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Register of Freedmen

of Camp Shiloh (Memphis)


General Description

The Register of Freedmen was created in the Department of Tennessee, over which then Col. John Eaton was appointed Gen. Superintendent. This record, part of the Pre-Bureau Records (pre Freedman's Bureau), are housed at the National Archives in microfilm form. The record belongs to the Mississippi Freedmen's Department, Office of the Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1863-1865.


History of the Register of Freedmen*


   To begin, this record, which was compiled most likely in 1863, is a register, not a census. The record, seemingly exclusive of African Americans living at Camp Shiloh at Memphis, should be studied in the context of the experimental free labor programs that were the main strategy, in one sense, for transitioning blacks to freedom and, in another sense, for simply dealing with the hundreds of thousands of blacks who overwhelmed the Union army.

   Simply put, the department of John Eaton, Jr., Superintendent of Freedmen in Tennessee (including Arkansas) instituted a mandatory system of registration of all blacks wishing to remain in Memphis. In January of 1863, Eaton appointed Asa Severance Fiske Superintendent of the Colored People at Memphis. (Camp Fiske would actually become the main camp for African Americans in the city.)** In June of '63, Fiske wrote then commander Stephen A. Hurlbut outlining a system of registration. Hurlbut sent the request on to Eaton, who approved it, thereby requiring all blacks in Memphis to be registered at the contraband office and to possess a permit. General Order No. 75 of July 1863 stated: 

I. All Idlers, Vagrants, and persons without lawful occupations, or means of support, found within the District of Memphis after ten days from this date will be arrested and confined at hard labor in Fort Pickering”

II. “All owners of Slaves within the District of Memphis must within twenty days report to the District Provost Marshal the name age and description of such slave."

III. “Every free Negro or mullatto and every contraband within the District must within twenty days enter into the employment of some responsible white person who will be required to report name age and description of such free negro or contraband and nature of contract to the Provost Marshal of the District.” 

IV. “All Negroes and Mulattoes failing to find service or employment with some responsible white person will immediately remove to the Contraband Camps under charge of Captain Fiske Superintendent of Contrabands.***

   As in other locations throughout the South (in areas occupied by the federal army), contraband camps were mainly perceived only as temporary way stations for "processing" blacks, that is, for sending them on to work on abandoned plantations. A byproduct of the contraband camp was the home farm or home colony populated both by blacks who were able to work and ones who needed much care. Blacks who managed, then, to remain in a contraband camp longterm were, in a sense, fortunate; they were most likely beneficiaries of and participants in the creation of an agricultural experiment, or had simply fought to remain. In some cases, superintendents desired to transition a camp to a freedman's colony of independent black farmers. This last instance perhaps describes the history of Camp Shiloh, referred to by one freedman as "Camp Shiloh of the Colored People." Shiloh appears to have been a regimental village, housing the families of soldiers stationed at Fort Pickering. Such accommodation was not achieved without the constant determination of black soldiers not to have their families moved out of town. Black soldiers took a stand for their own families, as well as for others being coerced to vacate the city. There is much reason to believe that residents of Camp Shiloh moved relatively freely between this camp and one developed later on President's Island, below the city, and also between Camp Bethel, described by Quaker Laura Haviland, as also nearby.****

   Still, the very format of The Register of Freedmen, which includes a work classification, suggests that women, children, and those judged feeble were not entirely exempt from pressure to work on farms. The record contains the names of 3,145 individuals.

   Because the overall strategy for managing "new" black wartime populations was to employ them, there is reason to be optimistic that other registers, an initial tool for administrative purposes (as well as other purposes outlined), exist. One scholar, who argues that policy conceived in Hampton, Virginia, in a general sense became policy elsewhere, references what he referred to as "the first wartime census of freedmen."***** Even though this historian uses the term census, it is likely that the record he refers to also served purposes that have been outlined above. This historian writes that the army's purpose always leaned more toward control of blacks than toward their freedom. More important, however, is the information provided in this first census or register. According to this writer, this particular record included over 10,000 refugees; the majority were concentrated in camps in York and Elizabeth City counties, including Hampton.

   The known existence of the Hampton register, as well as scholarly references made to other registers, should give us reason to believe that many more records of this type await transcription, digitization, and publication. At present, the Shiloh Register and two related registers from Cairo (Illinois) and Island No. 10 (Missouri) are available on this site.

Alisea Williams McLeod, Ph.D.

February 20, 2011


*Revised from 2009 version. Last updated Feb. 20, 2011.

**See John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln, and the Freedmen, Reminiscences of the Civil War (New York: Longman Green, and Co., 1907).

***See Ira Berlin, et. al., 715.

****Berlin writes that Commander Hurlbut, believing that the [other] camps had been a failure established the camp at President's Island. To there, he relocated residents of other camps as well as black vagrants.” Berlin, 631. 

*****See Robert Engs, Freedom's First Generation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978), 38.


Click here to go to the (Shiloh) Register.

Other Registers:

Island No. 10 and Cairo