A bit of Natchez, Mississippi history during Union occupation that conveniently gets swept under the rug, as it destroys the narrative of Lincoln’s virtuous war of emancipation.
According to local historian Don Estes, during the War Between the States, African American Union Troops were segregated and quartered “Under the Hill” near the sawmill. They had to get up the steep bluffs daily to build Fort McPherson and, then, to man it.
“The steps lasted throughout my mother’s childhood,’ said Patty, “she played there and used to take us and tell us the story.”
The story is of this now peaceful thicket is one of human horror. Many locals believe that ten to twenty thousand former slaves died under the promised protection of the Union Army. In July of 1863 during the occupation of Natchez, destitute freed slaves turned to the federal troops for aid. Overwhelmed by the huge number of people seeking refuge, the army placed them in a corral so that they could not escape. There, tainted water and poor food caused as many as seventy-five people to die every day. Union forces accepted no responsibility and seized all cemetery records of the time. Bodies are said to have been buried like cordwood.
History has always made concentration camps to be synonymous with the atrocities of Nazi Germany. But, America has its own dirty secrets about the use of concentration camps. These camps were located in Natchez, Mississippi and were used to corral freed slaves during and after the American Civil War. As slaves were being emancipated from the plantations, their route to freedom usually took them in the vicinity of the Union army forces. Unhappy with the slaves being freed, the army began recapturing the slaves and forced the men back into hard labor camps. The most notorious of the several concentration camps that were established was located in Natchez, MS.
As the slaves made their way to freedom, the town of Natchez went from a population of 10,000 to 120,000 people almost overnight. In order to deal with the population influx of recently freed slaves, a concentration camp was established to essentially eradicate the slaves. The men were recaptured by the Union troops and forced back into hard labor. The women and children were locked behind the walls of the camp and left to die from starvation. Many also died from the smallpox disease. In total, over 20,000 freed slaves were killed in one year, inside of this American concentration camp.
A researcher studying the existence of the concentration camps said, “The union army did not allow them to remove the bodies from the camp. They just gave ’em shovels and said bury ’em where they drop.” The camp was called the Devil’s Punchbowl because of the way the area is shaped. The camp was located at the bottom of a cavernous pit with trees located on the bluffs above.
Today the bluffs are known for the wild peach grooves but the locals will not eat any of the fruit because some are aware of what has fertilized the trees. One researcher has noted that skeletal remains still wash-up when the area becomes flooded by the Mississippi River.