Rabbit Holes Redux …

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

(Apologies to John Updike!) In the last blog we learned about Camp Nelson and the United States Colored Troops that fought in the Civil War. Let’s take a look at more of that rabbit hole, starting with contraband camps.“Contrabands were slaves who escaped to Union lines during the Civil War. When the conflict began, the North’s aim was primarily to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. Slaves who escaped to Union lines early in the war were often returned to their masters. …The term “contraband” remained in use throughout the war.” Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend were slaves that worked on fortifications near Hampton, VA. They learned that their owner, Confederate Colonel Charles Mallory, was planning to send them to work deeper into the South, thus separating them from their families. In order to avoid this fate, they ran to Fort Monroe, an army installation in southeastern Virginia that had remained in hands of the US Army when Virginia seceded from the Union. “Colonel Mallory demanded that the men be returned to him, in compliance with the federal Fugitive Slave Act. General Benjamin Butler, the officer in command at Fort Monroe, refused. Because Colonel Mallory had used the men to build fortifications to aid a force engaged in armed rebellion against the United States, the rules of war permitted the confiscation of the three slaves as contraband property. Conscious of the irony, Butler had capitalized on slaveholders’ insistence that slaves were “property” and used it as a mechanism for releasing the three men from their owner’s grasp.”

Record keeping was less than stellar, but a group called the Freedmen and Southern Society Project (FSSP) has spent many years transcribing and analyzing related documents, and estimates that “at least 474,000 African Americans labored for the Union in the contraband camps in Union-occupied portions of the Confederacy by the spring of 1865, and that thousands more who were unable to work also inhabited the camps, making it safe to place the total at or near half a million. That number approximates between 12 percent and 15 percent of the US slave population according to the 1860 census, and substantially exceeds the number of free African Americans—221,702—living in the northern states in 1860. Of the total, more than 203,000 former slaves spent all or part of the war under the auspices of the Union Army in Upper South locations such as Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and northern Alabama; approximately 48,000 did so in the Department of the South (consisting of the coastal regions and Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina and the northern coast of Florida); about 98,000 in southern Louisiana; and roughly 125,000 in the Mississippi Valley.” The number of camps is impossible to determine—some were open encampments, others were within cities. For the sake of security, the camps followed the Union Army as it pushed into Confederate territory, meaning that some camps were short-lived, while others stayed put as the Union Army held onto and maintained control of an area.

Contraband camp locations in the Eastern and Western theatres of the Civil War. Both maps by T.P. Foley

Source (left map): https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/doc/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-203-graphic-002-full.gif
Source (right map): https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/doc/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-203-graphic-003-full.gif

There were contraband camps in our part of the country, including those at Cairo, IL, Paducah, Smithland, Louisville, and Camp Nelson, KY (discussed in the previous blog), and others in Missouri and Tennessee. Cairo, IL was particularly striking—during the 1860s the “African American population grew by 3,834 percent.” And no, that’s not a typo! “One historian of Illinois described Cairo as an “Ellis Island for this immigration.”” (Bigham, pgs. 84-85)

Contraband camps were essentially war refugee camps, although that terminology did not come into official existence until World War I. At least initially, the “contrabandees” faced a mixed bag of responses. Officially, the U.S. Constitution, Article 4, permitted slaveholders to reclaim escaped slaves, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 just gave that more power. Some Union officers met escaping slaves with open arms, while others sought to return the slaves to their masters. Laws, orders, etc. were passed in order to deal with this situation, with the effect that, in many cases, due to interpretive differences, the slaves’ status was ambiguous at best. “On August 6, 1861, Congress passed the first Confiscation Act, which stipulated that owners of slaves used to aid the Confederate military effort would “forfeit” any “claim” to those slaves. Two days later, the War Department sent instructions implementing the new law to Union commanding officers: they should receive any slaves who ran to their lines and keep careful records so that after the war, courts full of legal professionals (not untrained soldiers) could determine which former slaves had actually fled from masters who were employing them militarily and which had not. In the latter case, owners would be financially compensated for loss of their property. No refugees from slavery should be sent back, but neither should the Union Army “entice” slaves to flee their owners.” Clear as mud, isn’t it? Conditions in these camps ran the gamut from not too bad to miserable. Most escaped slaves came with very little other than the clothes they were wearing. If the journey had been particularly perilous, they might be sick and weak. “Basic humanitarian need was the most fundamental aspect of their contraband camp experience.” Starvation wasn’t an issue, but food may not have been plentiful or particularly nutritious. Clothing was hard to come by, particularly for women and children–men might be able to wear cast off uniforms, but women and children had to rely on donations.

Contraband tend encampment in Richmond, VA, 1865 Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, NWDNS-111-B-75

Shelter was a problem—free black communities took in all that they could, but with quarters already tight, the situation was difficult. “The refugees crowded into any available space, from packing crates and unused railcars in Alexandria, Virginia, to basements in Washington, DC, to abandoned shops, houses, and outbuildings in Nashville to the Missouri Hotel in St. Louis, which was rented by Union general Samuel Curtis for that purpose and overseen by the St. Louis Ladies’ Contraband Relief Society. Space quickly filled, prompting the Union Army to build barracks in some locales and smaller cottages in others. … Shelter could be even more desperate outside the cities. Refugees from slavery were often issued surplus army tents when they arrived in the camps, but the most serviceable tents went to the Union soldiers for whom they were originally intended. When large groups of former slaves appeared in a camp at once … their numbers overwhelmed the supply of army cast-offs. … So many former slaves came into Vicksburg after its fall that at first many slept under ramshackle sheds, in hastily assembled brush piles, or in the open air. Similar conditions prevailed throughout the entire Mississippi Valley. For many wartime refugees, things never got much better.”

Poor sanitation and disease took its toll. Smallpox and yellow fever decimated both contraband and soldier populations. “The mortality rates among soldiers and, even more so, among freed people in the Mississippi Valley immediately after the fall of Vicksburg were shocking. An agent of the Western Sanitary Commission toured Vicksburg and sent back appalling findings. Starved and filthy after the long besiegement of the city, soldiers suffering from malnutrition and intestinal disorders were left to die in their own excrement. Vacant buildings housed refugees from slavery who were simply waiting to die. Within a month, at least four hundred of them had. Another agent toured the city a few weeks later and thundered, “If the ostensible object was to kill [former slaves], nothing could be more effective” than the contraband camps lining the Mississippi River in that desperate summer of 1863.” And there was the constant threat of being captured by a slave hunter. In sum, conditions depended on two overarching considerations, the first of which was military necessity: “when food shortages hit, the army fed the soldiers before the freed people…. Everywhere, the best provisions and supplies went to sick and wounded soldiers, leaving surplus or second-rate stocks for ailing former slaves. When Congress needed more funds for war spending, appropriations for former slaves, including for their medical care, could be slashed.”

The second condition, harder to defend, was attitudes. Some soldiers (and others) bent over backwards to help the escaped slaves, “but others remained mired in bigotry and scapegoated former slaves as the cause of the war. Unable to imagine slaves as owners of property, soldiers sometimes assumed that any property the freed people had brought with them must have been owned by Confederates and confiscated it. The superintendent of contrabands at Grand Junction, Memphis, and Bolivar, in Tennessee, for example, reported that oxen, mules, horses, and wagons brought to camp had been taken by officers or turned over to the Union quartermaster. New York soldiers serving in and around Norfolk, Virginia, were particularly treacherous toward freed people, sometimes robbing, beating, and selling them to slave hunters.” Even as the war ended, life for the former slave was not easy. Sure, Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, VA on April 9, 1865, and the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery everywhere within the United States, was ratified on December 6, 1865. Hostilities (in terms of war) were ended, and slavery was illegal. What now? Whatever support the former contraband/former slaves received from their association with the Union forces was at an end, if not immediately, then soon. How would people largely without resources, without training, without education (“in North Carolina and elsewhere in the South, it had been illegal to teach a slave to read, so the level of illiteracy among blacks was high”) survive? Many individuals and organizations reached out to provide assistance—let’s look into 2 of these, the American Missionary Association and the Freedmen’s Bureau.

If you want to learn more about the Amistad, check out this DVD from Rice Library: DVDs, Audiovisual Materials, 1st Floor PN1997 .A4578 1999

“Before and during the Civil War, the American Missionary Association founded anti-slavery churches and black schools. In Illinois alone, they were able to help start over 115 churches founded on belief that slavery is wrong. The AMA also recruited teachers to help educate black people, which was unpopular at the time. During the Civil War, many AMA teachers instructed freed slaves in so-called contraband camps in Union-controlled Confederate territory. These classes were often filled with a wide range of ages and both genders including adults and children.” It should be noted that not all the teachers were women—1/3 were men, nor were they all white. Some of the black teachers, like their white counterparts, had been educated at Oberlin College, “remarkable in its day for its acceptance of blacks and women.” In some North Carolina locations, the Ku Klux Klan agitated to disrupt the schooling. In Arkansas, despite financial difficulties, by 1868, 27 day and night schools, 24 Sabbath schools, and 2 high schools were in operation. These teachers were dedicated, hardy souls. “Ignored, insulted, hated by the white population, they persevered through disease and terror and suffered many hardships. Refused housing by whites, they often shared the poor homes and poverty of black families. All week they taught: children in the daytime; classes at night for the adults; sewing, homemaking, and manual arts on Saturday; Sunday school on the sabbath. They worked when yellow fever, dengue, malaria, typhoid, and tuberculosis were scourges everywhere. Some died; some never fully recovered from fever contracted while in AMA service. The worst disease of all, however, was the prejudice and hate of the whites in the South. Letters in the archives document the shocking record. Male teachers were beaten and warned to leave or be killed. Some disappeared. Their schools were burned and they rebuilt them with their own hands.” American Missionary Association work was clearly not for sissies!

The federal response was the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, aka the Freedmen’s Bureau. Established by Congress on March 3, 1865, the Bureau was created “to help millions of former black slaves and poor whites in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Freedmen’s Bureau provided food, housing and medical aid, established schools and offered legal assistance. It also attempted to settle former slaves on land confiscated or abandoned during the war. However, the bureau was prevented from fully carrying out its programs due to a shortage of funds and personnel, along with the politics of race and Reconstruction. … Intended as a temporary agency to last the duration of the war and one year afterward, the bureau was placed under the authority of the War Department and the majority of its original employees were Civil War soldiers…. From the start, the Bureau faced resistance from a variety of sources, including many white Southerners. Another leading opponent was President Andrew Johnson, who assumed office in April 1865 following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. When Congress introduced a bill in February 1866 to extend the bureau’s tenure and give it new legal powers, Johnson vetoed the proposed legislation on the grounds that it interfered with states’ rights, gave preference to one group of citizens over another and would impose a huge financial burden on the federal government, among other issues. In July of that same year, Congress overrode the president’s veto and passed a revised version of the bill. However, Johnson became embroiled in a bitter fight with the Radical Republicans in Congress, who viewed the president’s Reconstruction policies as too lenient, and the Freedmen’s Bureau suffered as a result.”

A political poster depicting the dissension over the Freedmen’s Bureau
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Given the president’s resistance—he believed that the end of the war completed the job of restoring the Union, and that nothing more was needed—and his apparent Southern sympathies—he “pardoned many former Confederates and restored their land, as well as removed Bureau employees he thought were too sympathetic to African Americans”—it’s no wonder the Freedmen’s Bureau struggled. After it helped many, many freed slaves purchase property that had been confiscated from the Confederacy, it saw these freedmen expelled from this land without compensation with President Johnson’s May 29, 1865 Confederate pardon.

As you can see by this poster, opposition wasn’t limited to President Johnson. The editor of the New Albany [IN] Daily Ledger railed that the any freedmen’s aid society would create “lazy, trifling, good-for-nothing negroes” who did not know their “proper position.” …The editor also believed that the Freedmen’s Bureau … would encourage violation of laws and insults again whites and promote shiftlessness.” (Bigham, p. 94-95) The Freedmen’s Bureau was often the only thing that stood between freed slaves and a harsh world. Consider these facts about the Kentucky division of the Bureau: “In the immediate postwar years, “the intensity of the actions directed against former slaves exceeded anything experienced by whites.” Sometimes whites refused to sell land to blacks or to build black churches or schools. On other occasions there were threats of bodily harm. But “white hostility could explode directly into physical force. During a two week period in 1867 some sixteen whites…were arrested on separate charges of beating former slaves.” In Boone, Carroll, and Trimble counties, blacks complained that slavery still existed. Mobs whipped blacks at random for alleged insults in Covington and Owensboro, where a black man asserted in December 1867 that the Freedmen’s Bureau was blacks’ only protection. Although relatively few whites engaged in terrorist acts, their actions were condoned by many others. Negrophobes sought to rid the state of all blacks, threatening blacks who sought to rent, lease, or purchase land as well as whites who offered land to blacks. Night riders, some of them members of the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, terrorized rural blacks. Families of black soldiers were favorite targets. In its annual reports between 1866 and 1868, the Freedmen’s Bureau reported scores of murders as well as Freedmen’s School, James’ Plantation, North Carolina, UNChundreds of cases of maltreatment—rapes, whippings and beatings, attempted murders, shootings, and the like. 

Freedmen’s Bureau school at James’ Plantation, North Carolina, to educate newly freed children. Learn NC, University of North Carolina

One-third of the 353 lynchings in the history of the commonwealth took place between 1865 and 1874. Ninety-two occurred between January 1866 and December 1870. Justice was neither swift nor fair. Between July 1, 1867, and June 30, 1868, for instance, “there were no arrests in ten of the twenty murders of blacks; in the other ten, four were acquitted, the court took no action in one case, and three remained before various courts.”” (Bigham, pg. 132) The Freedmen’s Bureau ceased operation in 1872. It seems abundantly clear that its work, like that of the American Missionary Association, was also NOT for sissies!

My rabbit hole journey is nearly complete….we’ll conclude next week by looking at the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) founded by the American Missionary Association and/or the Freedmen’s Bureau

Sources Consulted

African American Records: Freedmen’s Bureau. National Archives.

The American Missionary, v. 52, no. 2: June, 1898. New York: The American Missionary Association. (Project Gutenberg)

American Missionary Association. Amistad Research Center, Tulane University.

American Missionary Association. CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Bigham, Darrel E. On Jordan’s banks: emancipation and its aftermath in the Ohio River Valley. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006. UASC Regional Collection F520.6.N4 B54 2006

Blacks and the American Missionary Association. United Church of Christ website.

Contraband Camps. CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Fitzgerald, Natalie. American Missionary Association (1846-1999) BlackPast.org. September 8, 2018.

Freedmen’s Bureau. History.com editors, October 3, 2018.

The Freedmen’s Bureau. Khanacademy.org.

The Freedmmen’s Bureau Records. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.

Hurst, Ryan. Freedmen’s Bureau (1865-1872). BlackPast.org. February 16, 2009.

Lovett, Bobby L. Contraband Camps. Tennessee Encyclopedia online.

Manning, Chandra. Contraband Camps and the African American Refugee Experience during the Civil War. Oxford Research Encyclopedia online article, December 2017.

Norris, David A. Contrabands. NCPedia, 2006.Williams, Wiley J. American Missionary Association. NCPedia, 2006.

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