Saturday, May 28, 2011

Fort Monroe Video

I suppose scholars could take up the question of whether Fort Monroe or Fortress Monroe really was the first Union site where African American fugitives found refuge; however, for the time being there seems to be general agreement on the question, and the most important point at the moment is to associate Benjamin Butler's policy with the ability of thousands of African Americans to find refuge behind Union lines. Below is a good video offering a general explanation of the historical significance of Fort Monroe.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Names of Contraband

I am in the process of transcribing the names of hundreds of African Americans who traveled to the camps. I have completed A through C and hope to make significant headway in the next year toward completion. Please find my work so far at

I hope you find an ancestor there!

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Forgive my rudimentary map-making skills. I have tried my best to duplicate a map that appears in I believe Volume 7 of the Grant Papers. The map shows the area and towns over which Union and Confederate forces battled vigorously in the fall of 1862. It would be then that my own ancestors, slaves on the Hull plantation in Salem, MS, would have come into contact with the Union lines that would make possible their removal to Memphis.

Other towns mentioned in the volume but not included on this map include: Lumpkins' Mills, Yoknapatafa, Wyatt, Saulsbury, Pott's Farm, and New Albany. Slaves living in or within 5 to 10 miles of these towns could likely successfully plan an escape. Anyone whose family is known to have been in this area of Marshall County would do well to check the Register of Freedmen, Roll 4, M1914, RG 105 (Pre-bureau Records) at the National Archives for possible inclusion of family members. Name, owner, county, and age are provided in the register.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Our ancestors poured into these camps

After reading the reminiscenses of abolitionist Levi Coffin, I get a clear picture of the refugee or contraband camps in the West. In December of 1862 and again in May of 1863, Coffin visited a dozen or more camps in order to see first-hand the state of the camps and to ascertain the needs of the fugitives. In this writing Coffin mentioned camps at:

President's Island (Memphis)*
Island #10 (Mississippi River)
Camp Shiloh (Memphis)
Holly Springs (Mississippi)
Cairo (Illinois)
Columbus (Kentucky)
Smithland (Kentucky)
Paducah (Kentucky)
Corinth (Mississippi)
LaGrange (Tennessee)
Jackson (Tennessee)
Helena (Arkansas)**
Like many other observers of the camps, Coffin's view was largely influenced by the condition of the slaves he saw there. Although he described some camps as being in a somewhat better condition than others, he perceived many, if not most, of the contraband as destitute. In the best cases, the slaves lived in huts; in the worst cases, they had no housing at all. Some of the first "structures" at the camps were made of brush. In still other cases, such as at President's Island, fugitives were living in army tents in the spring of 1863, when Coffin visited. On this second visit (his first having taken place in December of 1862), he also observed blacks farming at three camps. This was likely not a surprise to him, at least on the second visit, since his organization--the Western Freedmen's Aid Commission--had sent farming implements to the camps. One might safely assume from this and from other evidence that Coffin was a supporter of black farming. Coffin also observed that black men were guarding both Fort Pickering in Memphis and the camps. (This duty would later be formalized as these men would enlist in the United States Colored Troops.) The camps were under constant danger of attack by guerilla raiders.
Despite the deplorable conditions described by Coffin, he implies that the slaves who made the camps temporary homes would have come no matter what. The roads to the camps were paved with danger, and many masters had warned their slaves that their new Yankee owners would be a thousand times worse than they had been, yet the slaves still fled the plantations. Coffin quotes one slave,
Yesterday when de sogers come I was out milkin' de cows and prayin' dat de Lord would send de Yankees. Massa had tried to scare us; he told us if de Yankees got hold of us dey would work us mos' to death, then send us off and sell us, but de Lord didn't tell me so, and I kep' prayin' dat dey would come. While I was milkin' I happened to raise my eyes bless de Lord, dere was de Yankees' heads poppin' up above de fence. Oh, my heart almos' jumped out of me for joy. Dey came right up and surrounded de house...I quit milkin' and walked right by de captain who told us all to get ready, he was going to take us out of slavery. Oh, dat made me feel good. I took de bucket of milk into de barn, set it down, and went into de yard...De boys was plowin' in de field and de captain sent sogers to tell 'em to unhitch the mules and hitch 'em to the wagon, and I tell you dey done it mighty quick. Dey put four mules to de wagon, den dey fetched out de carriage and fine horses and made 'em ready. Den we fetched out our old bags and old beds and put in de wagon, and dey told us to put in provisions to eat. I tell you it was all done mighty quick, and we drove off, some of us riden' in de fine carriage and de rest in de wagon. De sogers went before and behind us, and here we all is, bless de Lord.
Unfortunately, not all freedom seekers who fled to the Union lines saw the end of the war; many of these brave souls died in the camps. Nevertheless, these faithful ancestors left the plantations where they had been held in bondage in search of freedom.
*The Camp on President Island or President's Island (Island No. 45) was known as Camp Dixie.
**Coffin names three camps in Helena, Arkansas: Camp Deliverance, Camp Wood, and Camp Colony