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.