By Dr. Susan W. Knowles, Digital Humanities Research Fellow, Center for Historic Preservation
I recently heard a National Public Radio story on the Syrian refugee crisis. It is shocking to realize that as much as fifty percent of the population has been displaced by three years of war. The reporter interviewed those in border area camps and described their overall feelings of hopelessness. Many had left home with little more than the clothes on their backs. Young men think that they have no future. Heads of households worry about how to take care of their families. Mothers try to comfort their children, cooking in primitive conditions with unfamiliar ingredients.
These perspectives on day-to-day life in the refugee camps pulled my mind’s eye to war-torn Tennessee during the Civil War—and especially to the plight of the many thousands who were displaced by the fighting. Those who had the means to do so left the state temporarily or sent their children to schools away from the war zone. Many who remained suffered severe privations. Life for African Americans proved especially difficult. Free-born, newly freed, or still enslaved, they faced severe challenges—not just from the perils of nearby combat but also from a society in transition.
For the past year, our partners at the Tennessee State Library & Archives and MTSU’s Geospatial Research Center have been creating an electronic map showing events and places where African American Tennesseans began to claim freedom and citizenship. (As the Center for Historic Preservation’s digital humanities research fellow, I worked with the team throughout the project.) Produced with matching funds from the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, this interactive map went live on February 13th. Now, the African American story takes its place alongside the overall wartime military history of the state in Tennessee’s online Civil War GIS (Geographic Information System). The project title, Landscape of Liberation: The African American Geography of Civil War Tennessee, is meant to evoke an image of time and place.
At first labeled “contraband of war” by the Federal forces, formerly enslaved Tennesseans began moving into the public sphere as freedmen and women as the war progressed. Many were forced to flee their former homes as properties were destroyed or changed hands; others chose to leave and take their chances with Union authorities. Some remained, and tried to keep farms operating for community sustenance. Often with only a few possessions, those who chose to relocate encountered empty roads, neglected farm fields, and garrisoned towns.
Life was fraught with uncertainty in a state with such divided loyalties as Tennessee. The vote on secession had been almost evenly split. Because the capital and key sections of the state were officially under Federal jurisdiction by mid-1862, the Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863, did not apply to Tennessee. There was no firm guarantee of civil rights for African Americans by public officials or in courts of law.
For African Americans, every encounter with an unknown person was potentially threatening. Many traveled known transportation corridors and sheltered near Federal encampments. Some men and women found employment with the Union military. By late 1863, thousands of men had enlisted in regiments that eventually came to be known as United States Colored Troops. More than 20,000 African American soldiers from Tennessee ultimately fought for the Union, the third largest total from any state. Scholars now agree that the strength, courage, and labor provided by USCT regiments ultimately turned the tide of war.
Landscape of Liberation is clickable by place on the map itself and searchable by county and locality. Either way, a synopsis of “what happened here” pops up and links to a primary source. For example, a hand-drawn map by W.O. Ferree of Fort Pickering, from the collection of the Tennessee State Museum, is labeled with specific locations, including a tent encampment of the “1st Battalion Colored Troops” at the south end. From military records, we know that Fort Pickering, located in Memphis on the banks of the Mississippi River, became the primary mustering site in Tennessee for “colored troops…as heavy artillery” beginning in the spring of 1863.
The Landscape of Liberation GIS application shows the self-emancipation of African Americans spatially and the extent to which they armed and fought for the Union. Overlapping clusters of activity in certain areas will prompt questions about whether similar events were occurring in smaller population pockets across the state. As those stories emerge through community outreach and additional research, the map will continue to expand, writing a new chapter of this transformative time in Tennessee’s history.
“New Online Application Maps African-American History During the Civil War in Tennessee,” Library and Archives News: The Tennessee State Library and Archives Blog (Feb. 24, 2015).