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CORINTH:  The Story of a Contraband Camp
Cam Walker                                   See also: FOOTNOTES

LIKE MANY OTHER SMALL, southern towns Corinth, Mississippi, achieved a
measure of fame during the Civil War.  To the Union and Confederate
armies it was a strategic rail center, the site of a sharply fought
engagement.  To a multitude of ex-slaves it was an important way
station between bondage and freedom.

     Situated at the junction of the Memphis and Charleston and the
Mobile and Ohio Railroads in the northeast corner of the state,
Corinth first fell into Union hands in May, 1862, when General P.G.T.
Beauregard withdrew to the south.  In early October, 1862, the
northerners repulsed a two day Confederate attack and thereby assured
continued Union control of western Tennessee and northern Mississippi.
The battle of Corinth was bloody; it claimed hundreds of lives.  But
Corinth was a birthplace as well as a burial ground -- a birthplace of
freedom for thousands of blacks.  For more than a year, from late 1862
to early 1864, the contraband camp at Corinth provided the first taste
of non-slave life for men, women, and children who had fled the
plantations of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama.

     The history of the battle of Corinth is familiar; the story of
the Corinth contraband camp is not. [1]  Military records are readily
available, reports and accounts of the camp fugitive. Yet an
examination of the freedmen's experiences at Corinth reveals more
about the ultimate impact of the war than do a dozen military studies.
Some understanding of the process by which a whole people moved from
slavery to freedom, some idea of the obstacles encountered and
hardships endured, some sense of their hopes for the future all
emerge from such an examination.  The Corinth story also makes clear
the assumptions, prejudices, and ideals of the white men and women who
worked with the blacks during this transitional period.  Finally, the
problems and fate of the camp illustrate in microcosm the difficulties
and shortcomings of the wartime work with the freedmen.

     Two caveats must be entered.  First, all the sources for this
study are white;  the blacks at Corinth were largely "inarticulate."
Second, the camp at Corinth was not typical.  Considered a "model"
camp by all who saw it, Corinth was superior to most other camps in
organization, personnel, and facilities. Despite these limitations,
much can be learned from the brief history of Corinth.

     The origins of the freedmen's camp at Corinth are obscure.
Accounts conflict. John Eaton, the young chaplain whom General Grant
chose to "take charge" of the hordes of blacks seeking refuge within
Union lines, records that the camp was organized in November, 1862, a
few days after he began his work with the freedmen. [2]  Other sources
indicate that General Grenville M. Dodge, commander of the Corinth
district, actually authorized the camp several weeks earlier. Dodge,
like most of the Union commanders in the upper Mississippi Valley,
worried about the ever-increasing flood of runaway slaves. He feared
they would disrupt his camps and demoralize his men. In September,
1862, he complained that Lincoln's preliminary emancipation
proclamation encouraged the Negroes to desert the plantations. "They
will not even wait until 1st January," he wrote on September 15. "I
do not know what we shall do with them; . . ." [3]  Apparently he
decided to establish a separate camp for them, even though the War
Department had not yet sanctioned such a solution. Exactly when the
camp opened is unclear, but the service record of the first
superintendent, Chaplain James M. Alexander of the 66th Illinois
Volunteers, states that he was absent from his regular regiment in
September and October, 1862, because of his work with the freedmen at
Corinth. [4]  On November 6, several days before Eaton entered the
picture, General Grant allowed Dodge to send the Reverend Joel Grant,
chaplain of the 12th Illinois Infantry, north to solicit aid and
collect clothing for the blacks. [5]  Thus the Corinth camp seems to
have been well begun when Eaton entered upon his supervision. It
quickly became the showplace of his department.

     Grant had no specific authorization from Washington for his
November 11, 1862, order to Eaton. But just as General Benjamin Butler
had earlier jumped ahead of a timid Congress by accepting and
protecting runaway slaves at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, under the
guise of contraband of war, Grant told Chaplain Eaton to gather up all
the stray blacks, shelter, feed, and clothe them, and put them to work
for the benefit of the government. [6]  Grant had little choice. His
units had absorbed all the black cooks, servants, laundresses, and
teamsters they could. The old army barracks upriver at Cairo,
Illinois, an inadequate home for the hundreds of blacks already there,
could shelter no more. [7]

     And Secretary of War Stanton had recently forbidden the
transportation of any freedmen to the Northwest.  Democratic orators,
playing on the Negrophobia of many midwesterners, had raised the
spectre of black inundation, and the Lincoln administration feared
the political consequences. [8]  When thousands of destitute Negroes
poured into Federal lines after the battle of Corinth, the
establishment of contraband camps in the South seemed the only
solution. [9]

     Although Grant had no particular love for the freedmen - his
main purpose in setting up the camps was to protect the health and
morale of his own men and speed the advance on Vicksburg - he did
support Eaton in the difficult task he had assigned him.  He
admonished reluctant officers and enlisted men to cooperate with the
contraband work and issued additional orders whenever Eaton felt they
were necessary.  Thus on December 17, 1862, he designated Eaton
"General Superintendent of Contrabands" for the Department of the
Tennessee. [10]  As such Eaton could appoint the assistant
superintendents he needed, call for the requisite troops to guard his
camps, and receive and distribute all goods donated to the former
slaves. His primary tasks remained to supply the laborers requested by
the various departments of the army and to oversee the agricultural
work of the freedmen.  At first this work consisted of picking,
ginning, and baling the cotton crop already standing in the southern
fields - for the government.  That accomplished, the blacks could
perhaps begin to farm on their own account.

     Even as Eaton and his colleagues (mostly other chaplains at the
outset) moved to meet the immediate material needs of the freedmen,
they realized that a broader question loomed: "How was the slave to be
transformed into a freeman?" [11]  For numerous reasons - the continuous
influx of ragged and hungry contrabands, the lack of adequate support
from Washington, the ebb and flow of military fortune - the men in the
Mississippi Valley never found a wholly satisfactory answer.  Perhaps
those at the Corinth camp came closest.

     Certainly the physical facilities at Corinth were better than those
at most other camps in the Valley. Initially the contrabands lived in
old army tents, but Superintendent Alexander immediately set them to
work building their own homes.  Felling trees in he nearby woods, they
split logs and shingles and erected sturdy cabins.  In time they
numbered all the houses, laid out streets, and divided the entire camp
into wards. The freedmen also constructed several public buildings- a
school, a commissary, a hospital, an office. There was a rustic church
too, decorated with live moss hanging from the logs. By the end of
1863, Corinth had become, in the words of one missionary, "a
well-organized village." [12]

     John Eaton attributed much of the initial progress at Corinth
to "the sterling qualities of Mr. A."; others echoed his assessment.
[3] The Reverend Edward R. Pierce, an American Missionary Association
teacher at the camp, praised Alexander's "untiring perserverence &
zeal." [14]  Maria R. Mann, a Western Sanitary Commission worker,
spoke of his "wonderful skill & fitness for the work he has executed."
[15] Unfortunately, little is known of Alexander's background or
motivation for working with the freedmen. [16]  He may have been
impelled by simple Christian charity or by a burning hatred of
slavery.  Whatever the spur, he was, by all accounts, an energetic and
effective leader.  By February, 1863, Eaton was sending missionaries
and other volunteers to Corinth to study Alexander's system "It is the
oldest, least overflowed and . . . the best regulated & most
satisfactory camp in the Department," he told George Whipple of the
American Missionary Association. [17]

     Even this "least overflowed" site was crowded, however.
Estimates of the number of blacks at Corinth at any one time range
from fifteen hundred to six thousand. [18]  John Eaton reported 3,657
in March, 1863 -- 658 men, 1440 women, and 1559 children. [19] Of
course the population of the camp fluctuated widely.  Large groups
were dispatched on short-term special assignments for the army;
individuals contracted to work on leased plantations in the area. When
the Lincoln administration decided to use black soldiers, most of the
able-bodied men were drafted into the new Negro regiments. Fresh
runaways came in waves. "We see new Freedmen coming in every day
almost, on cars, & otherwise, & a portion of the camp at Jackson is
being removed here--" the Reverend Mr. Pierce noted in April. [20]
Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin, who visited Corinth in late May,
1863, witnessed "the arrival of a large company of contrabands, many
of them clothed only in rags, and suffering for want of food." [21]
The Reverend A. D. Olds, another of the camp missionaries, reported
that "more than 200 came in" on June 6 and 7, 1863, and he calculated
that some two thousand had joined the camp in the preceding eight
weeks. [22] In the face of this constant mobility, even a camp like
Corinth could never quite keep up, could never quite meet the needs of
all. As Coffin observed, the newest arrivals "were provided for as
well as the means at command would allow." [23]

     During these hectic early months at Corinth, Alexander proved to
be innovative as well as energetic. With the backing of General Dodge,
he created a company of black soldiers nearly two months before the
War Department authorized such action in the Mississippi Valley. [24]
White troops guarded the camp until February 11, 1863.  Thereafter,
"blacks, organized under the authority of Gen. Dodge, drilled &
managed by two [white] soldiers," did the job, and did it well,
according to John Eaton. [25]  Although the Lincoln administration had
begun to raise Negro regiments in the East, Secretary Stanton did not
send Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas to the western theater to recruit
blacks until late March. [26]  Once again the men in the field had
moved faster than the men in Washington.  Whether Alexander and Dodge
hoped to set a precedent or simply make the best use of available
manpower is not known.  Perhaps they wanted to relieve the white
troops of what many regarded as an onerous assignment. They seem to
have had little notion of the importance black troops would eventually
assume in the Union war effort. As one of Alexander's Corinth
colleagues reminded him in 1864: no one thought "when that little
company of Sixty Colored men were armed at your solicitation and by
General Dodge[']s consent that they were to multiply like the Egyptian
frogs,..." [27]  Whatever their intent, this pioneer unit helped
convince many white soldiers in the area of the utility of black
troops.  When Adjutant General Thomas finally appeared at Corinth in
May to announce the government's decision to enlist Negroes, he
received rousing cheers, the most enthusiastic welcome of his tour.

        One incident in the spring of 1863 briefly threatened the
steady progress and development of the camp. Early in March, for
reasons that are not entirely clear, General Grant ordered the removal
of the freedmen from Corinth to Memphis. Grant may have felt that the
camp was too far from the Mississippi River for easy defense, or he
may have over-estimated its unpopularity with the soldiers stationed
in the area  Whatever the rationale, John Eaton was appalled at the
thought of breaking up the best-run camp in his department. [29]   He
knew well the disruptive effect of such a move on the freedmen, for he
had once evacuated the camp at Grand Junction, Tennessee, when rebel
guerrillas had cut a vital rail line. [30]  He immediately undertook
to persuade Grant to countermand the order.  He argued first that
Corinth offered an excellent site for agriculture "entirely within the
limits of safety." [31] Then he marshalled support from General Dodge
and the post commander at Corinth, Colonel A. L. Chetlain, both of
whom agreed that the camp had "attained such excellencies, that it
ha[d] not only overcome opposition but won the favor of all reliable
officers thereabouts,..." [32] Eaton won a reprieve for the camp when
Grant decided to leave the question of removal entirely to his
discretion.  "I am inclined to think the camp will be permanent for
the season," Eaton told one of his correspondents. [33]

        Its existence assured, at least for the next several months,
Corinth began to develop into a genuine, albeit paternalistic
community.  In mid-March Eaton painted a detailed statistical picture
of the 3,657 souls at Corinth for the Reverend Henry Cowles of
Oberlin, Ohio. Although Eaton counted all 658 men as field hands, he
noted that among them were 36 blacksmiths, 48 carpenters, 180
teamsters, and 200 cooks. Of the women, 80 were seamstresses, 150
laundresses, and 600 cooks.  Four hundred and thirty-eight of the men
and 1080 of the women were married; 1260 of the women had children.
One hundred and twenty of the men and forty of the women could read.
Apparently none of the 1559 children had yet learned.  According to
Eaton's records, the camp had experienced 900 cases of illness, 189
deaths, and 45 births. [34]

     Eaton, Alexander, and their assistants had high hopes and
definite goals for these people.  They constantly exhorted the
contrabands to work hard, respect the bonds of Christian marriage,
live in family units, and help the less fortunate among them. [35]
They urged the men to be brave soldiers once given the opportunity to
fight for Mr. Lincoln.  Eaton assigned several missionary-teachers to
the camp to aid the spiritual and intellectual growth of the
ex-slaves. He developed an ambitious plan for large-scale cooperative
farming.  As they labored through the spring and summer of 1863 the
Corinth blacks were undoubtedly moving toward freedom, but always
under white guidance and direction.

        Perhaps the most explicit statement of white authority was
General Dodge's General Orders No. 47, of March 24, 1863.  All
contrabands within the Corinth district, except those employed by the
army, "shall be under the supervision and control of Chaplain J. M.
Alexander,"  the order read, "to be detailed, hired or organized into
working-parties, and provided for in such manner as shall best
subserve the interests of the Government." It further directed
Alexander to keep a record of all freedmen in the area, oversee their
working conditions, labor contracts, and housing, and collect a dollar
a month tax from all employed blacks for the benefit of the old and
the sick. [36]  This order, John Eaton assured General Dodge at the
time of its promulgation, was "a noble advance in the right
direction." [37]  Later Eaton described Dodge's instructions as an
important element in the success of the Corinth camp.  Nowhere else in
the department were the freedmen so comfortable, so industrious, so
useful.  The happy state of affairs at Corinth, Eaton felt, bore out
his contention that the blacks needed a strong white presence to guide
them through the early days of non-slave life.  Although he rejected
the notion of innate inferiority, he did believe that the institution
of slavery had done great damage. "Without special control, they [the
freedmen] do indeed exercise largely their liberty in running around,"
Eaton wrote.  "With a status not exactly defined by the Government, it
is neither surprising that it is not clear to them, nor that they are
often bewildered in this confused state of affairs, altogether so
strange to their untutored ideas." [38]

        Part of Eaton's job was to provide the proper tutors. Once he
was certain of Corinth's relative permanence, he called upon the
various freedmen's aid societies of the North to send ministers and
teachers. ". . . there will be the best of opportunities . . . ," he
assured Henry Cowles. [39]  The men and women who came to Corinth
generally shared Eaton's paternalistic optimism. They spoke often of
the child-like eagerness of the freedmen for both education and
salvation. They were certain they had found a fertile field in which
to sow nineteenth century American Protestantism and the work ethic.
[40]  "I am satisfied that the people here are much more hopeful
subjects for christian effort than in Jamaica," commented one veteran
missionary. [41]

        The American Missionary Association commissioned most of the
workers at Corinth. Among the first were the Reverend and Mrs. Edward
R. Pierce of Chicago, who arrived about March 20, 1863. Pierce found
Corinth "the most thoroughly systematized, cleanest, & most healthy
camp I have ever seen."  The blacks' thirst for knowledge amazed him.
'You will find them every hour of daylight, at their books," he
reported.  ". . . we cannot enter a cabin, or tent, but that we see
from one to three with books."  Visiting one cabin about 9:30 at
night, he came upon a boy who had been studying for more than an hour
by the light of pine chips.  Pierce and his wife quickly established a
day school for about one hundred and fifty pupils;  they taught in two
large square rooms that the freedmen helped construct. The camp gained
a third teacher when Miss Lois Hinman, a nurse from Wisconsin, arrived
in early April.  In addition to the regular school, the Pierces and
Miss Hinman launched a night school for adults which soon attracted
sixty students. [42] On April 14 two more American Missionary
Association missionaries, the Reverend Abner D. Olds and his wife,
joined in the work, and by summer there seem to have been seven or
eight dedicated Yankees laboring at Corinth. [43] In May visitor Levi
Coffin reported "about three hundred children" attending school; a
month later, one of the teachers counted between three and four
hundred pupils, with many others anxious to learn. [44]

        There were problems and setbacks, of course, as the Reverend
Mr. Olds reported in early June:

  Our school is progressing as well as, perhaps could be expected.  It
  has hitherto been subject to numerous interruptions, from various
  causes:- but chiefly from the fact that, often, they have been
  compelled to take our school rooms to shelter the newly arrived. We
  are now  laboring under this difficulty. But we hope ere many weeks to
  have school rooms built. [45]

Despite the disruptions, the students learned rapidly. By August
missionary G. N. Carruthers estimated that one thousand blacks had
learned to read in the Corinth schools. [46]  Superintendent Alexander
twitted one of the teachers in Memphis: "Go on with your common school
and get your pupils ready to enter our college." [47]

     Organized religion quickly followed formal education. What the
Reverend Mr. Pierce described as a lack of "Spirituality" greatly
distressed him upon his arrival at Corinth.  "I think there has been
no administration of Lord's Supper or Baptism since the war broke
out," he wrote to S. S. Jocelyn of the American Missionary
Association. "I want to see the ordinances of the Lord's house
observed, & these poor creatures are so anxious for it --" [48]  The
Reverend Mr. Olds shared Pierce's concern.  But he was much impressed
by the Wednesday night prayer meeting he addressed the day after he
arrived in camp.  Between two hundred and fifty and three hundred
freedmen crowded into the little chapel.  "As a whole," Olds felt,
"the prayers offered . . . were intelligent & pertinent.  Each one
prayed for the Union army & very appropriately too." "I saw an
earnestness in reference to the christian life that I have seldom
seen," he added. "And as I saw their deep earnestness & heard their
hearty responses: to a few remarks that I made to them, I was led to
ask where can we find a more impressible people than these?" [49]

     The missionaries organized their church on Sunday, May 31, 1863.
". . . we called it the Union Christian Church of Corinth,"  Olds
reported.  Nearly one hundred people of various denominations entered
into covenant and partook of the first communion ever offered in the
camp. Olds exulted in the prospects for future converts.  He estimated
that between two and three thousand attended the Sunday Services, and
some, he was certain, were "earnestly enquiring after the way of
salvation."  ". . . I have been greatly cheered," he admitted, "to see
with what frankness they confess their sinfulness, and their need of a
savior.  And often these confessions seem most hearty.[50]  Olds' best
hopes were realized in July and again in September when the camp
experienced periods of intense religiosity.  The missionaries held
meetings nearly every evening during these periods.  From three to
five hundred came on pleasant nights, and at each meeting some twelve
to twenty-five contrabands "expressed their desire to become
Christians, and asked for the prayers of the people of God." [51]

     In August the missionaries established a Sabbath School for
the children of the camp.  The program of songs, stories, and Bible
lessons attracted three to four hundred youngsters.  "Many more would
come ____________________________ assured the American Missisionary
Association, "if they could fix up, so as to look as neat as 'other
people's children.'"  Commending this effort to meet community
standards, Carruthers appealed to the Oberlin Sunday School for the
necessary clothing. The freedmen "need but the means and instructions
to become as neat and tasty [sic] as any class of people," he added
sententiously. [52]

     The most interesting religious effort was the series of
meetings the Reverend Mr. Olds held with the four black ministers in
the camp.  Though the four had but recently escaped from slavery, Olds
found them to be men of "rich religious experience" and "real
ability."  Their familiarity with the Scriptures impressed him.  Their
understanding of Christian doctrine, on the other hand, was "very
imperfect."  And, predictably, he thought "their mode of conducting
meetings [was] especially objectionable."  Through weekly meetings on
such topics as "the 'aim' of the minister in preaching" and "the
Christian method of conducting social meetings,"  Olds hoped to
correct these "errors and abuses" and make the men his co-workers in
spreading the Gospel. [53]  Whether he succeeded in turning the black
exhorters into rationalistic Negro Congregationalists is not known.
But certainly he did his best to acquaint them with the form and
tenets of his faith.

     The missionaries labored day after day to work gradual but
permanent changes in the lives of the freedmen, to make them good
Christians and responsible citizens;  Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas,
in one brief visit, dramatically altered life at Corinth.  General
Thomas, accompanied by John Eaton, arrived in mid-May. [54]
Although his main task was to convince the whites of the wisdom and
necessity of arming the blacks, he had also to recruit thousands of
contrabands for his regiments.  Thus, after he had addressed the white
troops, he inspected the facilities at Alexander's camp and called
upon the blacks to join the great crusade against the rebels.
According to eyewitness Eaton, Thomas told the freedmen that

  he lived where their great friend President Lincoln lived and saw
  him daily, that the President had sent him out here so far to tell
  them they were free & to tell all the soldiers they must receive
  them, treat them kindly, provide work for-them and pay them, feed
  them if hungry, clothe them if naked, and to make soldiers of the
  strong & healthy men so that they might fight for the liberty of
  their wives & children and against the rebellion...  [that] the
  President had made them free to overthrow that rebellion... [55]

". . . your enthusiasm would have been excited to a high point if you
could have heard those firm & manly utterances in reference to the
arming of the former slaves:-- but whom he now pronounced to be
absolutely free," the Reverend Mr. Olds confided to S. S. Jocelyn.
[56]  Olds was not alone in his rejoicing;  Superintendent Alexander
told the missionary "that he was now willing to die after the
triumphs he had that day seen." [57]

     As his health was good, however, Alexander took a more practical
step.  He organized a black regiment.  Resigning as camp
superintendent, Alexander became a colonel and the commander of the
new unit. [58]  The Reverend Mr. Pierce became the chaplain. [59]  The
regiment probably included the sixty freedmen who had been performing
guard duty at the camp since February.  Because so many of the men had
come to Corinth from Alabama, the unit called itself the 1st Alabama
Infantry of African Descent. (When the War Department systematized the
recruitment and training of black troops, it became the more prosaic
55th United States Colored Infantry.) The 1st Alabama, one thousand
strong at completion, remained in the Corinth area, guarding the camp
and "a long line of out-posts," until January, 1864, when the garrison
and the freedmen were transferred to Memphis. [60] Whether through its
continued proximity to Corinth or through the persons of James
Alexander and Edward Pierce, the regiment retained much of the
self-help and uplift philosophy of the camp. The men placed great
value on education and taxed themselves between fifty cents and a
dollar per capita a month to support teachers for each company. [61]
Levi Coffin discovered "a great demand for school-books" among the
soldiers to svhom he talked. [62]  The men even took their books out
on picket duty with thern according to another observer. [63]

     With the organization of the 1st Alabama, the Corinth camp lost
not only its superintendent but most of its able-bodied men. Captain
John Phillips, of the 57th Illinois, replaced Alexander. Described by
one missionary as "a Quaker, with war principles, in such a struggle
as ours," the thirty-eight year old Phillips seems to have been a
happy choice. [64]   He maintained the high standards of cleanliness
and order set by Alexander, worked easily with the northern
volunteers, and evinced great interest in the camp schools. "With such
an officer for our superintendent," commented the Reverend Mr.
Carruthers, "we have every encouragement for the future." [65]  For
the camp's men, however, there were no replacements.  The army
promptly drafted any able-bodied newcomers. [66] This procedure left
the women, the young, the old, and the infirm to carry on the work of
the camp, work that now included extensive agriculture.

     John Eaton had been developing a plan to encourage the freedmen
to farm cooperatively large tracts of abandoned and confiscated land,
under the close supervision of his department, since early 1863.  He
felt that the Linco]n administration was dragging its feet on the
question of arming the freedmen and utilizing them in the war effort,
and his Puritan conscience rebelled at the thought of thousands of
strong, healthy blacks sitting out the war in squalid contraband
camps. [67]  Eaton outlined his plan in a long letter to Senator Henry
Wilson of Massachusetts, in the hope that the government would provide
the initial seed, stock, and tools. (The cost of these supplies would
be repaid out of the profits from the first crop.)  Both the
contrabands and the country could benefit if his plan were
implemented, Eaton argued.  The blacks would receive business and
agricultural advice, medical care, and social, moral, and intellectual
instruction from the white supervisors.  They would, in time, become
self-sufficient and thus relieve the government and private charity of
a heavy burden." [68]

     When his letter to Wilson and his other "representations" to
Washington failed to bring a quick response, Eaton decided to proceed
on his own. [69]  He could not afford to let the planting season pass
without at least attempting a start.  ". . . a beginning however small
[is] better than none and it may open the way to something more
satisfactory,"  he told Robert Carroll, corresponding secretary at the
Cincinnati Contraband Relief Committee. "Besides it is so palpably
reasonable and necessary that I go forward unhesitatingly without any
Washington authority." [70]  Eaton appealed to the benevolent
societies to act where the government hesitated and send the necessary
seeds, tools, and supplies.  He hoped to begin cultivation at Corinth
and two other sites, Island No. 10 and President's Island, just below
Memphis. [71]

     The societies heeded Eaton's call, and by late March he was able
to acknowledge the receipt of a valuable hardware. [72]  He could also
report that ground had been broken at Corinth, with prospects for a
good crop.  After an inspection trip to the camp, he told the Reverend
C.B. Boynton of the Western Freedmen's Aid Commission that "the work
tbere is shaping itself favorably." [73]  The sudden removal of the
able bodied men from the camp's work force scarcely seems to have
impeded agricultural progress.  "More seed has been put into the
ground at Corinth, LaGrange, Memphis & Island 10, than I dared
anticipate," Eaton declared in late May. [74]  And Maria R. Mann,
another May visitor at the camp, noted that much of the garden area
was planted in early vegetables, which the contrabands had been
gathering for nearly a month. [75]

        Of the four hundred acres under cultivation at Corinth, three
hundred were devoted to cotton, one hundred to vegetables. [76] A
correspondent for the Cincinnati COMMERCIAL gave his readers a
detailed inventory of the garden:

        29,000 sweet potato sets
        10,000 tomato sets
        10,000 cabbages
         1,000 hills cucumbers
            20 acres sweet corn
             5 acres Irish potatoes
             3+ acres peas
             5 acres beans
             6 acres onion sets
             6 acres beets, cress, radishes, and lettuce [77]

In addition to the large fields, each cabin had its own subsistence
garden; the children cultivated a small cotton field near the school,
and the convalescents tended a hospital garden. [78]  As the
contrabands also maintained their own blacksmiths, shoemakers,
carpenters, and seamstresses, purchased all of their clothing, and
paid a poll tax of a dollar a month, Corinth had in the late spring of
1863 become very nearly the kind of independent community Eaton hoped
to develop throughout his department. In fact, he estimated that by
May, 1863, the government was making a clear monthly profit of $4,000
to $5,000 from the camp. Small wonder that he was "highly delighted"
with Corinth. [79]

        Corinth continued its progressive and rather placid existence
throughout the summer and fall of 1863. Construction proceeded apace;
more than seventy buildings went up that summer. [80]  The contrabands
worked, worshipped, and learned.  Life took on a certain routine.  The
school met in the mornings, from eight until noon.  "The Colonel
commanding did not wish school in the afternoon, as neither teacher
nor pupils could stand it in this sultry climate," explained one of
the missionaries. [81]  In the evenings the various religious meetings
attracted many. Each of the camp's four wards had a ward-master who
made a daily morning report. "The camp [was] policed every Saturday
and all garbage, etc. removed." [82] "Our work here is in a nourishing
condition, the Reverend Mr. Carruthers wrote in late August. [83]

     Tragedy touched Corinth at the end of September when Mrs.
Olds, who had been serving as matron of the camp hospital, fell ill
and died. [84] Though bereaved, her husband stayed at his post. In
November, the camp learned it was to lose Captain Phillips.  Eaton
appointed him assistant superintendent for the District of West
Tennessee in the newly reorganized Freedmen's Department.  Phillips
also became a lieutenantant colonel in one of Eaton's regiments, the
64th United States Colored Infantry. [85]  Who was to bave succeeded
Phillips is not known, for the sudden evacuation of Corinth in
December made the superintendent's position superfluous.  Phillips
apparently retained responsibility for tbe camp until its demise.

     For many who lived and worked at Corinth during its heyday, the
horrors and uncertainty of the war must have ofttimes seemed remote.
But the battlefields were never really far away; the exigencies of
military victory rendered futile any hope of long-term stability for
the camp. The fate of the freedmen was always secondary to the triumph
of the Union cause.  General William T. Sherman's Meridian Campaign in
early 1864 brought that fact home to the people of Corinth. [86]

     Sherman returned to the Mississippi Valley in January, 1864,
eager to undertake an active winter campaign.  His proposed strikes
into Mississippi and Alabama required "about twenty thousand men."
[87] Thus he had already issued orders to recall all the garrisons
"along the Memphis & Charleston Railroad from Corinth back to
Collierville," a point just twenty-four miles east of Memphis. [88]
That such a troop movement would disrupt the work of John Eaton's
Freedmen's Department meant nothing to Ceneral Sherman. [89] "The
order fell like a bomb-shell among our contented people," lamented the
Reverend Mr. Carruthers. "But military orders are preemptory, and
without a reason why, and must be obeyed;..." [90]  Although according
to Carruthers the camp was to be evacuated and transported to Memphis
in thirty-six hours, there were, in fact, many delays. The move to the
city began near the end of December, but on January 12, 1864,
Brigadier General J. D. Stevenson, the commander at Corinth,
complained that he still had six hundred more contrabands, for whom
Lieutenant-Colonel Phillips should immediately provide." [91]  Bad
weather, damaged bridges, and in Sherman's opinion, plain inertia,
delayed the final evacuation until January 25. [92]

     Carruthers reported that the freedmen gave up their comfortable
homes and left their "well-organized village" without complaint, but
the casual destruction of their "model" camp must have shaken
their faith in the benevolence of their Yankee protectors.  For as Levi
Coffin noted, "their gardens and farms were abandoned to the rebels,
and they were deprived of the fruit of their labors." [93]  They had
little left to show for all the hard work so extolled by their white

     The long journey westward - ninety-three miles from Corinth to
Memphis-and the resettlement proved difficult.  An orchard and a
cornfie]d on the bank of the Mississippi, two miles south of the city,
where some seven hundred evacuees from Holly Springs were already
encamped, became the new home for the fifteen hundred Corinth
contrabands. [94]  Once again they had to live in tents, with no
stoves or chimneys.  To keep warm they had to build a fire in the
middle of the floor.  "Such was our condition," explained the Reverend
Mr. Olds, "when the unprecedentedly cold weather ... came upon us."

  On New Year's morning the thermometer stood at 11 degrees below
  zero! A degree of cold before unknown in Memphis.

     It seemed a wonder to me that many of our people did not freeze
  to death.  Some did die of cold:- but I believe all were those that
  were sick at the time.  Yet for nearly all of the 5000 freed-men
  here [in and around Memphis] those were terrible days of suffering.

     Naturally the move and the harsh weather disrupted the schools,
the churches, the hospitals, and the work of the contrabands. ". . .
just now we have no schools,"  Olds informed George Whipple on January
9.   Not only did the camp site lack adequate facilities, but meeting
the immediate physical needs of the freedmen absorbed most of the
teachers' time. "And there is work enough for them to do for the next
month,"  Olds estimated.  Olds, who at the first of the month received
orders to take "exclusive charge" of the new camp, hoped to reopen the
regular schools and establish an industrial school for the women as
soon as practicable. [96]  But on February 20 he had to admit to
Whipple that he had made little progress. [97]  The Reverend S. W.
Magill, a traveling inspector for the American Missionary Association,
discovered that the evacuation of Corinth and the other outlying
camps, the lateness of the season, and the emergence of a bitter
jurisdictional dispute between the War and the Treasury Departments
over the control of freedmen's affairs had brought everything to a
standstill. "... people are at a loss what to do," he wrote in
mid-February.  "In such a state of things it is difficult to obtain
facilities for teachers & to get the minds of the people set in any
given direction." [98]

     Uncertainty over the future of the camp exacerbated the other
problems.  On February 16 Olds wrote to the Reverend C. C. Starbuck
that "it has been the prevailing supposition for the last ten days
that the people [here] were soon to be removed down the River & placed
on plantations.  But at the present time the impression is gaining
ground that many will stay here thru the summer." [99]  Four days
later he told Whipple that the camp would be broken up. [100]  In
March the situation was still fluid, the issue still unresolved.
". . . there has been but little done for this people [the freedmen],
mentally or morally for the past winter," reported Mrs. Lucinda
Humphrey Hay of Memphis. The Reverend Mr. Olds had preached outdoors
twice, she noted, but the continuing lack of a proper house for
assembling had seriously hampered both religion and education. [101]
Olds himself had decided that the best opportunities for missionary
work lay in the city rather than in the camp. [102]  Bickering broke
out among the discouraged volunteer workers; petty jealousies flared.
[103] The Corinth experiment ended on a querulous note.

      The untimely evacuation and the unsuccessful attempt at
resettlement dissipated the spirit and elan of Corinth.  The community
was never recreated.  The freedmen, inarticulate still, had to face
confusing new government regulations and policies.  Some probably did
become field hands on the confiscated plantations leased by northern
speculators.  Others doubtless found work in Memphis. The rest lived
on in the several contraband camps around the city. [104]  Their white
mentors also followed divergent paths.  Colonel Alexander, he of the
"sterling qualities," came to an unhappy end in April, 1864, when he
was stripped of his command and dishonorably discharged from the army.
(He never had a formal court martial, but the charges against him
apparently involved the misuse of government funds and rations.) [105]
After a short stint in the Memphis area, Colonel Phillips became
Superintendent and Provost Marshal of Freedmen at Natchez.  But his
army career was brief, too.  Problems arising from a neck wound
received at Shiloh forced him to resign in July, 1864. [106] Of the
missionaries, Carruthers and Olds at least continued their work with
the freedmen. Carruthers became a teacher with one of the black
regiments stationed near Vicksburg. [107]  The Reverend Mr. Olds,
after a few months of sporadic preaching and teaching in Memphis and a
fund-raising trip to the North, accepted the chaplaincy of the 59th
United States Colored Infantry.  He remained with that regiment until
the end of the war. [108]

     The destruction of the Corinth camp was one of the tragedies of
the Civil War. Despite the obvious success of the policies pursued
there, the camp had little impact on subsequent work with the freedmen
of the Mississippi Valley.  The idea of large-scale cooperative
farming all but disappeared during the acrimonious War-Treasury
Department struggle over plantation-leasing.  The kind of community
fleetingly existent at Corinth rarely reappeared.  Only the similarly
short-lived Davis Bend experiment, undertaken near the end of the war,
followed the Corinth precedents. [109]

        The black men, women, and children at Corinth had demonstrated
their determination to be free, their eagerness to learn, and their
willingness to work. They had patiently accepted white tutelage. But
in the end their attitudes and aspirations mattered little.  For as
Corinth had been born of the war, so, too, it was a casualty of the
the war.

  Source:  John T. Hubbell, Editor.  CIVIL WAR HISTORY, pp. 5-22,
             Published Quarterly by The Kent State University Press,
             Vol. XX, March 1974, No. 1.

  Note:  Permission to reprint granted by the author, Cam Walker,
         professor of history at the College of William and Mary on
         March 21, 1996.

         Residents of Corinth are indebted to Prof. Walker for the
         excellent research in this article which led to a modern day
         rediscovery of a part of Corinth's Civil War history which
         had remained hidden for well over a century.  Today,
         aided by state and federal research grants, efforts are
         underway to locate and document the actual site where these
         significant events in black history took place.

                                Milton Sandy, Jr.  3/27/1996


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