Slave owners from 1864 Register of Freedmen, Camp Shiloh, Memphis, Tennessee

Background of The Register

In 1864, following a directive of The Freedmen's Inquiry Commission[1] , officials at Camp Shiloh--referred to also as The Colored People's Camp--in Memphis, Tennessee created a register of newly free persons who had taken up residence in this contraband (refugee) camp. This Civil War era record is referred to as a register rather than as a census because its purpose was to register and thereby keep track of who was living in the camp. There were six contraband camps in or bordering Memphis--Shiloh, Bethel, Chelsea, Dixie, Fiske, and Holly Springs--and what is known of these camps comes mostly from the writings of missionaries and philanthropists such as Laura Haviland of Michigan and Levi Coffin of Ohio and from war documents. Both Haviland and Coffin write of the tumultuous atmosphere of the wartime South and of the wretched conditions of many, if not most, of the African Americans who moved from farms and plantations to contraband camps. However, even amid the intense suffering, death, and disease of freedmen, soldiers, and citizens alike, the Union army in cooperation with religious and charitable organizations such as the American Missionary Association, the Freedmen's Aid Society, as well as certain missionary arms of mainline Christian denominations and Quakers, organized various agricultural experiments, which created farming opportunities for freedmen. Blacks at Camp Shiloh very likely took part in these experiments; in fact, the camp's informal re-designation as The Colored People's Camp would seem to suggest that this was a site of conscious black organizing. In keeping with this idea, one finds in this particular register blacks from ten states--AL, AR, GA, IN, KY, LA, MS, MO, TN, VA--and The District of Columbia. This "diversity" of former residences would seem to indicate that Camp Shiloh was a "second stage" camp, formed of policies that worked toward achievement of the people's and the officials' goals of helping freedmen achieve self-sufficiency and formed also of blacks who had likely spent time in at least one other camp including those outside of Memphis (e.g. The Grand Junction Camp (TN) and Camp Corinth (MS)). In studying the population of Shiloh one notices a far greater number of women than men and that more than half of the population is composed of children and aged persons. These facts point to Shiloh having been a regimental village housing soldiers' families. As historian Noralee Frankel has said of women who fought for and won an opportunity to stay near their enlisted husbands during the war, Shiloh's residents' own emerging views of freedom (and activities that co-created their experience of freedom) played a role in the making of this important camp. On the other hand, Frankel also explains that the model for black women's labor during the war, while promoting wages for these women, very much resembled prevailing views of black women's ability to work. Perceiving black women as natural workers, camp organizers strongly insisted on a nearly compensatory work policy for able-bodied men and women rather than allowing the women either to simply care for their children or to sit idly by. Because of this prevailing view, The Register of Freedmen includes two main classifications related to labor and another representing health status. The Register identifies each registrant's "occupation," what he or she had as a slave done on his or her owner's farm, the registrant's age, and his or her state of health. In effect, this record helped officials organize a not-so-small labor force and to identify as well those in need of medical care.

Slave Owners Represented

There are between six and seven hundred slave owners represented in The Register. This range is due to the fact that the freedmen themselves apparently reported the names of their former owners, and, in many cases, one set of slaves offered one name while another individual or group offered a different name, i.e. spelling, for what would appear to be the same person. For example, one slave owner appears as "Noah Marancy" and alternately as "Canoah Marancy" and "Kanoah Marancy." In such cases, the transcriber of the record represented each "record" just as it appeared in the original record and counted each variation of name as a separate record even though these can be proven to refer to the same person. Also, the transcriber found in other records, for instance, court documents, yet other spellings. This associated research is not reflected in the initial transcription but will appear in a later annotated transcription.

The greatest number of owners and likewise freedmen are from the states of Tennessee and Mississippi. This fact is easily explained by the army's lengthy occupation of these states. Other freedmen crossed Union lines as federal forces moved throughout the Mississippi Valley, beginning in February of 1862 with counties along the border of Kentucky and Tennessee. Freedmen from northeast Mississippi and northwest Alabama would have encountered Union lines during and after the Battle of Shiloh in the spring of '62 while blacks from areas further south would have crossed into Union lines during the army's campaign to capture Vicksburg. Both the number of African American freedmen and the number of slave owners found in this record strongly illustrate the wartime disruption of southern society and economy, and it is reasonable to conclude that most blacks who left plantations and descended upon occupied areas were never registered, suggesting a disruption that was deeper still. Given this effect of the northern army's occupation of the South and black movement, it makes sense that some owners approached Union encampments and contraband camps looking for their "property." According to one source, Ebenezer Davis, cousin of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, traveled from his north Mississippi plantation, Strawberry Plains, to Memphis to retrieve his slaves, whom he later "refugeed" (took) to his plantation in Alabama. Of Ebenezer Davis' 113 slaves, only seven appear in The Register, yet it would seem likely that others may have resided at least for a short time at other Memphis camps. In other words, Davis was likely successful in retrieving only a few of his slaves.

There is not likely another record like The Register, that is, one that is comprised of so many different slave owners from so many different areas and one that, at the same time, names former slaves, with their master, and location of plantation. Because of its uniqueness, The Register may be seen as a model itself of wartime records that have the potential to assist upwards to a million or more contemporary African Americans in tracing their family histories if not back to ancestors listed in this record then to the slave owners.

Research on the Owners

In the winter of 2012, students at Rust College, in Holly Springs, Mississippi--an epicenter of Ulysses S. Grant's campaign in the Department of Tennessee--took on as an assignment in a course on research and writing the discovery of background information on the slave owners represented in The Register. During the term, students worked in four different teams covering four counties--Shelby Co. TN, Fayette County, TN, Marshall County MS, and DeSoto County, MS. Sources included online materials (mainly genealogy websites such as GenWeb and Rootsweb, as well as FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com), and they also traveled to libraries and worked with materials available in genealogy collections housed by these local institutions. Because the research was written as I-Search Papers, or personal research papers, this student writing included both what the students knew of slavery before venturing down the research path, the process of creating knowledge about slave owners, and how the students felt about both the subject and the process. The full papers have not yet been made available. Instead, each student summarized his or her findings and those are available on separate county pages: Shelby (TN), Fayette (TN), Marshall MS, and DeSoto (MS). It was explained to students that their work will help both descendants of the slave owners and descendants of those who were owned reconnect to their families' pasts. This is an ongoing project. Information will be added regularly.
  1. ^ The Freedmen's Inquiry Commission was created by order of Secretary of War Edward M. Stanton. Commissioners appointed were ant-slavery activists Samuel Gridley Howe, Robert Dale Owen, and James McKay. The Commission's task was to produce reports concerning conditions of freedmen in the war-torn South. The Commission produced a preliminary report and a final report.