Editor’s Note: Contraband was a term commonly used in the United States military during the American Civil War to describe a new status for certain escaped slaves or those who affiliated with Union forces. The National Park Service created a park to commemorate the Contraband Camp, which is part of the larger Shiloh National Park complex. Corinth Contraband Camp was designated a National Park before the National Park system was established.
During the Civil War, thousands of African Americans sought refuge from bondage behind Union lines. At the start of the War, Union policy was to not disturb the institution and protect the property rights of slave owners.
But as a result of unofficial, individual acts by Union soldiers and finally, changes in official policy, the Union army began to grant refuge to freedom seekers.
These folks were popularly called “contrabands” throughout the Union; they were called runaway slaves in the Confederacy and the Union slave states. As the war went on, large numbers of them, who could also be called war refugees, congregated around Union camps and forts. These landings for the former slaves were called contraband camps.
One site for these freedom seekers was the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi; near where General G. M. Dodge had his headquarters in northern Mississippi near the Tennessee border.
As Federal forces occupied major portions of the South, enslaved people escaped from farms and plantations and fled to safety behind Union lines. Once President Abraham Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862, the number of freedom seekers increased considerably in Union occupied Corinth.
The Corinth Contraband Camp was established by General Dodge to accommodate these refugees. The camp featured numerous homes, a church, school and hospital. The freed men cultivated and sold cotton and vegetables in a progressive cooperative farm program.
By May 1863, the camp was making a clear profit of $4,000 to $5,000 from it enterprises. By August, over 1,000 African American children and adults gained the ability to read through the efforts of various benevolent organizations.
Although the camp had a modest beginning, it became a model camp and allowed for approximately 6,000 ex-slaves to establish their own individual identities.
Once the Emancipation Proclamation was implemented, nearly 2,000 of the newly freed men at the Corinth Contraband Camp had their first opportunity to enlist to protect their way of life and made up a new regiment in the Union army.
Since most of the men came from Alabama, the unit was named the 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment of African Descent, later re-designated the 55th United States Colored Troops.In the spring of 1863, while at Corinth, Mississippi, Dodge was ordered by General Grant to go to Washington to see the President of the United States.” “When I received the summons,” Dodge wrote, “it alarmed me. I had armed, without authority, a lot of Negroes and organized them into a company to guard the Corinth Contraband camp. It had been pretty severely criticized in the army, and I thought this act of mine had partly to do with my call to Washington.”
In December 1863, the camp was moved to Memphis and the freed men resided in a more traditional refugee facility for the remainder of the war. The Corinth Contraband Camp was the first step on the road to freedom and the struggle for equality for thousands of former slaves.
Today a portion of the historic Corinth Contraband Camp is preserved to commemorate those who began their journey to freedom there in 1862-1863. This land now hosts a quarter mile walkway which exhibits six life-size bronze sculptures depicting the men, women, and children who inhabited the camp.