Landscape of Liberation: Civil War African American Archaeology in Tennessee

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 13

Zada Law
Director, Fullerton Laboratory for Spatial Technology
Geospatial Research Center
Department of Geosciences Middle Tennessee State University
zada.law@mtsu.edu

Almost every day this month, the news has featured stories of asylum-seeking refugees and migrants pouring into Europe. As I ponder the gravity of this unfolding humanitarian crisis, I’m reminded of the thousands of enslaved African Americans who fled to Union lines during the conflict and upheaval of America’s Civil War (1861-1865).

“Coming into the Lines” by Edwin Forbes published in his “Life Studies of the Great Army” series, 1876.

Coming into the Lines” by Edwin Forbes published in his “Life Studies of the Great Army” series, 1876.

In his Report of the General Superintendent of Freedmen, Department of the Tennessee and State of Arkansas, for 1864, Rev. John Eaton, Jr. wrote, “…but the blacks illustrated what the history of the world has rarely seen, — a slave population…rising up and leaving its bondage of centuries… in rags or silks; feet shod or bleeding; individually or in families; and pressing towards the armies characterized as ‘Vandal hordes.

Because the Union army occupied Middle and parts of West Tennessee early in the war, the flight from coerced labor and enslavement to freedom began in our state before almost anywhere else in the Confederacy. Some sought refuge and protection behind Union lines to avoid being returned to slavery. Others saw the opportunity to work for pay for the army. Others came because they had lost their homes when Confederate property owners abandoned farms and plantations in advance of the Federal occupation.

To protect and care for these self-emancipated individuals, the army established freedmen or “contraband” (a term applied to runaway slaves) camps near their outposts. In November of 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant appointed Chaplain John Eaton, Jr. to take charge of the first contraband camp at Grand Junction, Tennessee – a small town in southwest Hardeman County approximately 50 miles east of Memphis. Soon thereafter, the army established contraband camps in Memphis, Chattanooga, Nashville, Knoxville and smaller Tennessee communities.

“The Camp of the Contrabands on the Banks of the Mississippi, Fort Pickering, Memphis, Tenn.,” by Henry Lovie, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, November 22, 1862 (Courtesy of Shades of Gray and Blue, www.civilwarshades.org)

“The Camp of the Contrabands on the Banks of the Mississippi, Fort Pickering, Memphis, Tenn.,” by Henry Lovie, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, November 22, 1862 (Courtesy of Shades of Gray and Blue, www.civilwarshades.org).

However, the army could not keep up with the volume of freedmen flooding their lines. In March 1863, a report to the American Missionary Association documented 1,236 freedmen in camp in Memphis, but “2500 are scattered about the city, not yet under the care of the Superintendent…among whom the chief suffering now exists.”

“Report of the General Superintendent of Contrabands, March 13, 1863,” American Missionary Association Records, Mf. 364, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

“Report of the General Superintendent of Contrabands, March 13, 1863,” American Missionary Association Records, Mf. 364, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Northern-based benevolent societies, often affiliated with religious denominations, worked in cooperation with the military to provide food and clothing to freedmen in the camps. Some of the missionaries and freedmen aid workers started schools for African American women and children. American Missionary Association teacher Lucinda Humphrey wrote, “on the first week of November 1862, a school was opened in Shiloah, a contraband village contain upwards of two thousand inhabitants… (American Missionary Association Records, Mf. 364, Tennessee State Library and Archives).

At this point you may be thinking, “This is a compelling story, but what’s the archaeological connection?” If you think about it, refugee camps housing hundreds and thousands of people must have left an archaeological signature. However, to date, Tennessee’s state site file connects recorded archaeological deposits to only one camp – “Camp Contraband” in Chattanooga.

Perhaps one reason the corpus of recorded archaeological sites in Tennessee is “silent” concerning Civil War contraband camps is because Civil War history and archaeology are commonly focused on sites such as fortifications and battlefields. While the military lens is important to understanding and interpreting the archaeology of this crucial period in our nation’s history, defenses and engagements are only parts of the Civil War story. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot observed in Silencing the Past (1995), whether “silences” concerning past occurrences are deliberate or inadvertent, they skew the perception of the past.

“Teaching the Freedmen,” in Annals of the Army of the Cumberland by John Fitch, 1863. Tennessee State Library and Archives.

“Teaching the Freedmen,” in Annals of the Army of the Cumberland by John Fitch, 1863. Tennessee State Library and Archives.

However, archaeological deposits left by camps that only existed for several years may potentially be ephemeral and difficult to recognize, especially since the historical documentation for these camps are tucked away in missionary records and other hard to find sources. That is why archaeologists need to know about a new tool for identifying potential locations of contraband camps.

For the past two years, I’ve been working with a small team of archivists and historical researchers from the Tennessee State Library and Archives and MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation to mine historical documents and develop a GIS data layer of Civil War sites associated with African Americans for the Tennessee Civil War GIS Project. This website is a free, interactive online mapping application that connects Civil War events in Tennessee to primary source documents.

The African American GIS layer, known as the Landscape of Liberation, shows the locations of places such as contraband camps, freedmen schools, labor impressment locations, and recruitment and mustering locations for the United States Colored Troops. The application is searchable by county or community name, or users can click on a site to see the primary sources the research team used to place the site on the map.

Every site is connected to digital primary sources (and citations) along with brief site and historic context descriptions. Primary sources range from textual documents to historic maps and drawings. For example, a post-war sketch of Dover in Stewart County shows the location of the U.S. Military cemetery as well as the location of “Freestate (negro settlement)” which may be the remnants of a contraband camp.

Grand Junction, Tennessee. Possible location of first contraband camp. (www.tnmap.tn.gov/civilwar/freedmen/)

Grand Junction, Tennessee. Possible location of first contraband camp. (www.tnmap.tn.gov/civilwar/freedmen/)

The record for each site also contains a brief discussion of how the site location was determined. In the case of the first contraband camp at Grand Junction, while historic records indicate that over 3,000 freedmen were encamped here in several episodes, the records don’t give an exact location, suggesting only that the camp was somewhere south of the railroad. However, even this information could allow for archaeological ground truthing to identify this important site’s exact location.

The Landscape of Liberation layer went live on February 13, 2015, but we’re still adding data as primary sources are digitized. We hope it will inform and inspire field studies to identify the archaeological signature of the end of enslavement in Tennessee.

Landscape of Liberation sites GIS layer with 1860 county boundaries and 1865 railroad lines. (Courtesy of MTSU Geospatial Research Center.)

Landscape of Liberation sites GIS layer with 1860 county boundaries and 1865 railroad lines. (Courtesy of MTSU Geospatial Research Center.)

Further Reading:

 

Brent, Maria C. and Joseph E. Brent. 2013. Ready to Die for Liberty : Tennessee’s United States Colored Troops in the Civil War. Tennessee Wars Commission, Nashville.

Cimprich, John. 1985. Slavery’s End in Tennessee, 1861-1865. University of Alabama Press, University.

Lovett, Bobby L. 2009 “Contraband Camps.” The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Tennessee Historical Commission. https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entry.php?rec=305

Moore, Kenneth Bancroft. 1995. Fort Pillow, Forrest, and the United States Colored Troops in 1864. Tennessee Historical Quarterly LIV(2):112-123.

Prouty, Fred M. and Gary L. Barker. 1996. A Survey of Civil War Period Military Sites in West Tennessee. Report of Investigations No. 11. Tennessee Dept. of Environment and Conservation, Division of Archaeology, Nashville.

Smith, Samuel D. and Benjamin C. Nance. 2003. A Survey of Civil War Period Military Sites in Tennessee. Research Series No. 14. Tennessee Dept. of Environment and Conservation, Division of Archaeology, Nashville.

Smith, Samuel D., Fred M. Prouty and Benjamin C. Nance. 1990. A Survey of Civil War Period Military Sites in Middle Tennessee. Report of Investigations No. 7. Tennessee Dept. of Environment and Conservation, Division of Archaeology, Nashville.

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