During a recent trip to visit my family, I visited the Corinth Contraband Camp in Corinth, Mississippi. Corinth is about 45 minutes from hometown. We called it ‘Car-rent,’ and we traveled there on Saturdays for shopping. I had no idea of the camp’s history, even though it has always been in my backyard.
Let me give you a some history on the camp. On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The news spread throughout the country, including plantations. During the Civil War, as Union troops traveled throughout the South slaves would flock to them in hopes of achieving freedom.
The Union forces defeated the Confederate Army at the Battle of Corinth. They seized the town, and as a result, hundreds and eventually thousands of slaves fled farms and plantations to find refugee and freedom there. African Americans were considered property during this time so term ‘contraband’ was given to identify them. Union General Grenville M. Dodge ordered that the camp be established to house them.
While there were several contraband camps during the Civil War, the one in Corinth was highly regarded. Less camp and more like a city, the Corinth Contraband Camp had two-room school, homes, church, and a hospital. The camp was located on Mary Phillip’s farm, which the Union army had seized. Contrabands worked the several hundreds of acres of the farm. They were fed from the crops of the farm and sold some of the vegetation in an open market. In May 1863, the U.S. government made $4,000 to $5,000 from the agricultural production of the camp. Unlike most camps, African Americans in Corinth were paid for their work. Union soldiers used them to help repair and rebuild railroads.
The site existed from November 1862 to December 1863. As many as 6,0000 African Americans lived there. Many of the men in the camp served in the Union army and formed the 55th United States Colored Troops. In December 1863, the camp moved to Memphis, Tennessee.
While I was at the camp, I sat on one of the benches and reflected on how I wish I had been taught this part of history when I was in grade school. I didn’t even know meaning of contraband as it relates to the Civil War. When I returned home and told my dad about the trip, he said he had never heard about this camp. This is a part of American history that needs to be told. We know that many African Americans sought freedom in the North and in Canada. But we don’t know that many of them sought freedom in Corinth. A town that know denotes itself as a retirement community.
In my view, the contraband camp is a bright spot in the dark history surrounding slavery and the U. S. Civil War. The camp may not have been paradise, but it was a place where many African Americans were able to experience freedom in some capacity for the first time. They learned how to read and to write. They were paid for their labor. They built houses that they lived in. They were able to marry without having to ask for their master’s permission. The road from slavery to freedom has been a long road with many exits and road stops. The Corinth Contraband Camp illustrates that part of the story.
The camp is off of the road a neighborhood and has a quarter-mile path. It’s definitely work a trip. The camp is managed by the National Park Service, and it’s free. I saw a couple of folks who were doing their morning exercise on the path. I appreciate the fact that the camp is a living monument were people are interacting with the site. It’s located right off the road of an ordinary neighborhood. You may even hear a train drive by. After you visit the camp, stop by the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center, which is also a part of the National Park Service. It’s also free.