By Lena Mitchell
Daily Journal Corinth Bureau
CORINTH – Stories of the escaped slaves who made their way to Corinth behind Union lines were told with more passion, life and depth than ever before during a two-day symposium that ended Friday.
Re-enactors, park rangers and academics demonstrated the experiences those who escaped bondage found as they built new lives, first as “contrabands” of war, serving alongside Union soldiers to gain their own freedom and as freed men and women.
“Contraband camps began to spring up wherever there was a Union presence, especially after preliminary announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation,” Ranger Tom Parson told the crowd of several dozen visitors as he led a tour around the Corinth Contraband Camp.
Making stops at each of the camp’s five stations featuring life-size bronze statues, Parson explained more about how people lived in the camp: Laying out streets that they named after Union generals; dividing the community of up to 6,000 residents into wards; building and living in wood frame houses; building a hospital, a church, a school.
At each statue Parson described what life was like for camp residents represented by the statues – a washerwoman, a farmer, a teacher with student, a man and boy gathering up books and a black soldier.
“I’ve been here once before and it just fascinated me,” said tour member Janette Tigner of Hornsby, Tenn., the historical librarian at Hardeman County Library. “I first got interested in contraband camps helping a couple from Illinois who came to research a relative from the camp at Grand Junction, Tenn.”
Tigner was accompanied by a fellow history enthusiast and author, Lisa Coleman of Bolivar, Tenn.
“I’ve written about the history of Hardeman County,” Coleman said, “and didn’t know about contrabands. That’s what I love about history, that you never know everything. It’s just fascinating.”
Joining the tour were George Buss, an Illinois historian who interprets President Abraham Lincoln, and Michael Crutcher of Kentucky, portraying Frederick Douglass.
The men were later joined by Dr. E.C. “Curt” Fields of Collierville, who portrays General Ulysses S. Grant, for a mock press conference, where they fielded questions that would have been posed to each of them in 1863, after signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Those re-enactors, along with noted historian Dr. John David Smith of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Dr. Dierdre Cooper Owens of the University of Mississippi, were brought together to create an interesting, entertaining and informative program.
“I’ve been really pleased with the interest and turnout we’ve had for these programs,” said Supervising Ranger Ashley Berry of the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center. “I hope everyone has been pleased with what we tried to do.”