Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Zooming in on a Freedmen's Camp in Richmond, Virginia

The above photograph is located in the collections of the National Archives. It is titled "Contraband Camp, Richmond, Va, 1865." That particular title is a little misleading to me. Contrabands were enslaved people that fled to Union lines during the war, whereas this image appears to have been taken after the fall of Richmond and the end of the war. Thus, the individuals shown here, were at this point, freedmen.

In the left background is what appears to be the state capitol of Virginia. Just to the left (south) and out of the photograph's range is the destroyed section of the city that caught fire when the Confederates fled the city on April 2nd and 3rd and burned ammunition and supplies in attempt to keep it from aiding the Union army. 

At the left center of the photograph is a large wall tent and a number of freedmen gathered around looking at the photographer. It is difficult to tell if they are wearing pieces of Union army uniforms, as most appear to be in their shirtsleeves or undershirts. Also, most of the men seem to be bear-headed or are wearing slouch hats. Interestingly no women appear to be in the scene. Freedwomen often did cooking and laundry in these immediate post-war camps, so it seems strange that none are shown here.

In the near foreground are three white men sitting on a pile of lumber. Are they Union soldiers? Part of the Freedmen's Bureau? It is difficult to tell for sure. The one on the left is wearing a Union military cap, while the other two are in slouch hats. All of the men look to be wearing military coats or jackets. Occupation troops were in Richmond long after the city fell, and the Freedmen's Bureau offered schools, health services, and legal advice in negotiating work contracts, too.

Just to the right of the three white men in the foreground are three freedmen staring at the photographer. A young man is shown closest while two older men stand by a row of Sibley tents, likely provided by the Union army for temporary shelter. The man on the right appears to be wearing a vest.

Very few photographs of freedmen camps exist, so images like this one are important to better understanding the transition from slavery to freedom for millions.

You can zoom in on your own by examining this photograph here.

Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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