Sunday, July 6, 2014

They Were Sharp Bargainers

This time last year I delivered a paper at the National Underground Railroad Conference in Little Rock, Arkansas titled--They Were Sharp Bargainers. For several years now, I have worked to put together a radically different view of African Americans during the Civil War, based on the idea that many blacks were busy finding ways not just to stay alive but to make money. I am closer and closer each day to having a well-substantiated argument.

Unknown artist
Recently, I came across the Southern Claims Commission file of Cato Govan, an elderly African American who was a former slave of Mrs. Govan of Marshall County, Mississippi. Govan's file is extensive, containing both his own testimony and that of more than one witness. Cato Govan lived at the Govan homestead during the war. Unlike other slaves and freedpeople I've studied, who left the plantation for the contraband camp, Govan stayed in Holly Springs for the duration of the war. His testimony provides a clear picture of the wartime landscape, surprising us with the fact that a man like himself could navigate the journey to Memphis via wagon and approval of the U.S. government. Govan's statement is seconded by others. It becomes obvious that he chose to stay in Mississippi because there was money to be made still off cotton agriculture, and he knew how to make it. Govan's statement reminds me of something Charles Sydnor wrote: a black would rather drive his master's cotton to Memphis than to "labor with the hoe gang in the field."

There were many jobs or "occupations" on a plantation, and that of teamster was one of them. It seems very likely that Cato Govan had been hauling cotton for many years; he knew the value of mules--he bought his first pair in Holly Springs off a fellow colored. When he learned they had been stolen, he had to give them up, but somehow he had money to buy more. The government would commandeer Govan's property more than once, but it seems he always found a way to purchase the mules he needed to keep a cotton transport business going. He stated,

I hauled cotton to Memphis. I commenced hauling cotton the year after the Yankees took Memphis, and continued to haul cotton until the close of the war. I got through the rebel lines by traveling at night. Sometimes the federals occupied all the way to Memphis. I never brought anything out without a permit. I never hauled for anybody but myself. I mean I always drove my own team, but I hauled cotton. for any who would pay my price. At first I got $60 per bale, and afterwards $50 per bale freight. I could haul two bales. I could go to Memphis in a day and a night. It is fifty miles. It took the same time to come back. I got the privilege of going in and coming out of the lines-I never was delayed any by them.

Govan added that he had a pass from the government and that as the commanders at Memphis changed he received new passes. Though we know little of it, what Govan's statement recovers is a wartime system in which blacks not in the service and not residing within the camps could nevertheless find employment of sorts with the federal government. It certainly had gotten into the business of growing and selling cotton and of buying it also from those planters, who had signed the loyalty oath. Someone had to deliver the cotton, someone had to gin an bale it prior. Janet Sharp Hermann's relaying of the story of the Montgomerys of Davis Bend indicates not only how deeply involved in the cotton trade blacks continued to be during the war but that they wished to control as much of the process as possible. Blacks knew the whole cotton business, as well as how to make money from its parts. Theirs was knowledge valued during slavery and during the war.

I marvel at Govan's language. "I never hauled for anybody but myself...I always drove my own team...I hauled for any who would pay my price." Govan stated that he was afraid of whites, yet he knew how to bargain. He knew how to demand and get his price. His agency is clear and remarkable. In his sixth decade, he has been a slave most of his life, and yet, ironically, he possesses of a sense of a right to property. Even while still on Mrs. Govan's plantation--from which she is herself absent--he has property, his own team, and, in this way, he has developed a sense of independence. He hauled the cotton of others, but he did so with his own team, to his own profit, not to theirs.

I have faith that the evidence is out there, right around the corner that John Eaton, Jr.'s multitude of teamsters, members of the Invalid Corps, were much like Govan, middle aged men who knew how to make money both before the war and during. There is little doubt that they did not begin teamstering in 1863 or that they hadn't already seen the Memphis cotton market. There is little doubt that they were not sharp bargainers.

*Note: the embedded painting is from my personal collection

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Long-awaited Progress


Finally, after more than two years, I have, with the help of a very capable professional, transferred the Register of Freedmen to a spreadsheet. (Seems an easy task, but when your research has gone without funding...). In any case, it's done, and needless to say I feel fantastic about it.

In addition to the mechanics of the transition, our tech expert also painstakingly, and with great interest, reread the original document in order to find any errors in the first transcription. There were a few. Even more importantly, however, she also completed the second phase of the transcription project by adding to the spreadsheet "work classification" and "health classification."

Reaching this milestone will allow me to begin analyzing The Register very closely. There are many questions that can be answered now. For instance, exact numbers of persons who came out of a specific town or county. How many people were considered totally incapable of work vs. the number capable of doing "light work." Having these numbers of freedpeople coming from each area represented in The Register will allow me to begin mapping the movement of African Americans in the Mississippi Valley and, in that way, to create visuals that allow people to better engage history. When I met with my assistant today, these possibilities and others that I have not described had me doing somersaults.

The next phase of the work involves (1) transitioning from a spreadsheet to a full-fledged database and (2) transferring the hosting of the database to my website host, which will allow finally the ROF to become easily searchable.

Spread the word. New changes are coming to The Last Road site. Until the new year, please visit and take a look at the spreadsheet. I have uploaded a zipped version, so you'll have to download it, and I have also highlighted some of the initial questions I will be asking as I begin analyzing this important record with a fine toothed comb.

I hope you'll find intriguing the two "new" columns.

Enjoy your visit.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Contraband Camps in Mississippi and Arkansas

By Special Order of the Gen. Superintendent of Freedmen John Eaton, the Rev. Joseph Warren, D.D. was charged with publishing extracts from documents from the Department in answer to the interests of "friends of the Government and of the Freed People." The Second Series published by Warren contains many references to contraband camps in the Mississippi Valley. I will be updating the Last Road to Freedom website, based on the references. For now, I'd like to provide a list of camps mentioned.

The following is based on a report by Dr. T.J. Wright, Surgeon of the 64th United States Colored Infantry (dated Feb. 20, 1864)

  •  Birney's Plantation in Mississippi ("on the west bank of the river, about two miles below Vicksburg): 600 inhabitants estimated.
  • Blake's Plantations: "the first of these...about eight miles from the city on the valley road"; two other places located on the south bank of the Yazoo. 800 estimated inhabitants.
  • Brownsville, Arkansas: "a small camp for the reception of freedmen." 
  • Davis' [sic] Bend (about thirty miles below Vicksburg). Several plantations are mentioned: Lovel's (200 inhabitants estimated), The Lake Plantation, "three miles from the Lovel Place" (100 estimated." Wright comments that most on the Lovel Plantation are advanced in years, some even in their nineties; The Banks Plantation (100 estimated inhabitants); The Mill Plantation ("one of the Joe. Davis places" about five miles from The Banks Plantation. An estimated 150 living on at the Mill Plantation. The Joe. Davis Plantation (also known as the Hurricane Plantation): 200 estimated inhabitants; the Jeff. Davis or Brierfield Plantation: 200 estimated inhabitants. The Woods Plantation: freepeople here according to Wright were moved between Vicksburg, Goodrich's Landing, and the Bend. Therefore, the estimated number of inhabitants fluctuates from 200 to more than 1,000.
  • DuVall's Bluff: "a small collection of freedmen." Wright reports that most of them have come into the lines within the last two months [late 1863 or early 1864]. Estimated inhabitants: 300.
  • Goodrich's Landing: 1,500 estimated inhabitants on plantations.
  • Little Rock, Arkansas: Wright reports that there are many freedmen in Little Rock, the end of the terminus for the railroad from Memphis. He comments that few freedmen here rely on the government for care. He estimated that 150 were in camp and dependent on the government while thousands more earned a living.
  • Millikin's [sic] Bend: 200 estimated inhabitants (some contraband "in the Van Buren charge")
  • Mouth of White River (Arkansas): Wright reports that a population of about 300 live in poor cabins are are overcharged for food and other needs. Most work as woodchoppers for steamers along the river.
  • Omega Landing (seven miles above Paw Paw Island). At one point in 1864, there were as many as 1,000 here, but 800 were moved to plantations.
  • On the Bluff: this camp was considered a "reception" or temporary camp. It contained an estimated 200 people.
  • Paw Paw Island: 1,000 inhabitants estimated.
  • Pine Bluff, Arkansas: "a very large collection of freedmen." Wright comments that he has seen more sick people here than elsewhere.
  • Van Buren Plantation (including the Burns Plantation). Van Buren Plantation estimate: 800; Burns Plantation: 200.
  • Young's Point, Mississippi ("on the west bank of the river, six miles above Vicksburg.") 1,000 inhabitants estimated. In addition to the camp, blacks were also housed on plantations two to four miles from the river. Dr. Wright estimates that there are on each plantation 100 to 200 blacks.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

From Extracts from Reports of Freedmen

Shortly after John Eaton was appointed Superintendent of Freedmen in Tennessee and Arkansas (November 13, 1862*), he appointed several assistant superintendents. Fortunately, in addition to Eaton's Report of the General Superintendent of Freedmen, we have also Extracts from Reports of Superintendents of Freedmen. This 147-page document is full of references to camps in the west. I have Mike Boyle and colleagues of the Cedar County Historical Society to thank for making me aware of this fantastic source. (Some of us will want to follow the extracts back to their original documents, tedious work, but undoubtedly well worth the sweat and called for I think.) At first glance, it appears that every camp I was aware of--and a few not--is mentioned in "Extracts." Today, I'd like to offer a few that give mention of President's Island.

The first comes from Capt. Thomas A. Walker of the 63rd, Superintendent of Freedmen, West Tennessee. He is reporting to Lieutenant Jno. F. Perry, Adjutant Freedmen Department, May 31, 1864. In addition to the camp at President's Island, he reports on Camp Holly Springs and Shiloh.

Of President's Island, he writes that in the interest of the camp and to ensure "the dignity and integrity of our organization," he has placed Jno. C. Walker [his brother], who is of Co. K of the 63rd, in charge of the Island. "Under his administration," Capt. Walker reports, "every resource is developing finely." Capt. Walker continues that the agricultural program is experiencing success with "vegetables coming into market." "The farm is," he reports, "in splendid condition." With these successes, "a spirit of unity and mutual confidence pervades the camp."

It may be worth noting that in John Eaton's report of 1864 (published in 1865), his view of the experiment at President's Island seems somewhat less positive (than Thomas's) due to the usurpation of power by the Treasury. It is also interesting that Capt. Walker's report begins with a note of frustration concerning vagrant freedpeople within the city. He laments that there are many such persons who have circumvented the pass system and by so doing found their own places of residence (he implies at exorbitant prices) and their own employments including thievery. He finds such freedpeople a "nuisance" and believes that they will be better off in camp. In accordance with a circular he indicates was issued by the Adjutant of the Freedmen [sic] Department, he reports that he has sent vagrants "and those guilty of offences, to the Island camps."**

Another report comes from Surgeon D.O. McCord, Medical Director and Inspector of Freedmen, also enlisted in the 63rd. June 28, 1864, Dr. McCord reports that Memphis had "two camps and two hospitals, one of which was for small pox cases." Dr. McCord writes that he was first assigned to the care of freedmen but later took on a more general duty, leaving the people with only two surgeons and a number of hospital stewards detailed by Maj. Gen. Grant. One of the two acting assistant surgeons was, according to Dr. McCord, put in charge of the General Hospital and the other in charge of President's Island. Camp Holly Springs and the small-pox hospital were left, according to Dr. McCord, without surgeons. However, he also reports that in February he wrote to the Western Sanitary Commission, the N.W. Freedmen Aid Commission, and Western Freedmen Relief Commission asking for assistance. The Freedmen Aid Commission, McCord writes, sent "ten surgeons and some vegetables." One of the ten surgeons was sent to President's Island.

McCord comments that the improvements at President's Island are more "marked" than he has seen elsewhere in his tour of camps in the Valley. "It is nicely policed," he writes, and the quarters appear comfortable although the hospital is in need of repair. He made an order for improvements.

"Extracts" also contains much information on Freedmen's Schools throughout the Valley. A report on schools on President's Island (January to June, 1865) includes this:

"During the first three months no reports were received, and during March the overflow of the island stopped the schools almost completely. This fact, combined with the return of the best half of the island to its original owner, caused the authorities to remove all the soldiers, and the self-supporting portion of the camp, to other localities, during the last of April and the first week in May."
In light of the above, one wonders what to make of Maj. Gen. N.J.T. Dana's Special Order No. 10, which effectively removed from President's Island "all white persons not directly connected with the military service." The order was effective January 1, 1865.

*Grant's papers reference November 13, 1862 as the date of Eaton's appointment while Special Order No. 15 dates the appointment at November 11, 1862.
**Note that Thomas reference to more than one Island camp. Perhaps this, combined with the captain's dubiousness, suggests that there was a camp for vagrants and one for enterprising blacks interested in farming and gardening; both may have been on President's Island.
As of today, this blog has drawn over three thousand viewers, so I reason that there are lots of people out there who are interested in the subject of contraband camps in general and of President's Island in particular.

A new development this summer is that I am teaming with some very fine folks at the Cedar County Historical Society (Tipton, Iowa), who have shown deep devotion to telling the story of Lucinda Humphrey Hays, army hospital and contraband camp worker, as well as the noted founder of LeMoyne-Owen College, in Memphis, Tennessee. Sources that historians at CCHS have tapped into are too numerous to mention in one blog post, so I will instead offer bits and pieces of really significant information (actually, all of it is really significant, but I'll do my best to be selective in this blog).

In addition to this blog is my Last Road to Freedom site, which is undergoing redesign this summer. I am aiming for a greater focus on the war in the west and camps and persons who worked in various capacities in the Mississippi Valley. I will soon have a page on key figures, which will include John Eaton (and other chaplains such as Asa Severance Fiske), Humphrey Hays, brothers Capt. Thomas Walker and John Walker. I may also include something on the 63rd Regiment since it is becoming very clear that this black unit, led by Eaton, played a really important role in wartime Reconstruction.

The work goes slowly, however. At the moment, I am working on a timeline that will reflect the narrative offered by Thomas Knox in Camp-Fire and Cotton Field. Knox was a war correspondent and his recounting of troop movement, as well as his own movement, provides I think a good indication of the various windows of opportunity for African Americans to enter Union lines. Knox's timeline will be cross-referenced with The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant (John Simon, Southern Illinois UP, 1982). Hopefully, this will be the first of several timelines that supplement text with visuals. Speaking of which, I have been having great fun living in Mississippi and taking to the roads to visit the towns where the Union opened camps. Another year will not pass without my visiting the camp at Corinth; however, I suppose that I had not earned the right to visit before accepting that in Mississippi the name of the town is not pronounced in keeping with its Greek roots. Instead, the "o" is pronounced as an "a," and strong accent falls on the second syllable. Car-renth. In any case, I will be there soon. In the mean time, I have taken pictures of other areas including Grand Junction (the site of the first camp after Eaton's appointment) and LaGrange (which must have followed soon after). So, the flag or masthead of the Last Road site features doctored photos, somewhat like collages, taken along Highway 7 in Marshall County. This is not the road that freedomseekers would have taken, but symbolically it sends the right message.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Fall Day on the Grounds of Fort Pickering

On Riverside Drive, street level, above ravine below

A good friend and I, a fellow family history buff, spent the afternoon on what we understand to be the grounds of the old Fort Pickering, home to several United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. I'm still recovering from our visit, which was awesome in so many ways.

The photo above was taken at the dead-ending of Riverside Drive in Memphis across the street from The Ornamental Metal Museum, now on these sacred grounds. The importance of this photo is that it captures--or tries to--the fact that there is below the street level a ravine, the first of two gullies, that divided Fort Pickering from Camp Shiloh and Shiloh from Camp Fiske. There is reason to believe Camp Bethel was also in this same general area, divided from the other camps by yet another ravine. How satisfying to find that these land features remain virtually unchanged after one hundred and fifty years. Because we found the ravines, we could pretty comfortably identify these contraband camp locations. Sadly, however, the place which we have identified as Camp Shiloh is industrial as is President's Island, home to Camp Dixie. From what I could see beyond the tops of these trees and farther along the street, the entire area is covered by massive fuel storage tanks. It also would appear that there is no entry into this privately-held area.

Lack of access and usurpation of this area by private industry don't encourage optimism that the camps can be recovered as historic sites. However, the grounds of Fort Pickering remain lovely and there remain there several historic buildings at least one of which may be prewar. My friend and I asked at the Museum what they knew of the history of the property, and the answer is surprisingly little. Shame.

I'd say it's time for some activism on behalf of history and for posterity's sake. I suppose once upon a time those who spoiled this land could claim they didn't know its historical significance, but I have documents that prove that the entire area was home for many years to freedmen who had escaped from Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and Alabama plantations--even from as far away as Port Gibson and Milliken's Bend, Louisiana. We know at this point that mere yards away from where I took this photo today there was a contraband hospital, contraband graveyard, and a soldier's graveyard. Yet, there are no markers to memorialize these sites.

At the end of the day, I'm feeling, however, optimistic. After shooting the above photo, my friend and I stood on an incline across the street, nearer to the Museum, under the cover of towering oaks. And behind us were two Indian mounds. Standing there, we literally felt energy flowing through us, a tingling sensation that didn't subside until we had left the grounds. I read on one website that people believe the buildings to be haunted. Sure. Why not? My own explanation, however, for our sensing that we were in a high energy field is that the area just holds so much history even though much of it literally has been bulldozed. I find it deeply disappointing that there hasn't been, at least as far as I'm aware of, any activism surrounding these sites. I may have to educate and agitate.

Oak trees and Indian mound in the background

See other photos here.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

DeVall's (DuVall's Bluff)

Two important Civil War sites I've visited lately--Cairo, Illinois and DeVall's Bluff, Arkansas--have seen better days; however, despite the fact that progress has not favored these towns, they remain awesome places to visit.

Many of the soldiers enlisted in Memphis, TN or in Corinth, Mississippi would have been mustered out at Devall's Bluff. The image above depicts a celebration of those mustered out in 1866. My own second great grandfather was mustered out here. And if this image of celebration doesn't completely capture the mood of soldiers at the end of the war, there is this. Two men, brothers Solomon and Richard, who had been owned by the same Hull family who owned my Williams ancestors after the war took DeVall as their surname!