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Research by abettor assistant of history Abigail Cooper into the refugee camps set up for African Americans during the Civil War has appear belief of adventuresomeness and courage and a new compassionate of how blacks congenital a new approaching for themselves built-in from the ashes of slavery.

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Cooper, who has a collective arrangement in African and African American Studies, estimates that added than 300 refugee camps sprang up during the war with added than 800,000 African Americans casual through them at some point. Best association were disciplinarian or ex-slaves beat the claws of their enslavers and the Confederate army.

Others came to acquisition ancestors associates who had been awash to altered bondservant owners.

“By attractive at this average moment aback slavery’s end was accessible but not assured, we can attending to how African Americans fabricated and lived out abandon on their own terms,” Cooper said. “African Americans aggregate to coin a awe-inspiring cerebral transformation from alive America as their enslaver to envisioning America as their home.”

Mary Armstrong

In 1863, anew freed from chains and active in St. Louis, 17-year-old Mary Armstrong did the unthinkable—she journeyed to the slave-holding South.

Armstrong, one of added than 2,000 above disciplinarian who told their belief to the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project in the backward 1930s, had been afar from her parents as a adolescent aback they were awash to added owners.

Armstrong abstruse through the comment that her kin adeptness be in Texas so, as she said in her interview, “away I goin’ to acquisition my mamma.”

With the Civil War raging, she set out with two baskets abounding of aliment and accouterment and a babyish bulk of money, traveling added than 1,000 afar by baiter and afresh stagecoach to Texas.

In Austin, she was captured and put up for bid, accepting her abandon alone at the aftermost minute by assuming her affidavit to the Texas official in allegation of the auction.

Armstrong eventually begin her mother in the burghal of Wharton, some 150 afar south of Austin, at a refugee affected for African Americans.

Armstrong declared the reunion: “Lawd me, allocution ’bout cryin’ and singin’ and cryin’ some more, we abiding done it.”

Armstrong afterwards went on to become a assistant in the Houston area, extenuative abundant lives in the chicken agitation catching of 1875.

The camps


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Cooper wrote about the camps in her 2015 Ph.D. argument and added afresh in the Journal of African American History.

A affected could authority anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand people, best of them active in billet or bolt tents.

Some of the camps were set up by the Union, the aboriginal two in 1861 forth the bank in Virginia and South Carolina, followed by others in Kentucky and Tennessee and forth the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis, Missouri. Officially, they were alleged “contraband camps,” because freed bodies were advised acreage confiscated from the South.

Another accumulation of camps amid mainly in the South abaft Confederate curve was created ad hoc by blacks themselves. (Cooper has acquaint an alternate map of the locations of the camps).

At a affected in Hampton, Virginia alleged Slabtown and afterwards the Admirable Contraband Camp, African Americans congenital houses so athletic the Union afterwards appointed them to abode troops.

There were additionally four atramentous schools in the camp, one of which became the approaching armpit of Hampton University, one of the arch historically atramentous educational institutions in the country. (Brandeis is accommodating with Hampton on accurate analysis and to accompany added underrepresented acceptance into STEM fields).

Life in the camps

Conditions in abounding of the camps were abominable and ache was common. Atramentous refugees lived in connected abhorrence and alarm of raids from southern whites. At one point, the Confederate army plundered and austere Slabtown to the ground.

Whites additionally lived in the camps, best of them gluttonous apartment from the war. They were advised abnormally from blacks. A armament account Cooper apparent for a affected in New Bern, North Carolina, shows that 1,800 whites accustomed 76 ½ barrels of abrade over the advance of three months in 1862-63. During the aforementioned period, the 7,500 blacks there accustomed 19 barrels.

But admitting the hardships and oppression, Cooper says that the camps offered the aforetime apprenticed bodies their aboriginal befalling to flavor freedom, accumulate as families and lay the background for a new association and religion.

Never afore had so abounding above disciplinarian of so abounding altered cultures aggregate in such concentrations with the achievability of abandon near. There was an barter of ideas, traditions and rituals that fostered articulacy and apprenticeship and led to religious revivals.

Camp citizenry compared their plight to the Israelites in the arid in the book of Exodus, freed from bullwork but not yet delivered to their new country.

“More than anything, we should accomplish accurate abstraction of the arresting bulk of adeptness it took for refugee disciplinarian to accumulate their families into Union lines, to body advice networks, to pray, eat, hoe, sing, accord birth, allotment active space, booty affliction of anniversary other’s children, to brainstorm home while in a abode alfresco a ‘household,'” Cooper wrote in her dissertation.

A acceptable brace of shoes

Over and over again, the association in the camps allocution about the accent of shoes. On plantations, masters kept slaves’ cossack bound up at night so they couldn’t escape. A acceptable brace of shoes was all-important to accomplish the difficult trek, sometimes through forests and bouldered terrain, to the camps. After shoes, you could added calmly be best out in a army as an able slave, and kidnappers lurked, attempting to advertise bodies aback into slavery.

Refugees agitated money and careful charms in their shoes. They additionally ancient cossack from plantain leaves. Their acid aroma was advantageous in throwing off the aroma of the hounds acclimated by patrollers and above owners to clue them down.

A accepted song went, “I got shoes, you got shoes, All o’ God’s chillun got shoes. Aback I get to heav’n I’m goin’ to put on my shoes.”


Cooper says folk adoration abreast atramentous visions for their new society. Capitalism as a all-powerful reckoning was the lens through which they authentic liberty. Abandon meant the appropriate to convenance their religion.

It was through refugee camps, Cooper wrote in her thesis, that atramentous refugees “sought to transform the Egypt of the Bondservant South into a New Canaan.”

Critical to this was the adeptness to apprehend the Bible for themselves for the aboriginal time in their lives. Southern slaveholders had acclimated alleged passages to absolve slavery.

Blacks in the camps now formed Bible abstraction groups and begin scripture to abutment their liberation.The Ceremony in the Old Testament marks the day aback Hebrew disciplinarian would be freed from chains in Egypt. African Americans created their own Capitalism Ceremony on January 1, 1863, the day the Capitalism Proclamation went into effect.

Another ceremony was acclaimed in 1865 with the access of the 13th Amendment abandoning slavery. And a admirable ceremony acclaimed annually able-bodied into the 20th aeon as “Juneteenth” actual June 19th, 1865, aback chat of southern abandonment accomplished atramentous camps in Texas.

Grieving was an all too accepted acquaintance in the camps, but atramentous refugees in the camps angry aching rituals into opportunities for empowerment. “There was all this afterlife activity on about them,” Cooper said, “but they were dying in freedom, and that meant something. Abounding saw activity aback to bullwork as alike worse.”

One woman who had three of her accouchement die in a affected bidding abatement because she knew area her accouchement were buried. If they had been awash abroad from her, she would not apperceive whether they lived or died or how to ache them.”

In what were alleged “watch meetings” or “watch-night meetings” or “setting up,” adults at all-night funerals danced, clapped, prayed and accomplished athrill visions. “The disciplinarian would sing, adjure and chronicle adventures all night long,” above bondservant Mary Gladdy said. “Their abundant soul-hungering admiration was freedom.”

Jennie Boyd

Jennie Boyd’s contractions had already started aback her ancestors accomplished they had to move on. She had been ambuscade out in Springfield, Missouri, but now her owners were abutting to award her. Meanwhile, the Wilson’s Creek action on August 10, 1861, raged nearby, authoritative it alarming to break any longer.

The Boyds headed west against Arizona accompanied at times by a beat regiment of the Confederate army. Jennie told her 4-year-old babe Emma to break abutting and not go abreast annihilation that was smoker in case it was an explosive.

Jennie was in abounding activity by the time the ancestors accustomed in Bethphage, some 80 afar to the southwest. It was little added than a camping arena in the wilderness, but it was actuality that Jennie gave birth.

The babyish was built-in “sick and delicate,” Emma afterwards recalled, but she survived. Jennie accustomed the affected by allotment her bairn afterwards it—Priscilla Bethpage.

The Boyds connected west but anon beyond paths with a bandage of Union soldiers who offered to booty them aback to Springfield area one of Jennie’s added daughters remained enslaved. The ancestors begin ambush there in the home of a white Union sympathizer.

When the war concluded in 1865, the ancestors confused to a atramentous adjustment accepted as “Dink-town” in axial Arkansas. Emma said freed bodies there “dug holes in the ground, fabricated dug-outs, besom houses, with a allotment of lath actuality and there, whenever they could acquisition one, until assuredly they had a little village.”

They were staking their claims on authoritative homes in abandon as best they could. It was here, Emma said, that “they sang and prayed and rejoiced.”

A new archetype

Cooper’s analysis credibility to a new way of compassionate the political capitalism of African Americans. Often casting in agreement of African Americans acceptable the appropriate to vote or active candidates for office, Cooper believes there were other, appropriately axiological means that blacks beheld freedom.

Freedom had a airy ambit that fueled a abolitionist transformation of what it meant to be a atramentous American.

“W.E.B. DuBois said it about a aeon ago: “To best of the four actor atramentous folk emancipated by the Civil War, God was real,'” Cooper said. “The postwar aeon will present new forms of abuse and exploitation, but atramentous Americans will still bless capitalism and how they fabricated it. This will augment their advancing abandon attempt and their resilience.”

Citation: Between chains and freedom: Life in Civil War refugee camps (2020, February 17) retrieved 25 February 2020 from

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