Last Road to Freedom

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Rethinking Emancipation...Restoring families!

             America's Civil War Contraband Camps

“I had two of my own children with me and one child [Lewis] that belonged to Phoebe... At Saulsbury me and the children got on the train…and came to Memphis, but I lost the boy lewis [sic] before we got to Memphis. My husband and Berry, Charley and Edmond and John and all the balance of them got missed of us at Saulsbury. They did not come on that train. When I got to Memphis they sent me with a whole of others to President’s Island.”

Testimony of Mary Paralee Young, ancestor of genealogist Angela Walton-Raji

Corinth (MS) Contraband Camp
In 2004, the community of Corinth officially recognized the grounds of the former camp as an historic site.


Fortress Monroe in VA
Home of "Fort Freedom," Fortress
Monroe is slated to become a National Park.
here to learn more about the camp at this site. View
video on Fortress Monroe.

Emancipation and Civil War Contraband Camps

C-Span 3, March 18, 2011

Forum held in Houston, TX

featuring professors

Chandra Manning, Amy Murrell Taylor,

Charissa Threat and David Blight.

Moderated by Heather Williams.


"I think also that it doesn't take long before a new family researcher discovers that intuition and hunches that lead to incredible, in many cases completely unexpected, finds are born at the intersection of our actions on earth and the unfolding of time and its intentions (in a higher realm)." 

Alisea Williams McLeod, Site Founder

Read Howard University Professor Jeffrey Kerr-Ritchie's review of Voices of Emancipation and Runaway and Freed Slaves. The former contains pension files for Missouri USCT.


Contraband Camp: a household word?


   Most Americans have never heard of Civil War contraband camps, and a lack of knowledge concerning the role the camps played in shaping the African American transition to freedom is unfortunate as it oversimplifies our understanding of emancipation--especially the active role blacks played in gaining their own freedom. Literally hundreds of thousands of the four million African Americans still enslaved in 1860--came into contact with Union army lines. While many blacks remained on farms in areas occupied by federal forces, many other blacks took flight. One observer wrote of the deluge of blacks moving physically across the southern landscape: "Their comings were like the arrival of cities." In Stafford County, Virginia, for instance, ten thousand are believed to have crossed the Rappahannock in 1862 to reach Union lines in Fredericksburg on the other side of the river.

   In some cases, blacks were more or less escorted by army units. In at least as many cases, slaves--having heard of a nearby Union encampment--went in search of it. Where this was so, the slave's journey was no less harrowing, perhaps more so, than pre-war escape attempts since, during the war, the fugitive had to circumvent not only his master and patrollers but rebel forces. As trying as flight was during the war, however, hundreds of thousands, risking life and limb, embarked upon roads and paths to freedom. Some slaves arrived at Union lines on foot, some by mule or horse, some by wagon, and some even by train or steamboat. Many narratives of wartime journeys to freedom are told in yet unread pension records of African American Civil War veterans. For instance, genealogist Angela Walton-Raji, through studying the pension file of her great great grandmother, learned of her family's escape from Ripley, Mississippi. From Walton-Raji's sharing of the story, we learn that slaves had only a narrow window of opportunity to escape, and because so, many of them were separated from family members. (Read the heart-wrenching story of Walton-Raji's family's escape.)

   Accommodations in quickly-erected camps varied likewise. Some camps were neatly laid out, consisting of rough cabins, while probably most others offered only army tents as housing. In some cities, blacks who arrived early were housed within abandoned homes while, in the worst cases, fugitives went without any cover and perished from exposure and related sicknesses. In other cases, blacks occupied barracks abandoned by the Confederate army or moved into other city or rural structures including even stables. As a general rule, few camps--some more rudimentary than others--were expected to remain throughout the war, and blacks--later re-identified as contraband--might expect to be shuttled to two or more camps as existing ones closed for various reasons. In the worst cases, blacks did not survive the crisis of transition. In general, not only housing accommodations but other necessities such as healthcare were woefully inadequate, and the result of this dearth of provision was that, in some places, morning was regular witness to deaths that had taken place during the night. In the best cases, camps lasted for several years, and these fugitives built physically and spiritually wartime communities that would seed post-war ones.

    In recent times, perhaps only Hurricane Katrina offers a similar scenario on the domestic front, and like this twenty-first century crisis the genesis of contraband camps was too the government's failure to make appropriations for the black transition to freedom, due to political maneuvering. Hopefully, the deep devastation of Hurricane Katrina will never leave the American memory. The thousands of lives lost during the storm and the subsequent debacle provide an unfortunate lesson in the real consequences of politics. Without a doubt, the number of blacks, as well as whites, who lost their lives outside of Civil War battlefields--because of the very nature of Civil War and its disruption to life--is far greater than the number who perished in the recent storm. Yet, this fact remains hidden. Less than two years away from the Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the Emancipation Proclamation, this "last road to freedom" is being discussed by too few people, and the historical phenomenon of the contraband camp, along with that of other refugee camps housing poor, displaced, whites has been long forgotten.

History of the Camps 

   In most cases, Brig. General Benjamin F. Butler is credited with coining the term "contraband." Stationed at Fortress Monroe in Virginia  in 1861, Butler was met with the question of what to do with escaping slaves when three men entered his line seeking refuge. Like other commanding officers, Butler, an attorney, had to decide if he would obey the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 , which clearly, under threat of arrest, directed anyone coming into contact with an escaped slave to return the fugitive to his or her master. The sharp-minded Butler, aware that blacks were being used by Confederates to build fortifications and reasoning that the property of disloyal Southerners could be claimed by the federal army as "contraband of war," so classfied African Americans coming within his line. In addition to Butler’s important decision, The Second Confiscation Act, would nearly ensure that African Americans who crossed Union lines would be offered sanctuary. 


Family History and Contraband Camps  

    Given the large number of African Americans who were mobile during the Civil War (1861-1865), again, hundreds of thousands, it is not unlikely that every black person living today in America either knows of someone who resided in a contraband camp or actually has at least one ancestor who did. Learning about the camps can assist both individuals and families in drawing a picture of their ancestor's or ancestors' transition to freedom. Furthermore, armed with unique information concerning camps in specific areas, today's descendants can begin to fill in gaps in their family histories and create new stories of their ancestors' journeys. Studying this important era of our nation's past in this personal way has potential to give emancipation new meaning for individuals and families.  

   By 1863, two years into the war, registration of blacks residing at camps, as well as on abandoned plantations, more or less had become policy though there is no proof that registration was uniformly or consistently practiced. As a way to monitor the whereabouts and activities of blacks, since legitimate employment and published residence was the aim of those placed over contraband--each individual was to be registered., and the register was kept most likely by the Department of Negro Affairs, precursor to The Freedmen's Bureau. Because of the voluminous production of war records, there is reason to believe that many of the registers can be found in the National Archives. One, covering the areas of Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and St. John's River (area), Florida, has been published, and another--The Register of Freedmen--is available in microfilm form at the Archives. A transcription of the Register, containing the names of more than three thousand fugitive slaves is available on this site. The Register contains several pieces of information for each slave or several "fields": "name of registered party," "owner," "residence," "occupation," and "age," "in health," and "infirm and under age."

Learn more about the Register of Freedmen!

The importance of contraband camps. Watch Video.

(Listen to my own discovery of my ancestors' experience at a Memphis contraband camp.)

From camp to


   It seems to be generally agreed upon by Civil War historians that contraband camps were not initially conceived to be permanent residences or settlements for blacks. Some scholars have in fact described the camps as mere holding stations, and it is true as well that they became sites for recruiting black soldiers by 1863 and, before  and after that, for organizing a workforce. In as much as the predominant policy concerning fugitives was to employ them at one task or another, officials placed in charge of blacks wanted to see them move to self-sufficiency, on the one hand because whites placed in a position to shape directly the black transition believed the former bondsmen and women capable of it and, on the other hand, out of the sheer knowledge that there was no other way to care for the masses of blacks in need. 

   The most obvious source for employing masses of blacks remained the cotton industry, and so the government initiated the leasing of abandoned plantations and all but forced blacks to sign labor contracts. Lessees included Southerners who had signed The Loyalty Oath, northern speculators who had come south to get into the cotton game, a few army officials, and, as it turns out, a relative few blacks--even fugitives--who had managed during the war to make enough money to get their feet in the Southern agricultural door. Because most black men in the South's occupied areas were either enlisted in the United States Colored Troops or given some other assignment, it was African American women who caused officials the most concern and who, therefore, were driven back onto plantations. Some pension records of black men enlisted in the USCT include narratives of their "wives," detailing their various migrations during the war, contracts signed, and time spent in camp with their husbands. The last was part of the proof of marriage required for widows to receive the pension after the deaths of their husbands. 


Memorializing contraband camp sites

   Few of America's Civil War contraband camp sites display markers acknowledging the history that unfolded on their grounds. One camp at Corinth, Mississippi is a notable exception to America's general ignoring of this phenomenal historical moment. In addition to recognition of the Corinth camp, a major campaign by Friends of Fortress Monroe has been under way for a number of years to declare that site a national park. Americans should know that, whenever they travel southern roads, they are retracing and, in a different sense, trampling upon places where their ancestors searched for freedom either in this world or beyond it. Moreover, since few contraband sites have been marked and while it is known at the same time that these locations became the burial grounds for thousands, the bones of ancestors have literally been paved over. What kind of people literally walk over without thought the bones of those who have gone before them? Contraband camps, like National Battlefields, deserve to be marked as a feature of the nation's historical landscape and memorialized or remembered.

     The nation has not been urged to resurrect and publish the various registers that are referenced in the writings of camp superintendents, and without a major campaign to petition their publication millions of African Americans perceive a very small window into their families' histories. You can begin your own journey into your ancestral past by studying contraband camps. Information collected at these important Civil War sites holds the key to unlocking the black slave past.

12 Apr. 1861-
12 Apr. 2011

One hundred and fifty years since the start of the war.

Learn more about actual sites.

Click on the states listed at the top of the page to learn more about camps known to have existed in these states.


Next Projects: Island No. 10  and Cairo. Check back soon.