Still Looking for Digital Justice

This year marks the ten-year anniversary of the LastRoadtoFreedom website, which I designed to tell the story of America’s Civil War contraband camps and to digitize transcribed registers for the camps. I remember one of my lofty goals was to have the term contraband camp become a household word. That goal itself was tied to a desire to provide descendants of once-enslaved persons a concrete roadmap to their pasts, something that contraband camp registers could make possible.

Ten years later, phrase contraband camp is not a household word though attention to the phenomenon has definitely increased within university history departments, especially those with a committed focus on Southern history, and there are three or four recent academic texts that treat the camps as a part of Civil War and emancipation stories.

But, to my surprise, no one other than myself has to my knowledge yet written about the registers, records of African Americans coming into the camps. And yet these records are of vital importance to descendants. Historians may be, inherently, more interested in constructing narratives of the past than in concrete sociological or humanistic implications of their work. However, the registers, directly connected to other records such as soldiers’ service records and pension files, are critical primary evidence of emancipation experienced by various families and individuals in different locations. Only by studying these records together can historians observe the complexities and diversity of experience, avoiding thereby presumptions and over-generalizations.

One could argue for instance that some recent texts take on an overwhelmingly pathetic tone as they seek to confirm both a breadth and depth of human suffering among blacks during the war. Chandra Manning, for instance, writing about blacks in Grant’s department, emphasizes a generally slapdash character of camps in Tennessee. explaining their impermanence as a function of Grant’s dubiousness about blacks within their lines. A logical inference, though not one clearly forwarded by Manning is that disorder contributed to suffering.

A counter to this view of the disorganized Western theater, a counter framed by a labor argument, is easily made by studying Grant’s use of black labor throughout his campaigns in the Mississippi Valley including in the summer of ’62. While Grant does indeed indicate that his lines are being overwhelmed by blacks, he at the same time begins using their labor even before permission to do so has been codified. That black labor in the Valley begins to take shape in the fall of ’62 naturally leads, not only to creation of camps, but to selection of John Eaton as Superintendent of Freedmen. Eaton’s argicultural experiments, headquartered early on on President’s Island below Memphis, is anything but disordered even as thousands of blacks passed through the camps to be placed on “abandoned” farms. This was indeed part of Eaton’s, again, not  purposeless scheme. If, as Manning writes, the closing of some camps in the Valley was due to the progress of the war, closing was also due to Eaton’s administration of his labor plans for blacks within Grant’s department.

In fact, one cannot study fairly or accurately emancipation in the West without studying Eaton’s far-ranging agricultural experiments, and, unlike Manning, I do not see Corinth as an exception but, rather, as part of this same scheme, which was not fully realized at Corinth because of its closing but which was, I would argue, achieved at President’s Island, where members of USCT units organized in the region were still living as late as the second decade of the twentieth century. Their pension files tell the story.

While each file and the story contained within are different, there are constants: marriage and other forms of companionship, family reconstitution, camrarderie and fraternal support among soldiers, education, work, sickness and death, as well as remarriage upon death of a spouse. For instance, one soldier, Mack Edmonson, deposed in the case of the widow of his deceased fellow Peter Shivers tells of  meeting Shivers when he himself was “just a commissary boy” on the island. Edmonson and Shivers enlisted in the fall of ’63, when Edmonson was but 17.

 Thirty years later, Edmonson recollects Shivers’s death, the man’s first and second wives, of witnessing his marriage to the first, which took place on the island, and when and where Shivers took ill. Although it can be argued that some statements by Edmonson are prompted by the examiner and, in fact, a pattern of prompted response can be found by examining and comparing other depositions, testimonies such as Edmonson’s help historians to create a full narrative that comes closer to what was in fact occuring on the ground than emphasizing official policy and correspondence between officers (although these too remain important sources).

For Edmonson, as for so many others, the wartime experience was not a blip in an otherwise fully actualized life or a sad chapter in a yet sadder autumn but, rather, a practical foundation it turns out for what laid ahead. Recognizing the fullness of the wartime experiences of blacks can only be achieved by intepreting their voices.

And so, while I have spent the last ten years transcribing contraband camp registers and continue doing so thanks in part to a recent NEH award, I have decided to redesign LastRoadtoFreedom around transcription of pension files. While such work is taking place at other sites, most notably by the National Archives, there are precious few projects that seek to interpret whole sets of pension records, seeing the voices of soldiers and their dependents, commanders and examiners, as discourse communities. To offer this kind of treatment is to open oneself to the possibility that, even at an acutely critical moment, blacks did in fact have goals and visions for life following the war and that they could see a definite relationship between their service and their futures. I must then disagree with Manning when she states

…people who ran to freedom during the Civil War could not see the outcome of their actions. No analytical thread, no clear narrative arc, gave order to their days (Manning, 7). 

If there is one thing that is made clear in studying the pension records, it is that very many of the men who enlisted and very many of their family members as well who lived in nearby camps possessed a pragmatism, a business saavy, that assisted them in negotiating systems that they co-created on the ground through their participation. Unfortunately, metaphors and visual imagery of “running,” even as it rightly paints a picture of imminent danger, does not do justice to the rich complexity of the wartime experiences of escaping blacks. I greatly look forward to offering fresh engagement of the voices of these ancestors.

Manning, Chandra. Troubled Refuge, Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War. New York: Vintage, 2016.