Camp Registers, or a log of each fugitive who came into camp, were ordered by The American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, a temporary office set up by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in 1863. Commissioners Samuel Gridley Howe, James McKaye, and Robert Dale Owen were tasked with visiting the South and describing the conditions of freedmen. The group submitted a preliminary report and a final report. In the former, dated June 30, 1863, the commission directed camp superintendents to implement a "comprehensive system of registration" for all blacks coming into Union lines. The record of each freedmen was to include "not only a description of the person so as to insure identification as possible throughout life, but also all the facts bearing upon his legal claim to freedom." Instructions were provided superintendents; however, the peculiarity of the actual registers indicates that either there was room for interpretation of the instructions or that the officers made decisions locally concerning what information would be included. Whatever the case, dozens of registers exist; they represent thousands of African American freedmen and women.
The Register of Freedmen
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.
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 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.
May 1863, Roll 4642, (24 names)
Island No. 10
April 1863, Roll 4472, (383 names)
March 1865, Roll 15601, (1312 names)
Fort Pillow to Island No. 10
**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.