Last Road to Freedom

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Achieving Freedom

Slave and Farmer

   If one is not aware of the nature of the wartime strategy for dealing with the masses of African Americans who overwhelmed the Union army, then Daniel Williams's dual identities during and following the war seem a conundrum. There is, however, an answer--complicated but not beyond comprehension--to this puzzle.

    Under the work registration system implemented by Gen. Superintendent of Freedmen (Department of Tennessee including Arkansas) John Eaton, Jr., blacks residing in camp were identified partly by the "occupation" (the army's language) or kind of work they had performed in slavery. The main classifications were "farm" or "farmer," "field," and "house."

   Surprisingly, in the Register of Freedmen, which is the record of Camp Shiloh (Memphis), most blacks are recorded as having the occupation of farm or farmer as opposed to field(hand). This fact may throw open for some the question of what tasks enslaved rural blacks performed and raise the question also of what specific duties would have fallen under these different classes. 

   Williams's family, wife, three sons, and one daughter, appear in the Register of Freedmen (see right) as "farm." One might like to believe that the slave-era occupation led directly to a post-slavery occupation, and it is reasonable that some connection might be made. However, on Williams's service record, as on that of others, the classification refers most directly back to plantation work.

   At the same time, there is reason to believe that for Williams and likely for many others the nature of the work they did while enslaved did influence their wartime and postwar pursuits. In fact, with Williams, one could make a strong case that he likely was able to take advantage of Eaton's wartime agricultural experiments, that at Davis Bend, Mississippi being best known.

   In fact, according to Eaton, many, many blacks in the Mississippi Valley farmed independently or semi-independently during the war. This was Eaton's and seemingly Gen. Grant's goal. Irrefutable evidence that Williams farmed during the war has not yet been found, but his employment with Eaton's Department of Freedmen certainly would have provided an opportunity for this freedman to get in on the Superintendent's determination to lease some abandoned plantations to blacks, as well as to create forty-acre plots on President's Island.

   Williams was also a member of Eaton's much praised Invalid Corps, the 63rd Regiment, stationed at Fort Pickering (at Memphis). As quiet as it is kept, this unit, supposedly composed of men classified as unfit for regular service but otherwise fit for garrison duty, enjoyed a degree of latitude not yet recognized. These troops were likely armed before officially enlisted as guards for the camps and plantations. Though stationed at Fort Pickering, their absence was a constant problem, perhaps explained by the fact that they found employments that paid better than the army. There is much reason to believe, in other words, that members of the 63rd were among those who found the capital to become actual farmers. An occupation that began as a euphemism became for Williams a reality.

   Finally, while many blacks left the contraband camps either within days or weeks of arrival or, (in cases where they weren't sent to work on abandoned plantations) after a year or two, Williams moved his family at the close of the war from Camp Shiloh to Camp Dixie, Eaton's prized project on President's Island. (Right, see Willliams's bank account record with the Freedmen's Bank identifying his residence in 1872.)

   Avoiding the fate of thousands of other blacks who moved from contract labor to sharecropping, Williams rented land on President's Island and lived there with his family for ten years. After three of his sons moved into DeSoto County, purchasing there hundreds of acres, he remained on the Island for ten more years. Although the entirety of his activities on the Island during these years is not known, what is clear is that the family's stay in Memphis, within the camps organized by Eaton, is directly tied to their eventual success in farming. Given what Eaton wrote of black agricultural enterprise during the war, it is doubtful that this story and these connections are entirely unique.

A Reformer Speaks:

"As before stated, this supervision hoped to see a large number of Negro planters using their own capital, or aided by benevolence or by the Government."
Report of the General Superintendent of Freedmen, 1864

Williams' Service record
Williams served in the USCT from 1863 to 1866. On this last page of his service record he is identified as a slave.

Front Page
By contrast, the front page of Williams's service record identifies his "occupation" as "farmer."

At the close of the war, Eaton, would-be reformer, lamented...

"President's Island, below Memphis, originally occupied at the suggestion of Gen. Grant...was taken away from our control...Gen. Dana has, however, again opened this opportunity..."
Report of the General Superintendent of Freedmen, 1864