Archival Justice

I have no record of my second great grandmother's death in one of Memphis' Civil War contraband camps. I only know that she was alive in 1864, because she was registered at Camp Shiloh that year with four of her children. Two years later, when the father of her progeny married another woman, she was then dead. So says her son's Freedmen's Bureau bank record.

There is no other known record of this ancestor's death though I imagine that someone at Camp Shiloh may have recorded it. I have learned during the twenty years I've been researching my family's life during the Civil War and Reconstruction that very little wasn't written down. And so I know that there is record of many a thousand more men who enlisted or were conscripted into service and who unfortunately died of what today are treatable conditions--colic, congestion of the brain. Mumphrey Atkins, for example, a member of Company B of the 63rd Regiment, died of "dysenteria" at the hospital on President's Island, a 10,000-acre land mass located off Memphis in the Mississippi River. Within the larger scheme of things and certainly within the context of the war, there is nothing outstanding about Mumphrey's demise or of my great grandmother's, for hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, in service and outside of it, died all over the country during this most unfortunate crisis. But what is remarkable is that, today, services like Fold3 provide, through subscription, easily accessible archives that pinpoint where the bodies of former loved ones lie.

I have been to President's Island. There is a sign off Interstate 55 in Memphis that'll lead one directly to it, but, once there, one will have little sense of the role that the island played in the Civil War, for there are no markers that tell the history. Instead, the periphery of the island is dotted by giant industry; Cargill was there the last time I visited. The President's Island Industrial Association maintains a website that includes a very brief history of the various uses of the island in the last one hundred and fifty years. The history acknowledges the existence of a freedmen's camp but provides no details to bring the era to life. While names of residents are in fact available to today's students of the past, most readily through the U.S. Census of 1870, which can be viewed for free on FamilySearch, none are provided. The language of the Association's story reads: "The Freedmen's Bureau established a camp on the island for freed slaves in 1865. About 1,500 former slaves stayed in the camp until they were absorbed into the community." The source for this information is a 1947 Commercial Appeal article.

This contracted description of African-American presence on President's Island after the war is misleading. Intentionally or not, it calls upon Southern prejudice concerning the Freedmen's Bureau, a deep set of beliefs and sentiments about the Union army's "illegitimate" occupation of the South following the war. The short description assumes, incorrectly, that African-American presence on the island was much shorter than it actually was. Such an impression may fit more comfortably with Southerners' memories of Reconstruction and all of the messy politics and business involved in ridding the South of the North's presence. But, records available today including the 1870 Census and bank records reveal that the Bureau, whose predecessor was the Freedmen's Department, had much more than a fleeting presence and influence on reconstruction of the South.

The fact is that President's Island was used by Superintendent of Freedmen John Eaton, Jr., who in fact had his headquarters, the Freedmen's Department, there. This location for assisting blacks as they transitioned from slavery had been suggested by no lesser figure than Gen. Ulysses S. Grant when he assigned then Col. Eaton, Chaplain of the 27th Ohio, this important role. Eaton, an ordained Presbyterian minister, had a vision for the freedpeople, one that he shared with some of the missionaries who flooded into the city and one which he also shared with key Underground Railroad operative Levi Coffin, who visited the city at least twice, in the fall of '62 and the spring of '63. From the start, Eaton and Coffin began fundraising and otherwise organizing to create farming opportunities for capable blacks, and though Eaton's agricultural experiments had fits and starts, the well kept secret is that ultimately, very contrary to even recent opinion, it was, it can be argued, fully realized.

In 1870, hundreds of blacks were in fact still living on President's Island, Ward 13. Many of them were former members of Eaton's Home Guard, the so-called Invalid Corps, made up of men who were judged unfit for field service. Eaton, in his memoir, spoke of these Colored Troops with deep praise while their service has elsewhere been treated cursorily. One writer, accepting the Inspector General's report that placed them in this guard unit, more or less wrote them off as physically and mentally incapacitated. Yet, in 1870, only five years after the war, these former soldiers owned among them no less than one hundred acres on the island, as well as livestock. This investment indicates that they had goals for their residence on the island; they were not just passing time, waiting to be absorbed by the city. One member of the 63rd, Jefferson Cole, was still living on the island as late as 1890 according to the Special Schedule of that year.

Failure to acknowledge this actual history has many causes including a view of freedpeople and of African Americans in general of the time as lacking agency, or conscious intention. Our entire understanding of blacks in the Civil War remains colored by a mythology of victimization in which former slaves and Free People alike are seen as passively waiting on others to effect change. However, studying soldiers' records, diaries and memoirs of missionaries and camp chaplains, as well as the Official Records of the Civil War, reveals that African Americans were beyond question partners in the attainment of their own freedom. They entered Union lines for instance not always at the mercy of the commanding general but from a position of negotiation, possessing either cotton and/or animals or pertinent information. John Crump, for instance, a member of Company B of the 63rd, argues in testimony before The Southern Claims Commission that he was, first, a Free Person of Color before the war and, second, owner of property commandeered by the government as he entered the contraband camp at Grand Junction, Tennessee. His story is very much in keeping with present scholarship. There are pictures of blacks riding draft animals in their exodus from slavery. In Crump's case, of course, is the unsettled question of whether he was really free before the war and if, as he claims, he owned the animals. And yet, such a claim should not be dismissed without investigation, for while his claim was denied, that of Leah Black, wife of a Free Person killed by Confederate raiders who stole his animals, was approved. The beauty of the availability of these records today is that these African-American ancestors tell their own stories, which offer complications to be investigated. In the case of the Mississippi Valley, the writings of Eaton, later a Brigadier General, should accompany such study, for he too provides a description of freedmen that is at once realistic and, at the same time, radical. 

Eaton was not negligent in recognizing the contributions of the 63rd although his reminiscences were published, maybe with good reason, very near to his death. In them, he wrote of the frustration of having to deal with the government, in particular with Treasury officials who wanted to make sure that an acceptable percentage of the proceeds from cotton production went into the government's coffers. Eaton believed that it was the army, not the government (for he made a definite distinction), that was closest friend to the freedmen. And even so, closer still was the Freedmen's Department, in his view. In '65, his operations, under the auspices of the Department, were again under way without the meddling of the Treasury, and some faith was restored in his agricultural projects. Though it is not widely known today, even in Memphis, all whites not directly connected with the work were barred from the island. This draconian measure was by special order; it was officially sanctioned. That Eaton was not run out of town by whites who would have wanted the island back is a wonder. That his legacy has been as hidden as the effects of the Freedmen's Bureau in general on the lives of blacks is not at all surprising. Perhaps this veiling of history has been to good effect; perhaps it is because of it that so many members of the 63rd were in fact able to get a relatively fair start in farming. Exclusion and maybe even privacy created for the freedpeople who moved onto the island time, opportunity, and a space to create Grant's idea of a Negro Paradise.

Of course, life following the war, was not the stuff of fantasy. One student, studying the inhabitants, alluded to Langston Hughes's description of a twentieth-century African-American condition when she wrote, "Life for them ain't been no crystal stair." No, but the lives of these ancestors who somehow made a way for themselves, with the assistance of the Union army, was a full life, full of work, gains and disappointments. Most of the men of the 63rd had moved from the island by the 1880s; they left there the bones of family members, which deserve to be resurrected now.

 

 

 

 

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