The Largest Refugee Crises Ever Created on the American Continent

By Gary Farrow, Danville Historical Society

Black fugitives forging the  Rappahannock river.

Black fugitives forging the Rappahannock river.

Civil War history often gives short shrift to the fact that the conflict precipitated the largest refugee crisis ever seen on the American continent. Before we read Danville’s North Star reports for January of 1864, it is necessary to understand how the Union was handling the freedmen problem that was created by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on Sep 22, 1862.

The Proclamation declared that if a rebel state did not return to the Union by January 1, all slaves would become free. However, slaves did not wait until the beginning of the year; they began streaming toward Union lines and the refugee crisis was on. One reporter wrote, “There were men, women and children in every state of disease or decrepitude often nearly naked with flesh torn by the terrible experiences of their escape.” But if ex-slaves thought they had a better life, they were often mistaken. “Often the slaves met prejudices against their color more bitter than they had left behind.”

Two contrabands living in a tent.

Two contrabands living in a tent.

By mid-summer of 1862, the Washington area was awash in black refugees who had fled or been liberated from their masters. Living conditions deteriorated from terrible to abysmal. Something had to be done so the Federal government created contraband farms to put the refugees to work.

Contraband was a term coined by Gen Benjamin Butler who in 1861 at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, was among the first commanding officers to give three escaped slaves safe haven behind Union lines. One Union officer commented, “Never was a single word adopted by so many people in such a short time.” The ambiguity of the word, “contraband” skirted around the word “emancipation,” which some other Union commanders had attempted to declare on behalf of the blacks in their districts. Lincoln quickly countermanded these declarations for fear of creating a political firestorm in the North and pushing the border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri into secession. The more politically correct word “contraband” also implied that blacks were property and therefore subject to confiscation from enemy combatants and their abettors. The first Confiscation Act in ’61 stripped holders of slaves their ownership but left the status of the blacks themselves murky.

John Eaton, Contraband Superintendent

John Eaton, Contraband Superintendent

On November 11, 1862, Grant responded to the crisis by appointing a former high school principal and the chaplain of the 27th Ohio Infantry, John Eaton, as Superintendent of Contrabands who set “organizing them [refugees] into suitable companies for work.” Contrabands were paid for their labor a sum of 12.5 cents for every pound of cotton they picked. With strong support from Grant, Eaton’s stated policy was, “In no case will Negroes be forced into the service of the Government or enticed away from their homes except when it becomes a military necessity.” For many there was no realistic alternative to a contraband camp, but the policy began to flesh out what blacks could and could not do after they had crossed Union lines.

Although Eaton had Grant’s support, the General demonstrated no extraordinary compassion for his charges. As one scribe wrote, “The soldiers of the Army were a good deal opposed to serving the Negro in any manner.” A model contraband camp was established by Eaton in Corinth, Mississippi, about 300 miles northeast of Vicksburg. Tents discarded by Union troops were used to provide shelter for the refugees. And another Chaplain, James Alexander, of the 66th Illinois, was appointed to oversee administration of the camp. In time, blacks and freedmen constructed a school with four rooms, a hospital, commissary and a place of worship.

A contraband camp.

A contraband camp.

By late 1862, the American Missionary Association arrived in Corinth with volunteers to provide Freedman with education and minister to both their secular and spiritual needs. In the spring of ’83, the Reverend Edward Pierce commented on the Freedmen’s thirst for education. “We cannot enter a cabin or tent, but that we see from one to three books.” By the beginning of fall and with the help of more missionaries, the school serviced about 400 children during the day and 90 adults at night. By this time approximately 1,000 freedmen within the Corinth camp were able to read with Christian teaching receive the earnest attention of the students. The overall camp population fluctuated between 1500 and 6,000 with some blacks entering the military and others working the plantations. The facility provided the first haven where black families were not at risk of being broken apart.

By the middle of the year, camp workers were generating about $5,000 a month in agricultural profits. However in January, military priorities tragically dictated that some refugees were sent to confiscated plantations further away from Corinth and the remaining refugees were moved to a camp in Memphis. Unfortunately Corinth’s model of cooperative farming on a large scale was undermined by infighting between the Treasury and War Departments over the leasing of confiscated plantations. During the war only two other camps assisted by strong civilian leadership were able to replicate Corinth’s successful experiment which provided freedman with a planned and policed environs along with educational opportunity.

The government’s intent behind the contraband farms was to improve the living conditions of blacks, support their moral health and provide additional funds to support the war effort. The farms were created in response to the horrific conditions that existed in black refugee camps. The camps in the Washington DC area were initially conceived and implemented in 1863 with a total of 883 blacks distributed among five facilities.

As blacks were moved onto contraband farms, they were initially housed in tents. Later, planned communities were created and log huts provided. The first farm included ninety people in all but the number of farms quickly expanded in the parts of Northern Virginia under Union control.

According to an August ’63 Official Report on farms in the area, “Every man or woman above the ages of 16 and 14 years has drawn daily one ration; every boy from 1 year to 16 years, and every girl from 1 to 14 years, has drawn one-half rations; all below one year have drawn nothing.” Although the August ’83 Report contended that infectious diseases were under control, it also noted that “Twenty persons had died in the month of June, fifteen of whom were children, and five of the fifteen were only twelve months old or under.” The farms represented an improvement over Camp Barker within the city, which saw people dying at the rate of twenty-five persons per week.

Some who still resided in camps would leave them on Monday, go to one of the designated farms and return home on Saturday evening. Blacks working the contraband farms were paid for their labor. The government had a total of 1300 acres under cultivation that included farms created in Union controlled territory in the state of North Carolina. The implementation of this program along with the seizure of private property was seen as a radical step by the Federal government

January 2, 1864 Danville North Star

The Freedmen – It is said that the War Department has ordered Lieutenant Colonel Green, Chief Quartermaster of War Department at Washington, to break-up the freedmen’s camps in around Washington, north of the Potomac, and transfer all the freedman to the contraband farms in the neighborhood of Arlington, on the abandoned plantations of absconding secessionists. All Negroes not employed in the Quartermaster’s Department, who have therefore been depending on partially or wholly on the government for support are also to be sent to the farms to work.

January 9, 1864 Danville North Star

General Forrest commanding the rebel forces of Athens, Tennessee that people refusing to take Confederate money in business transactions will be arrested and sent to headquarters for trial on charge of attempting to depreciate the currency, and their goods will be confiscated. All bonds, oaths and obligations imposed by the Federal Government are declared null and void.War and General News Items

The confiscation act, as it stands at present is said to be of little value to the Government as a source of revenue.

War and General News Items

A “reliable gentlemen” just from Richmond, says that Jeff. Davis will cut his throat when the crisis of the rebellion comes. Come crisis.

War and General News Items

Gen. Thomas, just back from the Mississippi Valley, states that he put into the field 20,000 drilled slaves in the infantry, artillery and cavalry; the latter mounted on mules, of which 17,000 are in Banks’ department. He has 50,000 Negro women and children under his care. He is leasing the sugar and cotton estates in Mississippi and Louisiana rapidly, and not for stipulated rent but for a royalty on the produce – $4 a bale of cotton of four hundred pounds, one cent a pound for sugar, and five cents a bushel for corn and potatoes. This rent goes into the national treasury. The farms pay, besides, the direct revenue tax.

January 16, 1864 Danville North Star

The Davis Plantation and Negroes

Just below Vicksburg is the plantation of Jeff. Davis, just beside that of his brother Joe Davis. Says a Memphis letter: “Before the war these were among the finest plantations on the river; but they have met the fate allotted to other secession property. When Farragut’s fleet came up the river, on the occasion of the first siege of Vicksburg, a landing was made at this point. The sailors from the fleet were allowed on shore and despoiled the plantations of most of their beauty. Everything of value was either carried away or destroyed, and the plantations presented the appearance of having suffered a deluge and tornado at the same time…

[However] Mr. Davis had removed his Negroes to a plantation near Edward’s Station about half way between Jackson and Vicksburg. Here they were considered safe and would have been so had none of our troops passed in that direction. The progress of events in the siege of Vicksburg sent General Grant in the vicinity of Edward’s Station, to take up his position in the rear of the town, which the rebels believed impregnable. Jeff. Davis’ Negroes were made free, and passed forever from the control of the arch-rebel. The man who stands foremost in a rebellion for the protection of slavery has lost by the event of war the very property he wished to render more secure. Not only he, but thousands of his fellow rebels have similarly suffered.

The loss of his slaves is not all. The commissioners in charge of the contraband camp have ordered these abandoned and runaway Negroes are to be gathered there previous to distribution, and plantations are to be cultivated by their labor.

The river here forms a great bend…Fortifications will be thrown up across this neck, and the place will be securely garrisoned by Negro troops… The whole property on the peninsula will be confiscated, unless some astute lawyer can be found who will prove to the satisfaction of a court claims that Jeff. Davis is not disloyal. The fate of these estates is a single example of the results of the war.

As Grant drove his troops deeper into the South after Vicksburg, Jefferson’s plantation became victim to the Union juggernaut. Perhaps some of his former slaves came back to his farm as freemen.




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