The Forgotten Concentration/Contraband Camps Of The United States

In this post a brief summary on the forgotten Concentration/Contraband Camps in the US is given. When you hear or read about concentration camps the US is never mentioned. But what many may not know is the United States was close to having the same amount of concentration camps as the nazi party during their prime. There were around 560 concentration camps in the US but the camps were rebranded as contraband camps. The following camps was selected for their own segment on this post: Fort Smith, Camp Ethiopia, Freedmen’s Village, Mason’s Island and Key West.

Union & Confederate Territory Map during Civil War

Concentration camps didn’t exist until after the Civil War began on April 12th in 1861 when three men ran away from their master and fled to Virginia in May 1861. The men weren’t returned to their owner due to Virginia withdrawing from the Union. Since Virginia was no longer apart of the Union this meant the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act didn’t have to be honored. After this news began spreading to other slaves by the end of the Civil War around 500,000 runaway slaves were in contraband camps. The camps were set up pretty much anywhere the Union or Confederate Army was located. The word contraband was used to identify runaway slaves, African Americans and African refugees. Contraband people were runaway slaves that were eventually seized and then claimed as property to be used for labor. In August 1861 the Confiscation Act of 1861 was passed by US congress. This act would give Union forces the right to confiscate any property used by the Confederate Army (including slaves/contraband). The runaways worked for free at contraband camps until September 1861 when Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles said they had to be paid $10/month. The contraband men would then be paid $8/month and contraband women would be paid $4/month. The following year in March (1862) an Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves was signed into law which made it illegal to return runaway slaves to their confederate owners or military. Workers were ordered to dig trenches, farm, build forts and aid the army they serve on a few fronts. They even helped with cooking and nursing wounded soldiers. A few Contraband Camps became recruiting stations to enlist runaway slaves into the Union Army. The conditions at these contraband camps varied. Some camps were in terrible conditions with no food or clothes for occupants and poor sanitary conditions with very little safety. Overcrowded camps hosted diseases and sick occupants. After a while sister camps were built to house the excessive amount of contraband people. Surprisingly there were other camps with not so bad conditions that offered decent housing and helped contraband learn how to read and write. Women like Mary S. Peake taught adult and children contraband how to read and write near the Fort Monroe camp. Ironically she would hold lessons where Hampton University stands today. Even though teaching slaves was still illegal in Virginia that didn’t stop her from serving her purpose. From what I found with research some men were sent to contraband camps as punishment instead of jail and some fled to the camps for shelter or a better life. Contraband people at camps like Camp Barker were leased to civillian employers and nearby plantations. Regardless not every black person struggled at the time. There were wealthy black people near almost every Contraband Camp that donated food and clothes to the Contraband People. These wealthy individuals are considered Free Blacks. In conclusion it’s safe to say Contraband People were simply used for their labor and intelligence during the civil war. In the end they received the short end of the stick despite all of their efforts to help.

Check out the interactive map with details for all the US camps below.

Selected Concentration/Contraband Camps

Fort Smith:

  • Superintendent – Samuel Thomas & John Eaton
  • Location – Arkansas, Fort Smith (Sebastian County)
  • Population – 1860: 681 blacks in Sebastian County, 1870: 1,354 blacks in Sebastian County
  • Camp Description – In October 1862 black laborers from Fort Smith worked on military projects on the road from Ozark to Huntsville. After abandoning Fort Smith early in the war the Union army reclaimed the Garrison in 1863. In October 1863 the fort enlisted many blacks for military service. In August 1864 a Union officer reports that Gen. Watie (a Cherokee general of the Confederate army) attacked a group of black refugees living near Fort Smith killing many of them and burning their property.

Camp Ethiopia:

  • Superintendent – Maria R. Mann, S.W. Sawyer & Gen. Curtis
  • Location – Missouri, St. Louis
  • Population – February 1863: 1500, March 1863: 500
  • Camp Description – Camp Ethiopia was established in St. Louis at the beginning of the war when thousands of refugees began to congregate on the banks of the Mississippi. Many contraband people was transported there from Helena, AR. The camp was located in an abandoned hotel called Missouri Hotel on Main and Morgan Street. A school was opened in a church nearby and a hospital was established in an abandoned building. Contrabands labored on city fortifications and at the wharf but were not compensated for their labor. The Contraband Relief Society and the St. Louis Ladies Contraband Relief Society provided aid to the contrabands. They also helped hundreds relocate to free states for employment. In fall of 1863 the camp was shut down and contrabands were relocated to Benton Barracks.

Freedmen’s Village:

  • Superintendent – D.B. Nichols
  • Location – Virginia, Arlington
  • Population – 1865: 1400
  • Camp Description – Freedmen’s Village was officially established on the abandoned estate of Robert E. Lee in May 1863 as model contraband community. Many contrabands from Alexandria and D.C. was transported there and the camp was very successful. There was a hospital, industrial school and an old age home on the property. Free Virginia blacks provided clothing, food, and medical care to the contrabands at Freedmen’s Village. A schoolhouse was built which doubled as a church. The school began with 150 students and expanded to 900. Both children and adults attended the school. The Camp was self-sufficient with almost all contrabands employed and learning trades. Despite efforts to evict them black people remained in the village until 1900. The government ultimately bought out the property and evicted the residents to build Arlington Cemetery.

Mason’s Island:

  • Superintendent – D.B. Nichols
  • Location – Washington, D.C.
  • Population – June 1864: 1200, March 1865: 500
  • Camp Description – Because of overcrowding at Freedman’s Village one potential solution is to move refugees to Mason’s Island. The island is initially conceived as a place for refugees to create a self-supporting community but early efforts to keep families together are quickly thwarted by disease and disorganized management. The island instead becomes mainly a site of military conscription and impressed child labor. Able-bodied women are suggested to be relocated elsewhere to work. At first some officials refused to hire out mothers unless their children could go with them but that plan was ignored and women are hired out indiscriminately. An orphan’s asylum and Freedmen’s Hospital was built there with surgeon Robert Reyburn reporting about 582 treated patients. Between summer of 1864 and spring of 1865 the population of 1,200 reduced to 500.

Key West:

  • Superintendent – Rufus Saxton
  • Location – Florida, Key West (Monroe County)
  • Population – 1860: 611 total blacks in Monroe County, 1870: 1,026 total blacks in Monroe County
  • Camp Description – Large numbers of African Americans flee to Key West after the destruction of the St. Andrew’s Sound salt mines in November 1861. The camps at Key West shelter both black and white refugees. White refugees are said to enter the lines more destitute than black refugees. Many of them came without clothes and shoes. Black people was described as no expense to the government. At the time they comprised majority of island population. In 1862 yellow fever hospitalized and killed a large amount of contraband people. What many forgot is that contrabands received military protection. In spring of 1862 the War Department ordered several hundred black men to be sent to Key West to work on military fortifications. Many men refused to go because they didn’t want to leave their families. Others would only go on the condition that the government will support their families. In February 1863 a New York Times correspondent reports the huge processions and celebrations after the Emancipation Proclamation, describing it as “A Negro Jubilee.”.

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