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!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

President's Island's Sister Camps

I'm going over my notes on Superintendent of Contraband John Eaton, Jr. and I notice the second reference I've seen in the literature to "The Colored People's Camp." I have written elsewhere that there were six camps in Memphis: Bethel, Chelsea, Dixie (on President's Island), Fiske, Holly Springs, and Shiloh. I think Eaton has spoken of Fiske as the main camp. TCPC refers to Camp Shiloh in one reference, but I see that it earlier referred to the camp at Corinth, Mississippi. I am so intrigued by this name. Was this name used to distinguish contraband camps from other camps populated by white refugees, or did residents of the camps come to think in a conscious way, i.e. a political way, of the camps in this term?

As I search for an answer to this question, I thought it a good idea to remind people who have a President's Island connection or who believe they do that our ancestors likely spent time in more than one camp including more than one Memphis camp since Dixie or P.I. may have functioned at least partly as a processing or registration station. One way to learn what was going on in the other camps is to locate and read the papers or published memoirs of missionaries, teachers, chaplains, etc., for instance, A. Severance Fiske.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Island Residents Confirmed

I've spent the last two months studying Freedmen's Bureau Bank records for Memphis, culling from them residents of President's Island. Thirty-four such persons claimed to live on the island. Their family members bring the total to 105. This, however, I would later discover to be a mere tip of the iceberg. After transcribing District 13 for Memphis, the district in which those with F.B.B records were found to live, the number of heads of household on the island in 1870 grew to 683. Once their family members are counted, it may be safe to say that five years following the war more than three thousand people lived on President's Island.

I plan soon to include this information in a pdf. file of heads of household on the Last Road to Freedom website. For now, I am excited about all that I learned while transcribing together the bank records and the census. Data gathered indicate that the agricultural experiment that Superintendent John Eaton, Jr. envisioned and planned during the war came into fruition following it. While President's Island is a diverse community in 1870, including recent immigrants from Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, England, and Italy, 79 percent of residents were African American, 70 percent of residents were farmers, and 83 percent of farmers were African American. Although I have not yet compared these demographics with other areas of southwest Tennessee and northwest Mississippi, instinct would suggest that these numbers will not be matched in places that were without contraband camps. Such a high level of independent black farming is directly a result of Eaton's program. I also found clustered in one section black heads of household who (1) had served in the war and (2) appeared to have been acquainted with each other before moving to the island. In the latter case, a few of these persons seem to have lived under the same masters in the era of slavery.

Two residents provided a specific location for their residences, one my second great uncle Samuel Williams stated that he lived on the northwest side of the island while Marrina Williams (of no known relation) stated that she lived on the Mississippi [River] side. Their directions would seem to suggest that people lived on different sides of the island. I do not yet know if District 13 would have covered the entire island. The photo below, courtesy of Special Collections at The University of Memphis, provides the location of the contraband burial ground. It reads:

I have the honor to request that the land laying adjacent to Camp Shiloah [sic] extending from the Contraband Hospital on the East to the Mississippi River on the West, and from the contraband burying ground on the North, to the soldier's graveyard on the South be assigned for the present season to the Department of Freedmen for agricultural purposes.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

from Memphis in Black and White by Beverly Bond and Janann Sherman

Lucinda Humphrey, a teacher on President's Island, is quoted:

The contraband camps at the post of Memphis, three in No., are beautifully located. A deep ravine south of the city separates the fort from Camp Shiloh, and another ravine just below separates Shiloh from Camp Fiske. These are on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi and opposite—a little south of this camp is camp Dixie on the President’s island. Shiloh is a village of log houses and camp Fiske consists of three long rows of cabins, numbering 109, besides quarters for whites, and the large church and school house. The camp on the island at present consists of tents.*

The authors of Memphis in Black and White remark that Humphrey describes the camps in idyllic terms. Perhaps. I have not yet had an opportunity to look at the Humphrey papers, which are housed at the Amistad Research Center in Louisiana. 

The authors continue, indicating some casualties in the African American transition to freedom in Memphis.

By the summer of 1863, over 1,000 people were housed in the tents at the President’s Island camp. Conditions deteriorated even further when an additional 1,500 freed people were relocated from Corinth to the Presidents Island late in the winter of 1863-1864. In January-February 1865, over 100 people died, including the camp commandant. One observer noted ‘on the evening before last there were five [contraband] came into our camp from Mississippi all of whom were more or less frostbitten. Some of their feet were so badly frozen that amputation will be necessary.** 

*Beverly Bond and Janann Sherman, Memphis in Black and White. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2003, 55.
**Ibid., 55.

As with all change, there will be losses and gains. Few writers that I have come across, those associated with the Union army, speaking of life in the camps, have presented a one-sided view. Even in the context of army and philanthropic collaborations that hoped for the best for blacks, there was much to fight against including death, disease and enemies to the cause of African American uplift. Neither an overly negative nor an overly positive view of the camps should prevail but rather a balanced perspective. My own second great grandmother did not make it out of the camp alive. Perhaps she was one of the 100 mentioned who perished in January and February of 1865. I could focus on her death alone or I could consider with this sad fact that four of her children and their father survived.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Women's Work on President's Island

,Freedwoman Leah Black arrived at President's Island after spending time at LaGrange, Tennessee 
Imagining what life was like on President's Island during the war must include a picture of what women were doing there. One way to frame the picture is to consider the thesis of Noralee Frankel, who writes in Freedom's Women that the general view of black women by army officials was that they, like men, should be put to work, and "work," in their perception was employment by whites. According to Frankel and others, most women would be encouraged to move from the camps to abandoned plantations, where they would function as field laborers. One might conclude that women who remained in camp were either unable to work or found other ways to win a place there. 

The story I love to tell is of Leah Black, a.k.a. Leah Martin, who, after losing her husband at the start of the war, lost also two of her four children. She spent time in different occupied towns, first, Bolivar, Tennessee (in the county that neighbored her "home" county of Fayette); next, in LaGrange, which was in fact in Fayette County (just a few miles from where she likely had lived before the war); then to President's Island and Memphis. One may be amazed at Black's movement, but she was likely being transported by the army via train, and given her later activities, there is reason to believe that she would have taken advantage of the best opportunities offered her. At LaGrange, she worked "on a Government farm for pay." But, once in Memphis, she may have decided to try to become more independent.  According to Fountain Day, who testified on her behalf before the Southern Claims Commission, she moved quite a bit around Memphis. He stated, “I saw her often inside the Federal lines—she was in Camp ‘Shiloh’ of the colored people, & also on President’s Island, while I was in service.” Day adds that Black always talked to the soldiers and cooked food for them.

This freedwoman obviously defined her freedom to include an ability to work and fend for herself. She appears in The Register of Freedmen as Leah Martin, but following the war she either took her dead husband's last name or remarried. Her case gives us some idea of the latitude black women in camp had despite the fact that they were registered as laborers and were probably encouraged to work for others. 

There is no doubt that many black women did work within the camps. The University of Memphis holds several copies of payrolls that include women. (See above picture.) One from August of 1864 (for workers at President's Island) includes Margaret Crawford, Cornelia Davis, Laura Davis, Manerva Davis, Zerena Green, Lucinda Hardaway, Mariah Harris, Jane Harvel, Lucinda Harvel, Martha Holland, Roseanna Johnson, Emily Logan, Ellen Louis, Ann McGee, Cathena McGee, Sharlott McGowen, Rachel Miles, Ann Miller, Alena Mitchel, Emma Moore, Milly Smith, Susan Paine, Fanny Thomas, Clarisa Thompson, Eliza Treadwell, Martha Wilkinson, Sally Wilkinson, and Ann Williams. These women would have worked cording wood, as seamstresses, cooks, and hospital help.  This runs somewhat contrary to Frankel's statement that as a way to coerce them to move onto plantations women did not receive pay .

Pay Roll of Laborers Employed on President's Island During the Month of August 1864
There also were a number of white women on the island, who also served as hospital workers and as teachers.In January of 1865, one official reported to Capt. Thomas Walker: "On President's Island there are (3) three schools taught by (4) teachers with (353) pupils. A night school for soldiers is just opening...In the Colored Orphan Asylum in charge of Mrs. Canfield (50) pupils have been regularly in school under the instruction of Miss Mary Cahill [spelling unclear]." In the fall of the prior year, the Office of Industrial Colored Schools reported: "The removal of the Freedmen [sic] from Camp Holly Springs to President's Island the past month has prevented Miss Eliza Mitchell from operating in her school." Gen. John Eaton himself, Superintendent of the Department of Tennessee including Arkansas, wrote in Grant, Lincoln, and the Freedmen, that Eliza Mitchell was in fact appointed to this position by him in 1863. He added that she found many homeless and orphaned children. She got them under the care of “Aunt Maria” who took charge of the children for about two years.According to Eaton, Canfield's asylum was in the city, and she had 100 orphans there.

Needless to say, this important work, whether that of teaching or that of cording wood, was necessary to the process of reconstruction that began, not following, but during the war.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Reconstructing President's Island

This photo of the New Hope Baptist Church appeared in the Press-Scimitar, November 2, 1937.(From the files of the Memphis Public Library, Central Branch)
It's actually been more than three years since I posted a picture of New Hope Church on President's Island. I'm re-posting that picture in this update. Needless to say, in the last three years I have not stopped thinking about P.I. but have been actively working on other things including trying to find documents on another contraband camp--Camp Holly Springs. In any case, I do have a few updates on President's Island, more than I can write about in this post, so I will try to find time to write several posts over the next two weeks.

Let me begin with the name of the church in the picture included here. According to the 1937 Press Scimitar article, this is in fact New Hope Church. I am curious about its structure and if it would have survived storms and floods over the years. I wonder this because I have evidence that one of the earliest, probably the first, post Civil War Negro churches on the island was in fact New Hope. This would have made New Hope at least seventy-two years old in the year of the photograph. I know the church was in existence shortly following the war (as an organization if not as a building) from studying Freedmen's Bureau Bank records. According to these records, John Crump (likely a slave of William Crump of Marshall  and Tippah counties.) was pastor of the church in 1870 and probably earlier. This is according to Thomas Downey, who was himself a preacher, who lived on the island.

Crump and Downey both have personal bank account records, and Downey makes an additional application in 1870 for an organization--"Laborer's Treasury." I don't know much about the organization, but many of those who lived on the island were farmers or involved in farm work. I have noticed other organizations with similar titles, so my guess would be that these are early benevolent societies since there certainly were many of these being founded at this time. They provided burial insurance and other benefits.

Many of the newly founded black churches in Memphis also opened accounts with the Freedmen's Bank, so it may seem surprising that New Hope did not have a separate church account. (Actually, I haven't given up on finding one.) It may be that the "Laborer's Treasury" served the purpose of creating a fund for families and individuals, funds that would of course be separate from the church. Yet, possibly many of New Hope's members would have also been a part of the benevolent society. Certainly, Crump and Downey's involvement in both (it was on Downey's application for LT that Crump was identified as pastor of New Hope) suggests an association between the church and the society.

I was delighted to find a bank record for Crump because of a personal connection. My second great-grandfather and his family also were residents of the island, and I learned from his pension file that Crump married him and his second wife--undoubtedly at this very church. Having the photo of it helps me and others to imagine wedding ceremonies, as well as other types of services taking place there.

But beyond the personal, a look at almost a third of Freedmen's Bank records provides a list of others who lived on the island between 1865 and 1870 (and likely longer). They are:

Thomas Downey
David Downey (wife Melinda) (David was in the 64th USCT (Co.D)
Fountain Walker(wife Frances)  (In 1869, he reports living on the island two or three years)
Solomon DeVall (wife Betsey DeVall) (Brother of Fountain. In 1869, reports that he has been living on the island 2 or 3 weeks)
Jo Durham (wife Vina Durham)  (In 1869, reports that he has lived on the island for three years)
Ben Kay Jackson (wife Susan Jackson) (In 1869, reports that he has lived on the island for four years)
Samuel Williams (oldest son of my own ancestor Daniel Williams, with whom he lives)
James Anderson (wife Chaney Anderson) (James was in the 63rd USCT (Co. B).
Isaac J. Walker (wife Ann Walker)
Marrina Williams (husband John Williams)
Aaron Hill (wife Martha Hill)

A number of children belong to these families, and needless to say this list is not exhaustive but simply represents those who opened a bank account with the Bureau between 1865 and 1870. I certainly expect that there will be more to add to the list, those who opened accounts in 1871. My own ancestor for instance did not open his account until 1872, and another son also later opened an account.

I have lots of hunches about this population. Perhaps it is becoming clear here that those who opened an account were leaders of a sort. Most of those listed are working for themselves as farmers, an important distinction from sharecropping and also from the contract labor that was the fate of many in the years following the war. I have no doubt that all of these men and women on the island are renting land, and there is evidence to prove that their choice to remain on the island after the war is directly influenced by the agricultural experiments begun during the war.This is an important point to make because local memory often misrepresents those who lived on the island as being in a refugee camp, and the picture too often offered really is of people who were at the mercy of local land owners. Without a doubt, these African American farmers would have had to negotiate with the owners, but there is reason to believe they were quite capable of doing so. This is an important question for further study, especially since at the end of the war all whites [this was the language used in the order] not connected to the military and its projects were to vacate the island.*

Lastly, it is worth noting that Freedmen's Bank records also reveal many blacks living at Fort Pickering following the war. Many of its residents, some veterans and their families, would have been well acquainted with persons living on President's Island, so I would say that these communities were mutually supporting and mutually interested in the same goals, one being religious instruction and another being achieving independence through farming.

*Special Order No. 10, Paragraph 8: “The exigencies of the service rendering it absolutely indispensable, President’s Island, in the Mississippi river below Memphis, Tennessee, is hereby reserved and set apart for the purposes of the Freedmen’s Department, and is placed under the exclusive control of Col. John Eaton, Jr., General Superintendent of Freedmen, and such officers as he may place in charge of camps, farms, mills or other interests.“All white persons not directly connected with the military service will be required to leave the Island before the first day of January 1865, and after that date no white person will be allowed to land on any part of the same without written permission so to do, either from these Head Quarters, the Head-Quarters District of West Tennessee, the General Superintendent of Freedmen, or the Provost Marshal of Freedmen, and none other.