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.

Remembering Willis Howcott: a Civil War monument to a Mississippi slave

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Monument in Memory of Colored Servants of Harvey Scouts. Canton Miss. Erected by W. H. Howcott Click here for a larger image.
Per here: Monument erected by William H. Howcott, a veteran of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit. The base reads “To the memory of the good and loyal servants who followed the fortunes of Harvey’s Scouts during the civil War.”
Image Source: Howcott Memorial, from the blog Finding Josephine; photo courtesy Joel Brink.

The blog Confederate Digest – which claims to provide “historically accurate” commentary about the Confederate States – has a blog entry about a rare type of monument in Canton, Mississippi: it was erected in honor of a Confederate slave.

The monument honors Willis Howcott, who was the slave of William Howcott. William Howcott was a member of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit from Mississippi made up of around 128 soldiers. A history of Harvey’s Scouts, written by John Claiborne and published in 1885, is here. While the names of the Scout’s soldiers are listed, neither the names of the slaves who were with the soldiers, nor a count of those slaves, is indicated in Claiborne’s history.

The Confederate Digest blog entry says that “William was 15 years old when he joined Harvey’s Scouts in 1864. Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend. Willis was, tragically, killed in combat sometime in 1865 at the age of 14.” This is based on family memoirs and memories.

This same blog entry makes the claim, which is largely discredited, that an “estimated 65,000 or more African American men, both free and slave, were Confederate soldiers.” Was Willis Howcott one of these black Confederate soldiers?

First, some quick background. During the Civil War, many masters took their slaves with them as they went off to war. These slaves performed a number of tasks: they cooked, foraged for food, washed laundry, cut hair, cared for animals, etc. These slaves were not enlisted in the army; slave enlistment was prohibited by the Confederate government until March 1865. (One month later, Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia.)

I read through Claiborne’s history of the Scouts, and found no mention of Willis Howcott. Claiborne’s list of the unit’s dead (12 men in all) does not include Willis Howcott’s name. If Willis Howcott did die in battle, it is not recorded in this history, which was developed “out of a considerable amount of material furnished by different persons, and placed at his (Claiborne’s) disposal.”

In fact, Claiborne’s history of Harvey’s Scouts makes no mention of the unit’s slaves at all. Interestingly, Claiborne does document an encounter the Scouts had with a group of US Colored Troops, black men who enlisted in the Union army. Claiborne writes that the “Scouts fell in with a long wagon train from Natchez, guarded by a colored regiment. A desperate fight ensued. The negroes had been taught that we would show them no quarter, and fought like devils.” But there is no mention of the negroes who were with the Scouts. In Claiborne’s history, the slaves are not soldiers, but rather, invisible men.

Regardless of Willis Howcott’s role in his master’s army unit, there is no doubt that his death was heartfelt by William Howcott: in the 1890s, William paid for a 20-foot high granite obelisk monument to the memory of Willis in Canton, MS. While there are hundreds of monuments to Confederate soldiers, monuments recognizing slaves who accompanied Confederate military units are quite rare. (Consider the monuments here and here.) The inscription on the monument William Howcott dedicated to Willis Howcott poignantly reads, “A tribute to my faithful servant and friend, Willis Howcott, a colored boy of rare loyalty and faithfulness, whose memory I cherish with deep gratitude.” Of note is that Willis Howcott is identified as a servant who was loyal to his master, not as a soldier who was loyal to his country. And there is no mention of how Willis died. In any event, William Howcott was clearly hurt by the loss.

Did William Howcott ultimately blame himself for the loss of his slave and friend? Should he have?

The monument raises the question: how should we, today, look at the death of Willis Howcott? When soldiers fight and die for a great cause – such as the independence of their country, or liberation from bondage – we thank the soldier and honor his sacrifice. But Willis Howcott died a slave. He died because his master chose to bring him into a war zone, for the master’s convenience. In death, Willis Howcott paid the highest price that could be paid by a slave in his service to his master. Is it honorable or right that a slave master should put his slave in that position? Beyond his master’s respect and gratitude, what did the slave stand to gain by being placed in such hazardous conditions… is what the slave stood to gain “worth” the loss of his life? Is the death of this exploited laborer much more tragic than it was possibly heroic (assuming that the 14 year old Willis did die in battle)?

(The Confederate Digest post says “Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend.” Really?… a 13 year old slave boy had the authority to dictate that he would join his young master in a military unit? Willis Howcott’s presence in the unit was surely not his decision to make, and probably not solely William Howcott’s decision; William’s parents or guardians at least would have approved it. The parents/guardians of William no doubt felt better about William’s military service with servant Willis at his side to help out with the rigors of camp life. And it’s not unlikely that young Willis wanted to accompany his master. The idea of going off to war might have been a thrill for both these young teenagers. It is unknown if Willis’s parents approved, or had veto power over, the taking of their son.)

The black man in the above picture is unidentified. He stands almost like a sentinel, as if he was guarding the memory of Willis Howcott itself. Was he a relative of Willis?  African Americans, in Mississippi and elsewhere, typically lacked the resources to erect their own such monuments. So the family’s feelings about Willis’s death were not etched in stone, for us to see. This possible relative might well have been thankful that Willis received due recognition for his sacrifice, no matter what the circumstances of his death. This, as opposed to so many unnamed and unnoticed black men and women, who did the very best they could do under trying times, and yet have nothing in the commemorative landscape to show for the lives they lived. Willis Howcott’s death is worth remembering. As to how that death should be remembered… that is another question.

EDIT: As noted in a response from Francis Howcutt (see comments below), the Willis Howcott monument was moved a few years ago from the site shown in the picture to a burial ground near the Old Jail at Canton, Mississippi.

US Colored Troops at the Battle of Nashville


The Battle of Nashville, by Kurz & Allison, created/published circa 1891
An artistic rendering of the US Colored Troops at this key Civil War Battle
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-pga-01886,LC-USZC4-506, LC-USZ62-1289

The Battle of Nashville was a two-day battle fought on December 15–16, 1864. It is considered a major success by the Union army over Confederate forces in the Western Theater of the Civil War. (Western Theater = west of the Appalachian Mountains, but east of the Mississippi River.) African Americans, who as laborers helped to build fortifications for the city, fought as soldiers to protect it in that decisive battle. They, and the Union, won.

The Union entered the battle with a contingent of some 55,000 men, and ended the battle with just over 3000 casualties, including 400 dead and 2,558 wounded. Confederates, from a contingent of 30,000 men, had an estimated 6,000 casualties, with 1,500 killed/wounded and 4,500 missing/captured, although some casualty estimates are higher. The Confederate forces in the battle, called the Army of Tennessee, were effectively decimated. Among other consequences, the defeat meant that Confederate general Robert E. Lee would have little help from the Western Theater in defending Virginia and the Confederate capital in Richmond. Four months after the Battle of Nashville, Lee would surrender to Union general Ulysses Grant at Appomattox.

The United States Colored Troops, the black/segregated portion of the Union army, had eight regiments with a combined 5,000+ men at the Battle of Nashville:
• 12th US Colored Infantry – organized in Tennessee at large
• 13th US Colored Infantry – organized in Nashville, TN
• 14th US Colored Infantry – organized in Gallatin, TN
• 16th US Colored Infantry – organized in Nashville, TN
• 17th US Colored Infantry – organized in Nashville, TN
• 18th US Colored Infantry – organized in Missouri at large
• 44th US Colored Infantry – organized in Chattanooga, TN
• 100th US Colored Infantry – organized in Kentucky at large

(A regiment is a unit of at most a thousand men, although deaths, injuries, desertions, etc, can lessen a regiment’s numbers. Infantry regiments – containing foot soldiers – were designated by number. Hence, for example, the 10th US Colored Infantry, or 10th USCI for short. A regiment that was organized in a particular location might have enlisted men who lived elsewhere, but came to that enlistment cite to join the army.)

Most of these black soldiers were from Tennessee, and a plurality had enlisted in Nashville. So, many of them were fighting for their homes, to protect the city of Nashville and the state of Tennessee from Confederate occupation and all that meant for the African American population that lived there. The Battle is easily one of the most important, and decisive, battles that black troops were involved in during the war, yet it is not as well known as, for example, the failed attack on Battery Wagner in South Carolina by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment (which was made famous by the movie Glory).

The role of African Americans in the battle is discussed in the following two videos. The videos are from a 2012 discussion between Dr. James Haney, a Professor of History at Tennessee State University, Nashville, TN, and Kwame Leo Lillard, president of the Nashville based President of the African American Cultural Alliance.

Portion of a 2012 discussion with Dr. James Haney and Mr. Kwame Leo Lillard about African Americans and the Civil War’s Battle of Nashville, December, 1864. This focuses on the importance of Nashville in the Civil War; the construction of Ft , the largest stone fort built during the Civil War – and built by black laborers, and the recruitment of Tennessee black men into the Union army. There is also a discussion of the monument built to Tennessee African descent soldiers which is seen at the top of this blog post.

Continuation of a 2012 idiscussion with Dr. James Haney and Mr. Kwame Leo Lillard about African Americans and the Civil War’s Battle of Nashville, December, 1864. This portion focuses on the role of African Americans in the battle.

The following is from a ceremony commemorating the US Colored Troops in the Battle of Nashville, from late November 2012.

Video: Battle of Nashville, Hymns and Songs of Civil War, Cpl. Gary Burke. Introduction by Kwame Leo Lillard


United States Colored Troops National Monument, Nashville National Cemetery
The inscription reads, “In Memory of the 20,133 who served as United States Colored Troops in the Union Army Dedicated 2003.” This refers to the 20,000+ African American men from Tennessee who served in the Union Army; only Louisiana and Kentucky provided more black troops to the Union war effort. As many as 2,000 black Union soldiers are interred at the cemetery, including men who were at the Battle of Nashville.
Photo Source: of Battlefields and Bibliophiles blog

Two Views of Emancipation – Which is Right?

Which of these two monuments offers the best depiction of the relationship between African Americans and Abraham Lincoln, and the role each played in ending slavery? This one…

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The Emancipation Memorial, AKA the Freedman’s Memorial, in Washington, DC
Source: Wikipedia

…or this one?

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Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH
Image © Dave Wiegers Photography, see here and here. Wiegers has done a number of photos of monuments to Abraham Lincoln. 

My thoughts are below the fold. Continue reading

On Watch at the African American Civil War Memorial

On-Guard-at-Monument3

Marquett Milton, a Civil War reenactor, stands watch at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC. He is portraying a member of the United States Colored Troops, which was a part of the Union army during the Civil War. He is wearing a skyblue greatcoat, which was used during the winter months. Milton is also a volunteer at the African American Civil War Museum, which is across the street from the Memorial.

Note about updates to the List of Monuments to United States Colored Troops

One of the most popular entries on this blog is the list of monuments to African American soldiers who served in the Civil War. FYI, I have made some updates to that entry.

I have noted the existence of monuments in Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York and Virginia. Except for the monument in Portsmouth, Virginia, I have not done a ‘write-up’ of these monuments in my updated blog entry, but I have added links where the monuments are pictured or described. I have also listed several memorials and markers that, while not fitting my description of a monument, are nonetheless noteworthy objects that should be recognized.


Monument to New York’s 26th Regiment US Colored Infantry outside St. James AME Zion Church in Ithaca, NY. Source: “Rikers Island’s 26th U.S. Colored Troops on parade” at http://www.correctionhistory.org

In the original version of my blog entry, I stated that

I would only add that it is disappointing that it seems there is no USCT (United States Colored Troops) monument in the state of Louisiana. Records indicate that 24,000 of the USCT came from that state; no other state supplied more colored troops to the Union army. It would be great to see some action taken in the future to create a monument in honor of the service of that state’s African descent soldiers. (I am sure that there are at least one or two memorial markers to African descent troops in the state, although I haven’t come up with any yet from my review.)

I was pleasantly surprised to find I was wrong about this. There is in fact a monument in Donaldsonville, Louisiana which honors black troops who helped to defend Fort Butler against a Confederate attack in June, 1863. The monument sits next to a memorial to Confederate soldiers who participated in the Battle of Fort Butler. Donaldsonville is about 40 miles from Baton Rouge and 70 miles from New Orleans.


Union Monument at Fort Butler, Donaldsonville, Louisiana. Source: Redbird’s Markers at dualsportridersoflouisiana.com

If anyone knows of monuments to Civil War era black soldiers which I have not identified, please respond to this post, and I will update the list as time allows. I appreciate those of you who have helped me make what I believe is the definitive list of monuments to these men.

Soldiers’ Memorial at Lincoln University, Missouri


Main statue for the Soldiers’ Memorial at Lincoln University, Missouri
Source: Lincoln University, Missouri

Deprived of freedom and citizenship rights, thousands of black men from Missouri joined the Union army, determined to fight for emancipation and equality. Deprived of an education, the Missouri men of the 62nd and 65th United States Colored Infantry took another determined, but unprecedented action: in 1866, they pooled their money to fund the first and only school established by soldiers of African descent.

Liberty and learning were indeed precious commodities for Missouri African Americans at the start of the Civil War. In 1860, 118,500 blacks lived in the state, with 115,000 in slavery, and just 3,500 free. In 1847 the Missouri General Assembly passed a law forbidding blacks, slave or free, to be taught to read or write. As noted in the book Missouri’s Black Heritage, “this was a reflection of a slaveholder’s fear that literacy might lead to (a slave) rebellion.” This “Black Code” prohibition taught Missouri blacks a lesson they would not forget: education was a force for their liberation and uplift.

The legacy institution of the 62nd and 65th United States Colored Infantry (USCI) – which is now called Lincoln University – commemorates those men in a monument that sits on the University’s campus. What follows is a brief summary of how this came to be.

Missouri African Americans and the Civil War

When the Civil War began, Missouri was a slave state that remained loyal to the Union. (Although it’s more correct to say that the state had large pro-Union and pro-seccession/Confederate factions, with the Union faction and military able to maintain control of the state government.) In order to keep the support of Missouri and other Border slave states (Delaware, Kentucky, and Maryland), the United States government initially declared that it would not disturb slavery where it stood. Of note: in August 1861, the abolitionist Union General John C. Frémont, as part of his martial law policy to defend the state, declared that bondsmen of disloyal slave-owners in Missouri were free. In September 1861, President Abraham Lincoln told Frémont to rescind the order, saying it lacked congressional and executive authorization.

But as the war wore on, military necessity determined that the Union would accept, and even seek, the support of African Americans, even in states with loyal slaveholders like Missouri. By 1864, Union enlistment and recruitment was expanded to include slaves in the Border states; army enlistment automatically freed the former slaves. As noted by Aaron Astor in his essay Black Soldiers and White Violence in Kentucky and Missouri (from the book The Great Task Remaining Before Us: Reconstruction as America’s Continuing Civil War),

By January 15, 1864, dozens of slaves enlisted in central Missouri’s slave-rich Howard County alone. By the end of February, more than 3,700 African Americans enlisted in Missouri, with central Missouri’s Little Dixie producing a significant portion… in Missouri, 39 percent (of military-age African Americans) joined the Union army… these numbers downplay the total of black recruits in the western border states, as many joined in neighboring free states. It is very likely that a significant percentage of the 2,080 African Americans credited to Kansas actually came from Missouri. (Editor’s note: Kansas had less than 700 African American residents in 1860, according to the US Census.)

In the rolls of the United States Colored Troops, Missouri is credited with providing 8,344 soldiers. As mentioned earlier, it’s very likely that many Missouri blacks enlisted in nearby Kansas, and some were probably members of the famous First Kansas Colored Infantry.

According to the site Missouri Digital Heritage, “the first black regiment from Missouri was recruited in June 1863 at Schofield Barracks in St. Louis. More than 300 men enlisted. The regiment was called the First Regiment of Missouri Colored Infantry. It later became the 62nd U.S. Regiment of Colored Infantry.” Sometime after, the 2nd Missouri Colored Infantry was formed; it was renamed the 65th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. Other black Missouri regiments are noted in this post at The USCT Chronicle.

The History of Lincoln University, née Lincoln Institute

After the war, soldiers from the 62nd and 65th USCI raised over $5000 to found a school for Missouri’s freedmen. Established in 1866, the school was called Lincoln Institute. A key figure in the creation of the school was Richard Baxter Foster, an abolitionist white officer who became the Institute’s first principal, and whose image is featured in the Soldiers’ Memorial Monument. The history of the school, and the efforts to create a monument to the soldiers who founded it, is told in this video:

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