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Found in the AMA Archives at ARC

Found in the AMA Archives at ARC

The format of the treasured document, a census, is rudimentary, ink-written undoubtedly by dim lamplight. Six thousand, six hundred and one individuals, freedom fresh, their current legal status yet unclear, gathered at three early Civil War “contraband” camps in the Mississippi Valley. The census, ordered The Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, an ad hoc agency formed to study African Americans in transition to freedom, provides a window into the lives of African Americans in The Department of the Tennessee and a roadmap to the past for people interested today in this period in American history.

Memphis, Grand Junction, and Corinth, the recorder, likely Radical Republican John Eaton, Jr., wrote on the vertical axis of the table, separating the camps that had opened in the fall of 1862 and the winter of ’63 in southwest Tennessee and northwest Mississippi. Beneath the place names, Eaton also divided into three groups—men, women, and children--the “contraband” or refugees, human beings. Across the top of the paper, on the horizontal axis of the hand-drawn table, he classified the people further--by race, by trade, and by parental and marital status. He delineated racial categories: African and Mixed. He classified the refugees by occupation: field hands, carpenters, blacksmiths, teamsters, cooks, laundresses, and seamstresses. He counted those who were literate: 141 men and fifty-two women, six percent of adults in the three camps, three percent of the women and eleven percent of the men.

As would be the case in future camps, women and children greatly outnumbered men, at Corinth, Mississippi, there were two women for every man. The difference is explained not by the fact that the women necessarily were without husbands but by the likelihood that most able-bodied men were somewhere else, working. Either they had been dispatched by the Union army to gather cotton, chop wood, deliver supplies, or build fortifications, or they had found related work on their own. The FIC, in its initial report June of ‘63 argued for the use of labor of blacks, stating clearly that “freedmen” should be employed and treated “as auxiliaries to the Government in its prosecution of the war.” In the west, this intention was related to Eaton by Gen. Grant who took his direction ultimately from President Lincoln through intermediaries in the war department.

On the other hand, Grant himself already had made use of black labor, according to “embedded” journalist Thomas Knox and missionary Lucinda Humphrey Hays, both of whom referenced in separate documents existence of an early corps of Negro workers. The difference between official use and other labor situations, some of them created by blacks themselves, is no small point. Just as Eaton’s census differentiates specialized skills and literacy among recently freed persons, the very existence of these abilities points backwards to heterogeneous experiences of blacks during slavery. Late historian Robert Engs wrote that free blacks in Hampton before the war owned property.  Only recently, admits historian Dylan Penningroth, have historians come to recognize “the world of slave property.” How property would have been acquired is a factor of flexibility of individual masters in allowing bondpeople to save money earned in various ways and, of course, of the ingenuity of enslaved persons Enterprising minds, Engs suggests, were no less active during the war. He wrote,

..we need to understand more about the black man’s response to the problems he encountered in the War, Reconstruction and New South. The people we now know to have been remarkably resourceful as slaves logically should not have been less so once they were emancipated.

In this vein, historians of the period have begun referring to legal slaves as enslaved persons, recognizing both their humanity and agency, as well as the role played by men and women in achieving their own freedom.

A related record of one Memphis refugee, John Crump, further makes this important point concerning agency. Crump’s case with the Southern Claims Commission, another ad hoc agency, this one intended to provide compensation to persons whose property was allegedly commandeered, encourages today’s researchers to hold a magnifying glass to historical documents, looking for details that may have been missed or altogether ignored under influence of other paradigms, especially that which limits enslaved persons to victims.

Crump claimed to have been free before the war, entering in January of 1863 either a contraband camp at LaGrange, Tenn. or one at Grand Junction, Tenn. as a Free Person of Color. He claimed to have brought into camp with him three mules, a wagon, and a yoke of oxen. Believing today that this “free” yet marginalized person in fact owned property for which he ten years later sought compensation requires rethinking the Civil War as liminal--as a suspension of normal order and an opening up of new possibilities, this despite sickness, death, and the many travails of war. Though Crump’s claim, which was not approved, was likely not believed, its very existence combined with the fact that this nineteenth century black had the audacity to apply for compensation for what he claimed as personal property speaks volumes. The SCC may not in fact have had the final word; Crump indeed signed his claim. He was one of the literate Eaton would have counted in his census had Crump been there.

Eaton’s record, together with others of its kind cross-referenced with a paper trail left behind by blacks who found refuge behind Union lines inspires revision of prevailing master narratives. One hundred and fifty-three years to the date in which Eaton compiled his census, this unstudied record speaks both to the diversity of African American humanity and to Eaton’s own subversive goals, those of radical Republicanism.

The fact that Civil War records exist in abundance, many of them digitized and available to an interested public, reopens this period of history, making it ripe for revision. 

Memphis, Grand Junction, and Corinth, the recorder, likely Radical Republican John Eaton, Jr., wrote on the vertical axis of the table, separating the camps that had opened in the fall of 1862 and the winter of ’63 in southwest Tennessee and northwest Mississippi. Beneath the place names, Eaton also divided into three groups—men, women, and children--the “contraband” or refugees, human beings. Across the top of the paper, on the horizontal axis of the hand-drawn table, he classified the people further--by race, by trade, and by parental and marital status. He delineated racial categories: African and Mixed. He classified the refugees by occupation: field hands, carpenters, blacksmiths, teamsters, cooks, laundresses, and seamstresses. He counted those who were literate: 141 men and fifty-two women, six percent of adults in the three camps, three percent of the women and eleven percent of the men.

As would be the case in future camps, women and children greatly outnumbered men, at Corinth, Mississippi, there were two women for every man. The difference is explained not by the fact that the women necessarily were without husbands but by the likelihood that most able-bodied men were somewhere else, working. Either they had been dispatched by the Union army to gather cotton, chop wood, deliver supplies, or build fortifications, or they had found related work on their own. The FIC, in its initial report June of ‘63 argued for the use of labor of blacks, stating clearly that “freedmen” should be employed and treated “as auxiliaries to the Government in its prosecution of the war.” In the west, this intention was related to Eaton by Gen. Grant who took his direction ultimately from President Lincoln through intermediaries in the war department.

On the other hand, Grant himself already had made use of black labor, according to “embedded” journalist Thomas Knox and missionary Lucinda Humphrey Hays, both of whom referenced in separate documents existence of an early corps of Negro workers. The difference between official use and other labor situations, some of them created by blacks themselves, is no small point. Just as Eaton’s census differentiates specialized skills and literacy among recently freed persons, the very existence of these abilities points backwards to heterogeneous experiences of blacks during slavery. Late historian Robert Engs wrote that free blacks in Hampton before the war owned property.  Only recently, admits historian Dylan Penningroth, have historians come to recognize “the world of slave property.” How property would have been acquired is a factor of flexibility of individual masters in allowing bondpeople to save money earned in various ways and, of course, of the ingenuity of enslaved persons Enterprising minds, Engs suggests, were no less active during the war. He wrote,

“we need to understand more about the black man’s response to the problems he encountered in the War, Reconstruction and New South. The people we now know to have been remarkably resourceful as slaves logically should not have been less so once they were emancipated.”

In this vein, historians of the period have begun referring to legal slaves as enslaved persons, recognizing both their humanity and agency, as well as the role played by men and women in achieving their own freedom.

A related record of one Memphis refugee, John Crump, further makes this important point concerning agency. Crump’s case with the Southern Claims Commission, another ad hoc agency, this one intended to provide compensation to persons whose property was allegedly commandeered, encourages today’s researchers to hold a magnifying glass to historical documents, looking for details that may have been missed or altogether ignored under influence of other paradigms, especially that which limits enslaved persons to victims.

Crump claimed to have been free before the war, entering in January of 1863 either a contraband camp at LaGrange, Tenn. or one at Grand Junction, Tenn. as a Free Person of Color. He claimed to have brought into camp with him three mules, a wagon, and a yoke of oxen. Believing today that this “free” yet marginalized person in fact owned property for which he ten years later sought compensation requires rethinking the Civil War as liminal--as a suspension of normal order and an opening up of new possibilities, this despite sickness, death, and the many travails of war. Though Crump’s claim, which was not approved, was likely not believed, its very existence combined with the fact that this nineteenth century black had the audacity to apply for compensation for what he claimed as personal property speaks volumes. The SCC may not in fact have had the final word; Crump indeed signed his claim. He was one of the literate Eaton would have counted in his census had Crump been there.

Eaton’s record, together with others of its kind cross-referenced with a paper trail left behind by blacks who found refuge behind Union lines inspires revision of prevailing master narratives. One hundred and fifty-three years to the date in which Eaton compiled his census, this unstudied record speaks both to the diversity of African American humanity and to Eaton’s own subversive goals, those of radical Republicanism.

The fact that Civil War records exist in abundance, many of them digitized and available to an interested public, reopens this period of history, making it ripe for revision. 

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*Accompanying digital image of census published here with permission. Census, Box 162, Tennessee, American Missionary Association Archives, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, Louisiana

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