Contraband Camp, Corinth, Fort Monroe, Shiloh Battlefield, and the Civil War

Read more about the Civil War and Contraband Camps at

It's a park now, with trees and a wide plaza of grass. It bears the disquieting name of Contraband Camp, but in 1862 it teemed with people, emancipated people. Contraband was the appellation for escaped slaves. Their story is one of the little known but fascinating aspects of the Civil War. Some of it takes place at Freedom's Fortress in Hampton, Virginia, but Corinth Mississippi offers the Contraband Camp, the Interpretative Center, and nearby Shiloh Battlefield.

Was it a War over Slavery?

While Abraham Lincoln insisted the conflict was not about slavery or civil rights, but an effort to preserve the Union, in reality, the institution of slavery was at the center of the fight.

When the North marched South, and the escaped slaves started showing up at their encampments and forts, the generals faced a dilemma. Some Union generals, in the early years of the war, actually sent the escapees back to slavery. Other Union generals did not, even though according to southern law it was required.

Freedom's Fortress and Fort Monroe in Hampton Virginia

Then, in May of 1861, General Benjamin Butler, Commanding Fort Monroe, Virginia, learned that slaves were being used in the war efforts of the South. "When his patrols brought in three black laborers, he declared them confiscated contraband of war or property the enemy could use against him. When their owner arrived to reclaim them, Butler informed him that since Virginia had seceded, the Fugitive Slave Law no longer applied there. This declaration precipitated numerous slave escapes into Union lines." (By John Osborne House Divided)

It is still possible to visit Fort Monroe. Although there are no guided tours for individuals (only for groups when arrangements are made in advance) there is a walking tour brochure and good signage.

Fort Monroe, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was named in honor of President James Monroe. It's the largest stone fort ever built in the United States but it offers much historic significance as well.

The Casemate Museum is the starting point. One of the highlights is the cell in which Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, was used as an unwilling guest when he and his entourage was arrested in 1865. He spent almost 3 years there before he was released. There are also rooms set up replicating living conditions of officers.

But Fort Monroe has another name – it's also called Freedom's Fortress for the sanctuary it provided for escaped slaves.

There is discussion about making this unique site a National Monument to help insure its continuation as a place of historical importance. On November 1st, 2011 President Obama named Fort Monroe a National Monument. The town that had its origins as a contraband camp – Phoebus – is now a neighborhood of Hampton Virginia.

Contraband Camp in Corinth, Mississippi

Shortly after Butler's decision, in August of 1861, Congress formalized that position, passing The Confiscation Act, declaring fugitive slaves to be contraband of war if their labor had been used to aid the Confederacy. Although formally the escaped slaves were confiscated property of the Union, in essence, they were freed men, women, and children.

In Corinth, Mississippi, there’s even more contraband camp history and information.

It starts with Ulysses S. Grant. Grant did not have a position either way on returning escaped slaves... until he entered Tennessee in late 1861 and early 1862 when he started coming across slaves within the Union's newly captured territory.

The turning point came on April 6, 1862, after the Battle of Shiloh. General Grant, the Commanding General in Corinth, Mississippi, not only declared the newly freed slaves to be contraband of war, he went steps further, urging and encouraging the development of their community.

The Corinth Contraband Camp was established by Union General Grenville M. Dodge. At its height, the camp contained homes, a church, school and hospital. The freedmen and women grew cotton and vegetables which they sold in their farm program. Organizations came in to teach literacy. Eventually, it became a model camp and allowed for approximately 6,000 freed men, women, and children to re-create their lives.

Unfortunately, there is little left of their lives there. In December 1863, the camp was moved to the President's Island Contraband camp in Memphis Tennessee. Their town and their history after that appear to have largely been lost.

Today, the Corinth Contraband camp's quarter mile walkway exhibits six life-size bronze sculptures depicting the men, women, and children and what they might have been doing in their daily life. A woman stands tall and straight as if looking at the visitors as she irons. A man hoes a vegetable patch. A man hands a young child a book from a stack at his feet. A soldier tucks a book into his battle sack.

Corinth Civil War Interpretative Center in Corinth

In the town of Corinth itself, the Corinth Civil War Interpretative Center traces the story of Corinth during the war, and offers films and interpretative exhibits that focus on the human story as much as the military history. Exhibits describe the strategic importance of Corinth, and the black soldiers who joined the Union. There are photographs of life in the Contraband Camp, and even stories of slaves who served with their masters in the army of the South.

The sculptural bronze work is not to be missed. From the metal replica of artifacts that are carefully strewn alongside the walk way, to the sculptures inside, this is another of the exceptionally fine interpretative centers in the National Park Service system.

Battlefield at Shiloh

Those interested in the military aspects will want to visit Shiloh National Military Park 22 miles away. across the state border in Tennessee. There's a smaller interpretative center and auditorium that shows a continuously looping film about the battles. The land itself is dotted with memorials to the regiments that fought there. You can pick up a self-guided tour and drive the grounds following the numbered stops.

That history is focused on one of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War. The Battle of Shiloh resulted in 23,746 casualties out of 109,784 men. It was the first large scale battle of the war, and the body count surprised and horrified both the North and South.

The NPS website contains the quote: "No soldier who took part in the two day's engagement at Shiloh ever spoiled for a fight again," recalled one Union veteran.

While most students of the Civil War head to Shiloh to pay their respects to the men who fought and died there, or to understand the military strategies and battles that took place there, the story of the slaves who escaped to freedom is every bit as crucial to understanding the true meaning of the Civil War. It was about slavery. The NPS pamphlet Slavery and the Civil War notes: That is not to say that the average Confederate soldier fought to preserve slavery or that the North went to war to end slavery. Soldiers fight for many reasons — notably to stay alive and support their comrades in arms — and the North's goal in the beginning was preservation of the Union, not emancipation. For the 200,000 African Americans who ultimately served the U.S. in the war, emancipation was the primary aim.

Grant and Lee on Slavery

Grant himself was never an Abolitionist, but he soon came to see that "the North & South could never live at peace with each other except as one nation, and that without Slavery." —Ulysses S. Grant to Elihu B. Washburne (August 30,1863)

Lee was no believer in slavery either. In fact, once said "…if the slaves of the South were mine, I would surrender them all with out a struggle, to avert this war." —Robert E. Lee to Bishop Joseph P. B. Wilmer (Spring 1861) And even went further, after the war, "I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South…. I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained." — Robert E. Lee to Rev. John Leyburn (April 1869)

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated November 5th, 2015

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