The initiative known formerly as The Freedpeople's Transcription Project is now the Eaton-Bailey-Williams Freedpeople's Transcription Project. Through the process of transcribing Civil War records related to contraband or refugee camps, these three names of individuals involved in the camps and in reconstructing Memphis and Tennessee following the war emerged. The three represent well the best of what the cruel war accomplished.
John Eaton, Jr., born in Sutton, New Hampshire, graduated from Dartmouth and also attended Andover Theological Seminary, attaining both an LL.D. and a Ph.D. He was ordained within the Presbyterian Church at the opening of the war, and, when duty called shortly thereafter, he enlisted in the 27th Ohio. He had been serving at the Ward School in Cleveland. Eaton's preparation both within the ministry and within education would prove fortuitous for the work that Gen. U.S. Grant would call him to, by General Order, on November 13, 1862. Already, Eaton and other chaplains had in the field met twice to discuss what to do about the thousands of African American fugitives who were crossing into Union lines. While it was clear that the men would be put to work, what would be done with the masses of women and children who accompanied their husbands and sons sometimes even into service posed both a moral and a practical dilemma. Committed to the idea that African Americans would best transition to freedom through developing strong families, Eaton and his colleagues quickly decided that women and children too would be offered sanctuary. This decision was, however, made within a developing policy that freedpeople would be employed by the government mainly cutting wood, delivering goods, building fortifications, and cooking for soldiers, mostly officers. Eaton was appointed by Grant Superintendent (of Contraband) over the Department of Tennessee, making in the first year occupied Memphis the center of his operations. African American fugitives given refuge within Grant's Department of the Tennessee worked through The Department of Freedmen, precursor to The Freedmen's Bureau, founded in the last year of the war. Hordes of African Americans descended upon Memphis from surrounding Tennessee and Mississippi counties as well as from the states of Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama, and Louisiana. Eaton found the task of helping blacks transition to freedom entirely overwhelming. Nevertheless, the task before him was assisted by his own guiding philosophy and Christian faith, through his partnering with Quaker and philanthropic wings of other religious denominations who shared his goals, through The Freedmen's Aid Commission, which had outlined a plan for emancipation that included a focus on work and order, and by the freedpeople themselves, who in fact had their own views concerning freedom and their own plans for their new lives. Those plans might not have included forced work or conscription and probably did not include either a requirement that they carry with them at all times certificates of registration, a burdensome demand that must have reminded freedpeople of slavery. And yet, it was just this system of registration and the order that it created that would leave to posterity evidence of the freedpeople’s lives in Memphis.
Africa Bailey, born a slave in Southampton County, Virginia around 1815, and Daniel Walker Williams, also born a slave in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, would have been acquainted with Eaton since both freedmen enlisted in the 63rd Regiment (Co. K) (formerly the 9th Louisiana) otherwise known as the Invalid Corps in which Eaton was first colonel and chaplain. The I.C., referred to by Eaton less pejoratively as The Home Guard, was composed of men fit for garrison duty but not for field service. It was a unit that matched both Eaton’s and Bailey and Williams’s purposes well. The 63rd would see very little, if any, field service, its soldiers not traveling far beyond Memphis. Essentially, its activities centered around Fort Pickering, where its men were stationed, and around the city’s six contraband camps--Chelsea, Dixie, Fiske, Holly Springs, Bethel, and Shiloh. The 63rd guarded both the camps and the fort, served as teamsters and worked in ordnance in the D.O.F. and for the Quartermaster’s Office. The latter undoubtedly put Williams, if not Bailey as well, in an auspicious position to participate in farming experiments, which were, together with educational opportunities and religious instruction offered the freedmen, the linchpin of Eaton’s wartime project.
Bailey and Williams, husbands and fathers, had been acquainted for almost twenty years at the start of the war. Both had recently been owned by Elizabeth Herndon Hull of Marshall County, Mississippi, paternal great grandmother of Edward Hull “Boss” Crump, Jr., former mayor of Memphis. While Crump’s grandfather, William Crump, was a staunch Unionist, his great uncle William Hull, sixth son of Elizabeth and through inheritance owner of Bailey and Williams, served in the Confederacy. At the start of the war, Bailey and Williams would have lived on William Hull’s Greenwood plantation for many years, Williams for certain since the founding of the county following the Chickasaw Cession, which spurred the family’s movement west. Williams was raised in Mississippi; Bailey, ten years Williams's senior, may have been purchased before or after the Hull family’s migration. In either case, Williams and Bailey both were living at Greenwood in March 1863, when Union forces visited the northwest Mississippi hamlet of Salem and its surrounding plantations, the general location of Greenwood. According to Maj. William D. Blackburn of the 7th Illinois, his unit stayed overnight at the plantation, March 2 to March 3. The second day, the Greenwood estate was said to have been burned along with Woodcote, the home of Hull’s father-in-law, Judge Alexander M. Clayton, who co-wrote the Ordinance of Secession. Bailey and Williams likely traveled to Memphis after this occupation of Greenwood. The families of both men are found in the Register of Freedmen, which would appear to date to early 1864.
While these two fugitives more likely than not journeyed to Memphis together by train or on foot, their paths would diverge somewhat as Bailey sought to lead his fellow freedpeople on a road to Christian faith and Williams looked to succeed in farming. The 63rd was mustered out in January of 1866 at DeVall’s Bluff, Arkansas. Months earlier, May through July of 1865, Williams had been detailed by then Commander at Memphis Gen. Cadwallader C. Washburn. While two as yet uncertain special orders were attached to the detail, it seems likely that the order involved Williams working with others to make a final go of Eaton’s fledgling agricultural experiment on President’s Island, located just below Memphis in the Mississippi River. The Island, at the close of the war, temporarily remained the site of Camp Dixie while Eaton’s formal Department of Freedmen would be usurped by The Freedmen’s Bureau. In 1864, Eaton’s experiments in farming had been taken over by the U.S. Treasury Department, which wanted to insure that all proceeds from the farmng experiments were turned over to the government. In Eaton’s view, the Treasury Department's involvement was an imposition that got in the way of black cultivators gaining independence. (Janet Sharp Hermann describes this conflict in Pursuit of a Dream.) Eaton much preferred that the army work directly with black farmers and other laborers. At the end of the war, the army did in fact regain control of President’s Island, and by special order all whites not involved in the operation of the camp and farming experiments were asked to vacate the site. It was into this situation that Williams stepped in 1865, and there is reason to believe that both because he had managed to farm during the war, despite other responsibilities, and because he likely had been an overseer or driver on Hull’s plantation (oral tradition has it so), he was in a perfect position to get a head start at independent farming.
Williams was not literate, and it would appear that he did not seek to learn to read or write despite the fact that such instruction was offered at the contraband camps, within the city, and at the fort where he was stationed. Neither were all of Williams’s children literate, a fact which may point to a decision by him to focus the family’s energies on farming. However, his oldest son, who would, like Bailey, seem to have been called to the ministry, could read and write. Both he and Bailey, part of a small though meaningful minority of freedmen, were able to sign their names to applications for accounts with The Freedmen’s Bank. While Williams helped nurture an economic foundation for a freedom settlement on President’s Island, Bailey founded at Fort Pickering the Second Baptist Church (later Salem Baptist). His application for a church account in November of 1868 was the first of several accounts connected to various religious, benevolent or fraternal organizations that he led including King Solomon Lodge No. 2 and The Baptist Convention. His name also appeared on the accounts of many of his family, friends, and likely parishioners, some of whom reported that they lived with Bailey. It is clear that this former slave served among other roles as a trustee both for organizations and for individuals, clearly encouraging freedpeople to open bank accounts. Some freedpeople associated with Bailey formally requested that funds be turned over to him in case of their deaths. Others opened their accounts literally in his presence so the records show. While today’s observers may find such acts questionable, a likely reason for Bailey’s involvement in the personal financial affairs of his fellow freedmen and women was that he felt a degree of comfort in interacting with agencies, a comfort that it would take many, many years for others to feel. Like Williams, Bailey too had likely been “high up on the plantation ladder.”
Williams and his two oldest sons, Samuel and Robert, also opened Freedmen’s Bank accounts. Despite Williams's illiteracy, doing so was at once part of what would become a history of his seeking compensation for his service. Records reveal that Bailey and Williams, especially the former, provided for other members of the 63rd testimonies needed to secure, first, a Civil War bounty and, second, when they would reach their senior years, a Civil War pension. Getting the pension involved such a tedious and time-consuming application process that it can be seen as nothing short of amazing that these black veterans even bothered trying to secure it, especially if handicapped with illiteracy. But what black veterans such as Williams lacked in reading and writing skills they more than made up for in numeracy skills and in their deep and broad knowledge of the cotton trade. Some might argue that this itself amounted to a certain kind of literacy.
Unfortunately, the names of Eaton, Bailey, and Williams were until recently nearly lost to history. Eaton, who was Grant’s first choice for Commissioner of The Freedmen’s Bureau, losing the position to Gen. O.O. Howard, went on to become Superintendent of Education in Tennessee and later a U.S. Commissioner of Education before becoming president of colleges in the U.S. and abroad, will undoubtedly be resurrected as an important Civil War figure as the nation rethinks emancipation and the role of contraband camps and the blacks who emerged as leaders from them. Not forgotten entirely, Bailey is remembered as founder of an early African American church in Memphis, yet few details concerning his church’s beginning at Fort Pickering have surfaced. The Freedmen's Bureau Bank records begin to fill in this gap as they give evidence of these Reconstruction era organizations and individuals and Bailey's ties to them. Williams, who remained on President’s Island from 1865 to as late as 1879, might be credited not only with assisting black farming in this suburb of Memphis but in neighboring DeSoto County, Mississippi into which he sent four of his sons around 1875. Williams himself is buried in that county, his grave prominently marked by a tombstone placed by his children, who knew his story. Yet subsequent generations would soon lose the family’s past.
The Eaton-Bailey-Williams Freedpeople’s Transcription Project, intended primarily to discover ties between African American freedpeople whose names made it into the public record through wartime registration, also places a light on three leaders, whose paths converged at the right time.