Written by Linda Barnickel, independent archivist and freelance writer
It’s easy for us today to think that enslaved people during the Civil War era were held in bondage, and then all of a sudden, were not. Whether they ran away or remained on the plantation until Union troops invaded the area, it’s easy to think of emancipation as a single event. Presto, change-o – unfree to free. Perhaps in a single hour or day. Their status had changed.
The reality is much more complicated. The case of northeast Louisiana in the spring and summer of 1863 proves that the emancipation of southern slaves was complex. There were three different issues in play: former enslaved as “contrabands;” freed people as laborers on U.S.-operated plantations; and the recruitment of black men as soldiers into the Union army.
During the early part of 1863, the Union Army of the Tennessee, under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, gathered along the west bank of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Their presence had a destabilizing effect on the nearby plantations, which were still mostly populated by their owners and their human chattel. By March of 1863, a number of planters had fled to the center part of the state, near Monroe, Louisiana, or farther west to Shreveport, or even Texas. The planters often forced their enslaved men and women to accompany them, but some bondsmen took the opportunity to run away to the East, toward Union lines. Other planters removed most of their slaves, but left their homes and plantations in charge of a few trusted servants. Sometimes, these were elderly slaves, whom planters thought not only more loyal, but were also less likely to run away due to their age and health. Other times, they may have been house servants, whom the planters thought would be able to maintain their home, perhaps preventing its destruction by Yankee marauders. But the departure of white slaveholders, coupled with the proximity of the Union Army, meant that it was not long before the former bondsmen claimed their own freedom and left the plantations for Union lines. At first in small groups, then by the hundreds, freed people headed east and flooded the Union Army camps. This quickly overwhelmed the army’s ability to provide even basic necessities, such as food and sanitation. In an effort to make the situation more manageable, the army established “contraband camps,” – or what became essentially refugee camps for former enslaved men and women.
The contraband camps in northeastern Louisiana continued to be a problem for Union authorities. First, so many freed people were in these camps that they created a significant drain on Federal resources. Not only did the Union Army have to feed and clothe its own, but now it had thousands of contrabands to provide for as well. And this, just when the army was about to move out of the region, to begin the final campaign to capture the Confederate fortress at Vicksburg, Mississippi. In an attempt to alleviate this situation, many freed people were returned to area plantations – this time, laboring for wages and under the supervision of white plantation operators from the North. These men leased the plantations from the U.S. government. Their task, and that of their black laborers, was to grow crops to provide for the freed people, help feed the army, and grow cotton to send north and sell for a profit.
Although the contraband camps and plantation leasing system probably affected the majority of freed people in the region of northeast Louisiana, the most important outcome of the Union presence in the spring of 1863, was the enlistment of black men into the Federal Army. In April, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas came from Washington to the Mississippi Valley, seeking experienced white soldiers from Grant’s army to serve as officers in what would become known as the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). These white officers were responsible for doing their own recruiting among African Americans in the region. Anxious to get their increased rank and pay, many of these officers simply went out to the plantations and pressed black men into the service. Many regiments formed at the same time and competed for the same men. Some officers were true abolitionists and felt honored to serve in this capacity. Others were opportunists, seeking rapid promotion with its increased pay and prestige, and cared little for the welfare of the enlisted black men under their command.
The first test for these soldiers came at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana on June 7, 1863. To nearly everyone’s surprise, the barely-trained African American soldiers fought valiantly in hand-to-hand combat, despite being overwhelmed by a Confederate attack. Afterwards, word spread about their impressive behavior under fire. Even the Confederate General, Henry McCulloch, admitted that the black troops fought with “considerably obstinacy.” The men of the African Brigade proved themselves, in the words of one observer, “worthy of the name of soldiers.”
George Field provided this report on conditions at Lake Providence, La. in February 1863. Among the subjects mentioned: conditions of the “contrabands”; eagerness of black men to enlist in the Union army (despite Jefferson Davis’ threat of execution if captured); one black man who is waging his own private guerrilla war; and the aid former slaves provide to Union troops in regards to supplies, local roads and geography, and Confederate activities. A second report, dated March 20, 1863, provides additional details, including the sympathies and activities of Confederate civilians in the region; the desire of black men to enlist and the speculation that a force of eight thousand could be raised quickly; the variety of opinions of Union officers about the enlistment of black troops; and a proposal to have former slaves labor for wages on abandoned plantations. RG 94 Letters Received, 1863-1888 (NAID 593342)
Due to overlapping administrative channels, a variety of resources document the transition from slavery to freedom in the Mississippi Valley during the summer of 1863. Information about contraband camps, Federal plantations, and the organization of African-American regiments can be found in the following sources:
RG 393 Records of US Army Continental Commands, 1821–1920
The related series were created in the 8th Louisiana Regiment Infantry (African Descent) during the American Civil War: Letters Sent, 05/1863–02/1864 (NAID 5488006); General Orders, 05/1863–07/1865 (NAID 5489965); and Special Orders, 05/1863–02/1865 (NAID 5490140).
RG 94 Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s–1917
The Colored Troops Division was established by General Order 143 on May 22, 1863. It administered matters pertaining to recruitment, organization, and service of the US Colored Troops. Related series include Register of Letters Received by Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, 04/1863–04/1865 (NAID 601776); Record of Regiments, 1863–1865 (NAID 602258); Applications for Appointment, 1863–1865 (NAID 602238); and Report Entitled “The Negro in the Military Service of the United States,” 1888 (NAID 602300).
Linda Barnickel’s prize-winning book, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory (LSU Press, 2013) further details the story of an important, but long-forgotten battle in which former-slaves-turned-soldiers played a prominent role. Click here to learn more about Milliken’s Bend.
 War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, (Washington, DC: GPO, 1889), series 1, vol. 24, pt. 2, p. 467; Frank Ross McGregor, Dearest Susie: A Civil War Infantryman’s Letters to His Sweetheart, ed. Carl E. Hatch (New York: Exposition Press, ), p. 55.