Chattanooga's Contraband Camp

Saturday, May 9, 2020 - by Alex McKeel

In Renaissance Park in Chattanooga, there is a marker a little different from others that can be found along the Chattanooga Riverwalk. If someone would stop there and listen for a moment, in the distance an individual can hear the sounds of children laughing, the echoes of cars driving across the John Ross Bridge, and the sounds of birds singing. But if he or she would listen more deeply, they might hear something else - the sounds of a time that has been long forgotten, the sounds of freedmen laughing and welcoming new members into their society, members who not long before had been in bondage, but now were breaking the chains of oppression and taking the first steps into a new world: a new time of freedom, citizenship, voting, and even education, which in previous years would not have been possible.  

People walk past this marker every day. Occasionally a passerby might look at the marker and read the inscription, maybe not even taking in the meaning of its placement or the story behind the marker. Yes, the people who once lived in this camp began their quest for freedom and equality, but it would take their descendants continuing the battle to finally realize the dreams begun so long ago in this contraband camp.

Today if you visit any American history scholar, you will see countless books on the American Civil War in their library. In addition, if you could look on their computers, they would have many notes and even a number of URLs saved on their computer. The public may think there are no more stories to be told. However, I would disagree with you there are more stories to be told.

The American Civil War is probably the most researched and revered time in American history. Even if one is not an American historian, one cannot ignore the American Civil War. While driving throughout the country, one will see countless battlefields, monuments, relics at swap meets, and souvenir shops that have all sorts of items related to this time in our history. Furthermore, if a person Googles “American Civil War” he or she will get over 516,000,000 hits.  However, there are some events, items, and even stories that are not well known or that have been forgotten over time. One of these was the Contraband Camps.

From the last quarter of 1863 through the years of Reconstruction, hundreds of thousands of freedmen and freedwomen would take refuge inside the Chattanooga’s Contraband Camp. It was there they had their first jobs that paid wages, received an education, strengthened their faith, and dealt with illness. This is while the people of the contraband camp still had fears: fears of acts of violence, but also fears diseases and natural disasters threatening the freedmen and freedwomen.

To learn about Chattanooga’s Camp Contraband, it is important first to have an insight as to what was happening within the city before the most violent and bloody years in American history. Research reveals that there are three different times that are listed as the founding of the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It is first important to look at the formation of Hamilton County, which was named in honor of former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and was established in 1819. The first capital seat for the county was the town of Harrison. Now the city of Chattanooga, as mentioned, has three different founding dates, and historians have debated for years on what is the correct year. The first of these was the year 1810, when Timothy Meigs and John Ross established a trading post along the Tennessee River. Another year that is discussed by many historians is the year 1814. This is when David Brainerd established a mission to the Cherokee. Lastly, other historians point out that 1837 is the founding of Chattanooga. This was the year that the Cherokee people were forced off their lands on what would come to be known as the Trail of Tears. In fact, it was in 1839 that the name of the town would be called Chattanooga, a Creek word meaning, “Rock rising to a point.” Eventually, the lands of the Cherokee people would be purchased for $7.50 per acre.

Despite East Tennessee being so connected to the Appalachian Mountains and what history scholars believed about that region that one in 10 families owned slaves. In the 1830’s Chattanooga became a drop-off point for slaves to be sent to New Orleans by steamboat down the Tennessee River.

As the city of Chattanooga grew, other facts would come to the forefront. One of these was the tax on those who were slave traders, who would have to pay an annual tax of $500.00. An interesting fact, that even those who were called “Free Negroes” were taxed $5.00 a year for a man, and $3.00 a year if you were a woman.

In addition, these “Free Negroes” would have to be registered with the city. If they were not registered, they would be placed into slavery. Even more horrific than this, the city of Chattanooga would have even more blood on its hands. “Free Negroes” were rounded up in McMinn County and sold into slavery in Chattanooga. If any citizen owned slaves, their masters could not have them in town or have them out at night or even through the weekends. However, if a slave owner lived in town or if a slave was approved for employment by his master(s), then they were permitted to be in town during those times. Lastly, slaves could not gather in groups, unless they were supervised by a white person.

In an article in The Chattanooga Daily Gazette F. A. Parham offered land for purchase by either “Cash or Negroes.”

The railroads came to Chattanooga by 1849, which would be another avenue to bring slaves to the Chattanooga area. This brought another form of exploiting slave labor. This was by making slaves build these rail lines that would connect Chattanooga to the lower and upper south. In fact, the Western and Atlantic Railroad would use both enslaved and “Free Negroes” convicts to construct the lines for the trains to come to Chattanooga.

By the year 1853, progression was slowed; however, the citizens of Chattanooga were still feeling that the future looked very bright, this was mainly because new businesses, constructions of schools, new denominations of churches were coming into Chattanooga. A number of these churches still are found within the city of Chattanooga to this day. Last Year of Peace By 1860, Hamilton County had a population of 13,258, which included Chattanooga’s population of 2,545.12 Within the population there were 457 black residents, 99 of whom were enslaved.

Chattanooga had become a very different city than the one 10 years earlier, in which  10 different ethnic groups ended up calling Chattanooga home. These ethnic groups would come from: Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Italy, Sweden, Prussia, France, England, and even Cuba.

The black population worked as blacksmiths, farm hands, drayman, and day laborers. Black women worked either as seamstresses or washerwomen. An interesting fact about slaves in Chattanooga that they were traded to other slave owners periodically throughout the years. A “Free Negro” could not do any business under his or her own name. In 1937, a former Chattanooga slave was asked by a Fisk University researcher about his years of slavery, and the former slave responded, “I don’t care about telling about it sometimes, because there is always somebody on the outside that knows more about it than I do, and I was right in it.”

By 1860 small fires had begun to spark a rebellion throughout the South. The people of East Tennessee were anti-black but did not want to see the country torn apart.

Sadly, by April 1861, the United States would find itself in a Civil War that would take five years, and 620,000 men, boys, and even former slaves would die. The area of East Tennessee was very divided on this issue of Civil War. In fact, even the people in Chattanooga were divided. While Hamilton County wanted to stay loyal to the United States, the city of Chattanooga wanted to join the Confederacy. War With Chattanooga being both a strategic town for riverboat trade and railroad it would just be a matter of time before the American Civil War would come to the area. This became haunting reality in September 1863, after the loss of the Battle of Chickamauga, Union General William Rosecrans took control of Chattanooga. The next three months saw a number of skirmishes and battles in and around Chattanooga. However, after the dust cleared by early December 1863, the city of Chattanooga would remain under the control of the Union Army. After the Confederate defeat, many of the wealthy citizens and Confederate supporters fled town. Those who remained were either Union supporters or were concerned about what would happen to their homes. The buildings that remained in Chattanooga would be used as hospitals, warehouses, company headquarters, and prisons.

 As the days of Union occupation control grew, the citizens saw something only seen in a few other cities throughout the South: This would be refugees of former and runaway slaves that came into the city running to the Union lines. However, as General William T. Sherman continued to march south on to Atlanta and later Savannah, more and more refugee slaves would enter the city. Like other former slaves that followed the Union Army, they were called contrabands.

The first time one would hear the term “contraband” was in May 1861, when three enslaved men: Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory escaped to Fort Monroe located in Hampton Roads Harbor, Virginia, under the leadership of Major General Benjamin Butler. While at the fort, these three men petitioned Butler to keep them and their families together during the early part of the American Civil War. However, at the beginning of the war the Fugitive Slave Act was in effect. This 1850 law was established and stated that any runaway slaves were found must be returned to their masters. However, Butler before the war was a lawyer, and he believed that since the state of Virginia seceded, the Fugitive Slave Act had no merit against runaway slaves. United States President Abraham Lincoln did not like this act by Butler. Since that slaves were actually helping the Confederacy if runaway to Union lines, they would be considered contrabands of war.

Thus contraband camps began to spring up all over the south during the American Civil War, in which hundreds and even thousands of runaways men, women, and children who were enslaved in the Confederate States would seek sanctuary behind Union lines. Chattanooga’s Contraband Camp At the beginning of the American Civil War, 275,000 people were enslaved in Tennessee.

In addition, there were over 7,000 free blacks across the state. However, by 1863 many slaves were fleeing the fields of their oppressors and the shackles of slavery, following Union troops into Chattanooga and taking sanctuary in the Union lines. The Union troops made camp North along the Tennessee River; this way the artillery shells of the Confederate forces could not reach their encampment. The Tennessee River provided a natural border that divided the enslaved from the freeman that had recently set up camp. As these former slaves came into the city, they had to register with the Union Quartermasters. By registering, these runaway slaves could receive rations, blankets, and tents.

As General Sherman and his troops marched through Georgia, more and more slaves found their way to Chattanooga, increasing the population of the camp to 5,000 souls. However, as more slaves entered the camp, the conditions became more terrible. One Union officer stated, “The camp was damp, unhealthy, without water, and untidy in the extreme.”

A number of former slaves refused to register, and as a result, many slaves were in different locations throughout the city. By the war’s end there would be more than 8,000 people in the camp.25 As the camp grew in population, these former slaves would actually do something that just less than a year before would not have been heard of: The people of the Chattanooga’s contraband camp elected a President and a Community Council to help establish a government in the camp.26 Illnesses Within Contraband Camps These freedmen walked miles to become refugees within Union lines or even seek shelter in Union camps. They would do this in spite of the constant fear of being captured, either by the Confederate Army, or even by their former slave owners or their overseers. Once settled into contraband camps, it would appear to be smooth sailing for the freedmen and their families. However, there was one item that they did not count on: While on the plantation these freedmen could find help from their fellow slaves who would take care of them. In some cases the care would be given by their former masters. However, once these freedmen and their families escaped, they would be on their own. At times they would be without food or even water, causing them to die of starvation or dehydration.

Once reaching the Union Lines or one of the hundred contraband camps spread throughout the South, their nightmares seemed to be over. But were they? There were a number of health issues Freedmen and their families had to deal with at the camps. There were a number of threats, seen and unseen that freemen and freewoman had to deal with at camps.

Even though the Chattanooga Contraband Camp was located near the Tennessee River, the conditions were far from sanitary. To make things even worse, as the Union troops mustered into Chattanooga area, it caused a lack of supplies. In addition to the lack of clean water, there were few medical facilities. As a result, many people died of illnesses such as pneumonia, cholera, and typhoid. There were additional fears of smallpox and yellow fever causing deaths. Many weather historians have studied the weather during the period of the American Civil War and have determined there was a small ice age occurring during this time in history. Chattanooga’s United States Colored Troops At the same time that Union soldiers occupied Chattanooga, the United States Color Troops or the U.S.C.T. were being established in Tennessee, organized by abolitionist George Stearns. Stearns’s primary job was to find white officers to lead these newly-formed Union troops. He found his man by the name of Lt. Thomas Morgan. Morgan and the 14th U.S.C.T. Regiment came into Chattanooga in 1864.

They were followed later by the 16th U.S.C.T. Regiment.29 These troops and their officers would recruit men out of the Chattanooga Contraband Camp, helping to establish the 1st United States Colored Cavalry and the 42nd and 44th USCT. These troops of freedmen and white officers did an excellent job in the battles and skirmishes in which they fought. They saw a number of battles in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.30 However, besides doing great things on the battlefield, these troops helped redo the Chattanooga infrastructure. Some of the tasks included building the first bridge across the Tennessee River, building sawmills, construction of army barracks, warehouses, and creation of roads. On May 5, 1865, Companies E and G of the 42nd U.S.C.T. would start the construction of a place that would be a historic landmark for the people of Chattanooga by the construction of the Chattanooga National Cemetery. These soldiers of the U.S.C.T. did not just do the construction of the cemetery, but they also did the landscaping.

In addition to these two accomplishments, they had the unfortunate duty of collecting all of the bodies of soldiers who died serving the Union, within a 50-mile radius of Chattanooga. These were buried in the new National Cemetery. Sadly, a number of U.S.C.T. died as a result of the work they did for the cemetery. Today, within the Chattanooga National Cemetery there are a number of graves of U.S.C.T.

While at these contraband camps many of the freedmen joined the Union Army, not just for being freed, but also for making wages. There was also the opportunity of accessing citizenship after their tour in the army was completed. In fact, abolitionist Fredrick Douglass stated, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, US… and…there is no power on earth… which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”

Historians believe that the Emancipation Proclamation made a huge impact on the life of blacks in the state of Tennessee, like it did for the entire South. However, they would be only partially correct. Yes, the Emancipation Proclamation did free the slaves in the South that were still under the Confederate Government, but it did not release those governed by the United States Government. The State of Tennessee was exempt from the Proclamation because of being under the control of the Union Army at the time of the release of the Proclamation. However, the slaves that resided in Tennessee were not released until the American Civil War ended and the ratification of the 13th Amendment. In fact, Tennessee’s General Assembly unanimously approved the 13th Amendment which ended slavery and involuntary servitude. As mentioned previously, the freedmen of the contraband camp in Chattanooga helped with the town’s infrastructure. Additionally, 2,657 freedmen stayed in Chattanooga and worked in factories and mills. Also, more than 3,000 Union soldiers and officers would stay in Chattanooga to create businesses. As a result of this, Chattanooga’s population grew quickly.

In 1865, The Chattanooga Daily Gazette organized a census. When the results came in later that year Chattanooga growth was larger than the 1860 US Census. As a result of the growth, Chattanooga became the new capital seat of Hamilton County.34 The results of the Census by The Chattanooga Daily Gazette 1,578 white males, 744 white females, 797 children, 900 freedmen, 930 freedwomen, and 827 children.35 Over the next three years there were discussions that freedmen would be granted citizenship. By June of 1868 the 14th Amendment was passed, granting citizenship to those freedmen who were recently released from the bonds of slavery after the war.

Other events during the Reconstruction era included freedmen opening their own businesses throughout Chattanooga. These businesses brought new taxes to a city that was decimated by war. Two of these stand out: Benjamin Holmes, a former slave who wanted to better himself, attended Fisk University. While there, he and eight other men who were inspired by their music teachers, and created the “Jubilee Singers.” This group would be very popular in the United States and Europe. As a result of their popularity, they gave Fisk University $150,000. In so, doing, they secured the future of the university. To this day the folk singers at Frisk University carry on the name Jubilee Singers.

Another freedman, George Sewell, started his career as a barber. Eventually he became Chattanooga’s first black elected official. In 1870, Sewell was elected a city Alderman. Later he would serve on both the county and state courts as a Court Cryer.

Over the years, many freedmen and their dependents would take numerous occupations and professional jobs, making the city of Chattanooga prosper. These professions included doctors, lawyers, teachers, and many others.

One major name in Chattanooga during the time of Reconstruction was Ewing Tade, a Northern Evangelical Minister. Reverend Tade wore many hats during his life: missionary, teacher, minister, real estate agent, and administrative pioneer of Tennessee education. Upon a visit to the Chattanooga contraband camp, Lieutenant Lyman W. Ayer witnessed an urgent need for the freedmen living here. Lieutenant Ayer wrote to Reverend E. M. Strieb, an American Missionary Association representative. Because his qualifications more than fit the needs of the position, the AMA sent Reverend Tade to the camp. As a result of his time there, lasting impact was made in the lives of the freedmen of Chattanooga. Education of Tennessee and Chattanooga Freedman One major right that the freedmen wanted was an education; not just for themselves, but also, for their children. This furthered the desire that many Northern abolitionists held early in the Civil War, of bringing education to the slave population. They did this by erecting Freedmen’s Schools in contraband camps. John Eaton, who was now in charge of the Freedman’s Bureau in Tennessee, wanted these schools to teach not just skills necessary for industrial jobs, but grammar and other subjects. With the help of John Eaton and teachers he recruited from the North, more than 81 schools which taught 7,360 students were created. Sadly, these students were always at risk due to not having enough supplies, teachers being threatened by local citizens, and the difficulties of finding buildings in which to hold classes.

The Chattanooga Freedman’s school would be established by Reverend Ewing Tade. This school would be named Howard School. Named after General Otis Howard, the school was located at the intersection of 6th and Pine Street on the site of the old Confederate Bragg Hospital. The old hospital was being used as a local office for the Freedman’s Bureau. The building, which was only 50 feet square, was repainted and refurbished. Teachers were from the AMA and officers within the Western Freedman Aid Commission. Reverend Tade gathered books from Northern book publishers. In addition, teachers along with missionaries wanted the children of Freedman Schools to join Temperance groups to help stop the use of alcohol and use of tobacco by the freed children.

Sadly, as mentioned previously, the Freedman Schools were a target of those who did not approve of the education of former slaves. Because of this, Reverend Tade asked for protection from the local government agencies.

In spite of the help of the local agencies, the original Howard School closed in 1877. However, its legacy still lives on today. The Howard School has been divided up into three schools - elementary, middle, and high schools - with a student population of 3,452.43. The current Howard High School was named in honor of Union General Otis Howard.

Before and during the American Civil War, slaves and “Free Negros” could not congregate in large gatherings without a while male in attendance. If it was a church service, slaves would be read selected scriptures and it was forbidden for a slave to even be educated. At the start of Reconstruction, the Freedman’s Bureau sent out missionaries to start churches to bring “God’s word and his gift of salvation” to freedmen across the South. Even though many of the freemen already believed they were Christians these missionaries brought the entire Holy Bible to them not just select passages. For the freedmen the church was not the center for their faith, rather it acted as a meeting place to discuss events including politics of the day. Personal Finances As freedmen were being paid for jobs throughout the city, they would need a place for their money to be secured.

As a result, Reverend Tade promoted for the freedmen the establishment of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company or Freedmen’s Bank on the outskirts of the former location contraband camp. By 1868, the bank would have $2,000.00 in assets. By the year 1870, there was around $20,000.00 in deposits.

Tragically the Freedman’s Bureau Savings and Loan Company, failed in 1874 and taking a number of their customers’ money with them. The failure of the Freedmen’s Bank was because of many issues. One of the first was the Panic of 1873, which created an economic depression from 1873-1877. Another, issues that caused the failure of the bank was the mismanagement by the bank officers.

Even while Reverend Tade did some great things for the freemen of Chattanooga, his ideologies would often clash with local, state, federal officials, and even a number of local citizens. As a result of this, many of his ventures failed. Despite this, Reverend Tade had a great deal of support from former Union Officers, the Freedman’s Bureau, and local unions.

Eventually, Reverend Tade would leave Chattanooga and head to California to work with Chinese and the Indian populations. Chattanooga’s Early Post War Prosperity After the conclusion of the American Civil War a number of the freedmen and freedwomen who lived within the area of the contraband camp would leave to find new homes throughout the country and even would organize communities within the City of Chattanooga. This is why one would see a number of the African American communities within Chattanooga that would trace their roots back to the contraband camps.

There would be still a number of residents who lived within in the area that was the contraband camp. In fact, American author John Townsend Trowbridge who visited the area of the camp a year later stated, “One afternoon I crossed the river to pay a visit to this little village. The huts, built by the negroes themselves, were of a similar character to those I had seen at Hampton, but they lacked the big wood-piles and stacks of corn, and the general air of thrift.”

Also, from 1865-1866, the United States Army took down the forts that they built along during the occupation. In addition, the United States Army gave to the city of Chattanooga the military bridge that was built during the city of occupation.

On March 4, 1867, an enormous amount of rain fell upon the Southeast Tennessee area, including in Chattanooga. The next four days saw the waters of the Tennessee River crest at 58 feet above its normal level. As a result of this, many of the streets in the downtown areas were flooded. The waters rising so high that some people had to be rescued off the top of buildings by river boats, whose captains navigated their ships down the streets of Chattanooga.

The floodwaters destroyed the ship building yards that the Union troops had built during the Civil War. Another structure that was similarly demolished was the military bridge that had been constructed by the U.S.C.T. Sadly, with the destruction of the military bridge, Chattanooga had to wait until 1891 for a new bridge to cross the Tennessee River.

As the flood waters receded; the full tragedy of the disaster could be witnessed; buildings, homes, and livestock, especially those found along the riverfront, were lost. Unfortunately, this included many of the homes and buildings that were in what was contraband camp. In addition to buildings and livestock lost many graves that were located in the area were unearthed. As a result of this, many graves were moved to other cemeteries.

A little less than eight years later Chattanooga would be hit with yet with another flood. Those whose buildings and homes had been rebuilt after the 1867 flood would find themselves having to evacuate those places again. Sadly, after this flood, many of the people left Chattanooga for other parts of the county or even different states. Those who stayed within the former location of what was the Contraband Camp would have moved to higher land, in the helping of the organization of the community Hill City.

One might ask, what was the legacy of the Contraband Camp in Chattanooga? A short answer would be, “Freedom.” However, there is much more than this simplistic answer to look at: the fight for citizenship, education, and the development of stronger faith and worship that African Americans celebrate today are another part of the answer. Also, it was because of the freedmen and freedwomen that the city went from being a small town with dirt roads to one with paved roads including the construction of the first bridge across the Tennessee River, creating a lasting place of peace and rest for military veterans taking the early steps for educational opportunities, not just for themselves, but for their children and grandchildren.

The people of the Chattanooga Contraband Camp should be remembered for their strength, endurance, and their resilience. As we never forget those who took steps into a new world; then historians should not overlook the people of this time and place in American history.

Alex McKeel

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