During the Civil War many of Tennessee’s 275,000 slaves abandoned farms and towns in anticipation of the approach of the Union army. In the summer of 1862, as the army of General Ulysses S. Grant entered the heavily slaveholding territory of West Tennessee, hordes of hungry and poorly clad fugitive slaves surrounded the Yankees. Grant ordered Chaplain John Eaton to requisition surplus tents, blankets, rations, and tools and establish a camp for the fugitives, who had been supplying forced labor for the Confederate army as teamsters, construction laborers, and body servants. As property, the African Americans were considered contraband under the Confiscation Act–thus the name contraband camps.
Eaton established the first contraband camp at Grand Junction in August 1862. By March 1863 the contrabands at Grand Junction numbered 1,713. Two years later, contraband camps stretched throughout the occupied parts of the Mississippi Valley. In late 1862 northern missionaries and church leaders had arrived to establish schools, administer religious and medical services, and even provide political education for contrabands. The army put the able freedmen to work at fifty cents per day on abandoned farms, government-supervised plantations, and military projects.
By 1866 Tennessee had contraband camps in each of the three grand divisions. The largest camps were in the urban areas: Memphis had four and Nashville three; there were camps in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Hendersonville, and Clarksville, as well as in smaller towns such as Grand Junction, Bolivar, Pulaski, Jackson, LaGrange, and Somerville. Large settlements of contrabands also existed in Chelsea (East Memphis) and Brentwood (Williamson County).
Approximately 20,000 male contrabands were inducted into the Union army as U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). By 1866 USCT regiments comprised 40 percent of the Union army troops raised in Tennessee. Some 31,000 white Tennesseans served in the Union Army of Tennessee, while an estimated 115,000 served in the Confederate forces. The manpower provided by African American troops and the contraband camps gave the Union a decided edge to sustain the occupation in Tennessee and win the war in the western theater.
The contraband camps became the foundation for postwar African American neighborhoods and for the institutionalization of African American society in Tennessee. These camps facilitated the process that produced the rapid urbanization of the former slaves, most of whom had lived in rural areas. Fugitive slaves from the Arkansas delta, western Kentucky, northern Mississippi, and rural West Tennessee flowed into Memphis until freedmen outnumbered whites in 1865. Missionaries, Freedmen’s Bureau agents, and ministers performed and recorded the first legal marriages for thousands of former slaves in these camps. Filled with log cabins, frame buildings, and often tents with dirt floors, the camps became so large and filled with blacks that northern missionaries and local newspapers often named them “New Africa.” The large camps on Memphis’s southern boundary were called Camp Shiloh and Camp Fiske (near Union Fort Pickering) and Camp Dixie (President’s Island). Camp Shiloh had over three hundred houses and 2,000 residents, as well as churches, schools, saloons, lunchrooms, and barbershops. The contrabands in Camp Dixie cultivated three hundred acres of cotton and built a sawmill and a school in 1863. Many of the soldiers who manned Fort Pickering anxiously watched over the parapets for their families at Camp Shiloh. In Nashville the camps were located south (Edgehill), west (Northwest Camp), and east (Edgefield) of the city’s boundaries. Between December 1863 and December 1864, when the Union army temporarily lost some areas to invading Confederate armies, contrabands from small towns were placed on railroad cars and relocated to Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga. Over 1,600 contrabands transferred from Holly Springs and Corinth, Mississippi, to Memphis’s Camp Chelsea.
In 1863 the Freedmen’s Department of the army was established under John Eaton to manage the camps. In March 1865 Congress created the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau) to assist the contrabands in making the transition to freedom. In late 1865 the bureau initiated a program to relocate thousands of freedmen from the camps and back to the countryside, but the former slaves and their descendants continued to pour into the cities, establishing a pattern that eventually led, according to the 1990 census, to over 80 percent of African Americans in Tennessee living in urban areas.