Last Road to Freedom

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Voices from the Camps

Contraband camps were dynamic places. Their populations were ever changing with new arrivals almost daily. Fugitives came from as close by as a few miles or from as far away as a hundred or more miles. Representatives of public or private institutions shared thoughts on how best to serve the freedpeople while African American camp residents themselves met in brush arbors (churches created of a canopy of trees) to plan institutions for their new, free, communities. They also met to organize against policies that they doubted served their best interests. Blacks brought with them to the camps music they had created in slavery; missionaries and others recorded the songs and marveled at their meanings. 

   The voices of the various actors who made up the place of the contraband camp can be found in the public record. Included here is a sampling. The reader of these voices can begin the process of imagining how they came together or didn't for the benefit or detriment of the newly freed. It seems appropriate to introduce this collection of voices with that of one of the best known superintendents of the camps, John Eaton, Jr., for the thoughts of the superintendent, appointed by the army and fulfilling the role of intermediary between the administration and the army and blacks, were infused with both the interests of the nation and, in the best cases, sincere hopes for the slaves.

John Eaton, Jr., Brigadier General, Superintendent of Freedmen
“Already the numbers were large; a camp had been gathered and was progressing finely at Corinth under Chaplain Alexander—their the women  & children had picked to their own advantage all cotton accessible; at Bolivar, large amounts—to whose advantage I am unable to say; at Grand Junction, in accordance with Order No. 4, with advantage to themselves and profit to the Government; and at Cairo, a camp for their reception and care.”
April 29, 1863 (Quoted in Freedom, a Documentary History of Emancipation)
Eaton's comments here are offered as part of a report to Lt. Col. John A. Rawlins, Gen. Grant's chief of staff. Eaton was general superintendent over the Department of Tennessee including Arkansas. Five months after his appointment to the position, Eaton queried camp superintendents concerning their impressions of blacks, the roles they thought blacks could and/or should play in the war, and the nature of activities at the camps.

“I saw [Leah Martin] often inside the Federal lines—she was in Camp ‘Shiloh’ of the colored people, & also on President’s Island, while I was in service.”
Fountain Day of the 59th USCT so testifyied before the Southern Claims Commission for Leah Martin. Day adds that Martin went between the camps offering food to the soldiers. Martin was a cook and an entrepreneur. Her husband had been killed by Confederates at the start of the war. (Day quoted in Freedom)

“I visited with [the fugitives] as they sat in their rags and dirt, and listened to their accounts of the privation and suffering they had undergone before reaching the Union lines. Although their destitution was extreme, I heard no murmurs or complaints. Their hearts seemed full of praise to God for their deliverance from slavery.”

From Reminiscences of Levi Coffin

Coffin is speaking specifically of the contraband at the camp at LaGrange, Tennessee. Coffin, active before the war as an Underground Railroad agent, visited camps in the Mississippi Valley in the fall of 1862 and again in the spring of 1863.

"I put my family in the old Prentiss House, which was a big hotel with twenty or thirty rooms. More than three hundred black people was in there’. But a smallpox epidemic ensued, and they died like sheep, and we lost all our children but one’.”
Freedman Brad Johnson, a soldier, talks about losing his family while away fighting. Johnson had taken them to occupied Vicksburg for protection, but when he returned for them he learned that the Prentiss House had been torn down, and no one knew  for certain the whereabouts of his wife and children.
Johnson quoted in The Slave's War.

Levi Coffin and Laura Haviland, former Underground Railroad operatives, visited most if not all of the camps in the Mississippi Valley. See sources below.