The Devil's Punchbowl - Natchez, MS

Densely vegetated now, The Devil’s Punchbowl was home to one of the first Concentration Camps in the US and thousands of newly freed slaves lost their lives here after being emancipated.

Densely vegetated now, The Devil’s Punchbowl was home to one of the first Concentration Camps in the US and thousands of newly freed slaves lost their lives here after being emancipated.

 

The peaches that grow there grow in the remains of dead emancipated slaves. When there’s been a lot of rain, ribs, femurs and other human bones surface. Rumor has it that there are other mysterious things that happen there and the locals, African-American and white, alike, avoid the area and talk about the horrendous history of this location. Watching evening roll in and settle over the area, I couldn’t help but notice that there were no birds and the area was dead silent.  It seemed as if humans and wildlife, alike, knew this to be a place of untold horrors.

Mississippi was, overall, a secessionist state, but Natchez was an exception; unique for having such strong Union sympathies.  The town consisted of wealthy planters, merchants, bankers and those who worked in trade.  These folks understood that good relationships with the North would be essential to their pocket books.  The City of Natchez surrendered to Union troops three times during the Civil War and hosted many elaborate soirees for the Union troops that were stationed there at Fort McPherson and while the area served as Headquarters for Grant’s Siege of Vicksburg, just 70 miles to the North.

Photo of freed slaves, now relegated to the status of "Contraband" by the Union Army.

Photo of freed slaves, now relegated to the status of "Contraband" by the Union Army.

Regardless, with the arrival of Northern troops the slaves in the area were free!  There was no more a plan for them here than there was anywhere else. Estimates vary because many of those emancipated returned to work at their plantations or headed North. Though official estimates vary, there is no doubt that thousands of newly freed African Americans had nowhere to go. The Union Army established a place for them on an isolated bank of the Mississippi River.

"Contraband Camps," such as the one seen here, were a common way for Union Soldiers to deal with the emancipated slaves that flocked to their lines.  With no plan for this human influx, Contraband Camps were established and conditions were unsanitary, turning them into death traps for thousands of African-Americans.

"Contraband Camps," such as the one seen here, were a common way for Union Soldiers to deal with the emancipated slaves that flocked to their lines.  With no plan for this human influx, Contraband Camps were established and conditions were unsanitary, turning them into death traps for thousands of African-Americans.

It didn’t take long for disagreements to break out between the ”contraband” (as they became known) and their former owners so the Union Army erected fences, locking in the emancipated and using them for manual labor digging siege works near Vicksburg, as needed.  Locked away and with no one knowing what to do with them, the freed slaves sat or worked, and waited…

Disease broke out in the cramped space and with the hot humid conditions in Natchez.  Smallpox, Diphtheria, and other local ailments ran rampant, killing hundreds or thousands.  They were not allowed to leave and when they died, they were handed a shovel and told to bury their dead right there.

Contraband were often used by Union Officers, to perform manual labor like building railroads or trenches.  They received no pay or reward for their work, though some were, eventually, mustered into the Union Army and paid a reduced wage.

Contraband were often used by Union Officers, to perform manual labor like building railroads or trenches.  They received no pay or reward for their work, though some were, eventually, mustered into the Union Army and paid a reduced wage.

Today, we have the legacy.  Though there is some debate, regarding whether this could have happened, one trip to Natchez and a few conversations with locals, African-American and white, alike, and you’ll have no doubt.  Though it was never intended to be a Concentration Camp, due to Union troops not knowing to do with the contraband, they inadvertently created one of the first Concentration Camps in the US.  Mother Nature, disease and, a lack of sanitary conditions turned that camp into a death trap.  And so… the locals bestowed on this spot of horror, and it has retained it’s lasting benediction: The Devil’s Punchbowl.