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.

The Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp

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Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran, 1862

The Great Dismal Swamp is a huge marshy area that stretches from the city of Norfolk in southeastern Virginia to Elizabeth City in northeastern North Carolina. The swamp was infamous (to white slaveholders) in the pre-Civil War era as a refuge for freedom seeking African Americans. Communities of so-called Great Dismal Swamp maroons, along with a number of Native Americans, made it their home. Wikipedia provides this description of the maroons:

In his 1939 article “Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United States”, (historian) Herbert Aptheker stated that likely “about two thousand Negroes, fugitives, or the descendants of fugitives” lived in the Great Dismal Swamp, trading with white people outside the swamp. Results of a study published in 2007, “The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp”, say that thousands of people lived in the swamp between 1630 and 1865, Native Americans, maroons and enslaved laborers on the canal (being built in the Swamp). A 2011 study speculated that thousands may have lived in the swamp between the 1600s and 1860.

While the precise number of maroons who lived in the swamp at that time is unknown, it is believed to have been one of the largest maroon colonies in the United States. It is established that “several thousand” were living there by the 19th century. Fear of slave unrest and fugitive slaves living among maroon population caused concern amongst local whites.

A militia with dogs went into the swamp in 1823 in an attempt to remove the maroons and destroy their community, but most people escaped. In 1847, North Carolina passed a law specifically aimed at apprehending the maroons in the swamp.However, unlike other maroon communities, where local militias often captured the residents and destroyed their homes, those in the Great Dismal Swamp mostly avoided capture or the discovery of their homes.

The theme of the Swamp as a place of escape and refuge was seen in several 19th Century works of art. One of the more well-known of these is the painting Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran. The picture, shown above, is centered around a slave family – father, mother, and child – that is on the run from slave catchers. The father holds a bloody knife, having killed a chasing dog. But two other dogs are shown in pursuit, and two slave-catchers loom in the dark background. The family seems frozen in time, as they look up at the on-coming dogs; freedom will not come easy, if it comes at all. The only thing we know for sure is that this family will put up a fight.

The painting was completed in 1862, in the early years of the Civil War. According to the book The Civil War in American Art, edited by Eleanor James Harvey, the picture was commissioned by an abolitionist, and may be based in part on a literary work by the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Partially at the request of the ardent abolitionist Charles Sumner, Longfellow wrote a group of pieces in a collection called  Poems on Slavery. One of those works, The Slave in the Dismal Swamp, talks of the harsh life in the marsh:

The Slave in the Dismal Swamp
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times a horse’s tramp
And a bloodhound’s distant bay.

Where will-o’-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
In bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
Is spotted like the snake;

Where hardly a human foot could pass,
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
Like a wild beast in his lair.

A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Were the livery of disgrace.

All things above were bright and fair,
All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing air
With songs of Liberty!

On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth!

Many historians today situate the Dismal Swamp maroon communities as part of the larger Underground Railroad network and African American anti-slavery resistance. There is a lot of material about the maroons in books and on the Web. I found this document, which is a general/pictorial history of the Swamp, quite interesting and it spurred me to do further reading on the subject.


Osman, a Great Dismal Swamp Maroon, by David Hunter Strother, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1856; image of an escaped slave in the North Carolina part of the Great Dismal Swamp
Source: Wikipedia Commons