeast Mississippi, about 60 miles from Jackson, TN, about 100 miles from either Memphis, TN, or Decatur, AL, and about 120 miles from Huntsville, AL. This will make for a great visit for those who want to learn about this important part of Civil War and American history.

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