One of the more annoying 1870s disinformation campaigns by remnants of the Southern Confederacy is to blame their own humanitarian disasters on liberating armies. “Devil’s Punch Bowl” in Natchez, Mississippi is one such example. Many thousands of slaves intentionally malnourished and denied basics like clothing or education were pushed upon Union forces, then fraudulently written into movies and books as entirely a Union disaster.
For some perspective consider when concentration camps of Nazi Germany were liberated, many prisoners died immediately or soon after. Nobody I know ever blames those deaths on Allies, yet in terms of the Civil War it is common to hear the Union blamed for the Confederate slave deaths that came after liberation.
I’ve met personally with survivors and liberators of Nazi concentration camps, who described tragic events to me such as a starved prisoner dying from care — eating a real meal too excitedly/quickly (something known well to anyone familiar with shipwreck history).
The first intake of food proved fatal for many prisoners, too weak from starvation to digest it. …the road to recovery would be long and painful.
And, again, nobody says Allies were killing the liberated German slaves yet that’s the talk track created by Confederates after the Civil War about Black American slaves.
The real story of Natchez is that it was one of very many camps setup to handle a refugee crisis that had been strategically manufactured by the Confederacy. After a long and brutal war started by the Southern Confederacy to perpetuate slavery, their former slaves totally dependent by design were in desperate state — in need of immediate food, shelter, clothes, education etc where none had been before.
I’ll say that again. The Confederates denied slaves freedom or capabilities for self-care, while also denying them care. Refugees from the slave states had been given so little to help themselves they were thus setup to be helpless (any capabilities were deemed a threat to white rule). Then with imminent loss of value to slaveholders these slaves were intentionally swindled and pushed onto Union forces.
Below is a long albeit very insightful and clear-eyed write-up of the situation from 1865, which should settle any debate on these matters:
Here are a few highlights:
- “In the regions which were occupied by Federal troops, the planters [a term referencing a large number of slaves owned] who sympathized with the Southern Confederacy had generally fled, taking with them or sending before them their able-bodied slaves, and leaving to the mercy of the invading army the old and decrepit, and the children who were too young to be of much value.”
- “…in many instances arrived sick, half-starved, and with only a few rags for clothing. It was obviously the duty of the Government to provide in part at least for these poor creatures, and to furnish employment for such of them as were able to work, that they might sustain themselves and their more helpless kindred.”
- “…especially below Vicksburg, it was a matter of difficulty to obtain a sufficiency of rations for the soldiers, to say nothing for the 30,000 or 40,000 helpless colored people who looked to the Government for food…”
- “…with few exceptions [plantation owners] were adventurers and camp followers, who were ready to turn their hands to any opportunity of getting gain by the oppression of the poor, the weak, or the defenseless… no physician was allowed [by plantation owners to see the emancipated slaves]… nor were they furnished with food according to agreement… [such that plantation owners] made large fortunes on the single year’s labor.”
- “…overcrowding, want of ventilation, malarious localities, prevalence of small-pox, want of medical attendance, poor and insufficient food, and lack of clothing. […] At the camp at Natchez, where there had been 4,000 freedmen, the number was reduced to 2,100 by deaths, from fifty to seventy-five having died per day during July and August.”
In short, the area known for the highest concentration of wealth generated by slavery also somehow had the highest number of Blacks approaching total destitution. 40,000 refugees from Confederate prisons!
Mind you this all was published in 1865 and was no secret. Letters from around December 1863 even speak to raising awareness of the calamity, such that northerners would immediately send aid.
The population of coloured people here, during the past year, has been some 4000. There have been 1100 deaths. This statement tells the story. […] And from exposure they cannot avoid, Pneumonia, Small-pox, and other diseases incident to camp life, are on the increase and more fatal.
The Confederacy tactically pushed able-bodied slaves away (for continued servitude under men like Jack Daniel even after emancipation) and then cruelly pushed masses of ill and infirm northward towards approaching Union troops to bog them down.
Union troops were still concentrated to the East (where fighting was heaviest) and slave owners shifted west, hoping to avoid giving up slavery (Texans not to mention Californians continued slavery feeling protected by “remoteness“).
Here’s an excellent retelling of the situation in a report archived from the Natchez National History Park.
No formal action was taken by Union forces to occupy Natchez until after the fall of Vicksburg to Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s army on July 4, 1863. Two weeks later, Brig.
Gen. T. E. G. Ransom occupied the town and found it well stocked with sugar, cotton, and
lumber. Ransom also overtook, a few miles from Natchez, 5000 Texas cattle being driven
toward Confederate forces in the east. By mid-summer of 1863, Natchez was securely in
Well stocked with food and supplies? Keep that in mind now as the report continues.
Almost immediate with its occupation, Union forces in Natchez were overwhelmed by a stampede of black refugees from the countryside. Hundreds of district slaves had been on the run since summer of 1862, hiding out in the countryside as best they could. Many had fled the plantations to avoid being taken by their masters deeper into the Confederacy, to Texas and Georgia. Others had hid out with their families, hoping to find their way north. But once Vicksburg fell, the momentum became a tidal wave of humanity, much of it cascading in the direction of Natchez.
General Ransom eagerly sought orders on what to do with the refugees: “I also desire some instructions as to what policy I shall pursue with regard to the negroes. They flock in by the thousands (about 1 able-bodied man to 6 women and children). I am feeding about 500 and working the able-bodied men among them. I can send you any number encumbered with families. I can not take care of them. They are all anxious to go; they do not know where or what for.”
One of General Grant’s corps commanders at Vicksburg responded with alacrity if not much practical advice:
With regard to the contrabands, you can say to them they are free, and that it will be better for them, especially the woman and children, old and infirm, to remain quietly where they are, as we have no means of providing for them at present.
No means of providing for refugees from the town where massive wealth had been accumulated. Here you can see the preference to emphasize freedom while saying it’s best to apply that freedom right where they are and start working for themselves.
The report goes on to say the Union offered immediately hiring the freed slaves as soldiers.
With regard to the men who are strong, able-bodied, and will make good soldiers, you can bring them along with you [to Vicksburg] if they are willing to come and will leave their families behind.
This certainly undermines any notion that the Union army didn’t give the refugees they encountered some control or a role in their own destiny.
By the time General Granger and his 1,800 men in Texas issued their June 19, 1865 order to free all slaves, it’s estimated 250,000 Americans still were under violent oppression.
An interesting tangent here is that Granger’s precise wording in Texas had very specific orders to remain in place instead of approaching military posts, heading off further humanitarian disaster being fomented by Confederate forces in this region of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
Granger not only was aiming to avoid refugees overwhelming Union forces coming to give them freedom, he also likely recognized the need to keep people where they were to avoid concentration of supplies. Indeed, slaveholders had cruelly started to profit from a disaster of their own making by afterwards cornering and corrupting emergency supply markets, spiking costs to increase suffering as repeated in the 2021 Texas energy outages (while blaming all of this on someone or something else, again like 2021). Asking freemen to continue working in place as opposed to gather around Union forces served dual purposes in preventing further human exploitation by white families of the Southern Confederacy.
We’re talking here about white families who after 1808 had very purposefully created a system of state-sanctioned rape of women for forced births (all white men were encouraged to rape black women to increase birth rates for profit) as well as buying and selling humans — don’t be distracted by other industries (e.g. agriculture, especially cotton) as it was all about mass exploitation of Black women and their children.
…[profit from raping Black women and using or trading their children as property meant] the African-American population in the South also rose from approximately 700,000 in 1790 to nearly 4 million by 1860. By the mid-19th century, the majority of the nation’s [enslaved Black children were] raised in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, and nowhere in the antebellum South was [human trafficking] more dominant than Natchez, Mississippi, which was “…the wealthiest town per capita in the United States…” on the eve of the Civil War
Natchez operated as the second largest slave market for all the slave states. The region’s “boom” came directly from human trafficking, make no mistake about it.
In Mississippi alone the state-sanctioned raping and trafficking of Blacks had created a slave population of 437,303 by 1860 (99.8% or 436,631 of Blacks were owned by a white family). That’s a Black population all enslaved nearly 100,000 larger than the entire white population.
To make an even finer point, the term “planter” in Mississippi was the official economic reference to the number of slaves held and NOT any measure of any other output or goods.
Thus obvious economics of human trafficking translated into a huge amount of wealth for the slavers as they systematically raped Black women and then controlled every aspect of Black lives including food, shelter, behavior, health, and even religion.
Remember that absurdly huge brick mansion picture at the top of this post? I set it there to show the kind of largess from funds in Natchez all due to slavery.
Can you estimate how many women had been raped or their children sold to pay for all those bricks in Natchez, or how many slaves were denied food and clothing?
That should be in your head when you read about the Union troops who approached this area of “heavily concentrated wealth” where slaves suffered under total control of rich masters. Imagine finding tens of thousands of starving, barely clothed illiterate and ill refugees… suddenly pressed upon Federal government for desperate care. Then think about politics today in these former slave states where rich white men demand no care be afforded the poor.
Devil’s Punchbowl of Natchez was completely a manufactured crisis by the defeated Confederacy loyalists, which was designed to maximize suffering of emancipated slaves. It was a heartless scheme for profit from loss on top of the mass suffering in a war they started.
Sadly, that disgusting plan of the Confederates worked all too well. As historians have said about the victims of Nazism, “the road to recovery would be long and painful” for slaves of the Confederacy after liberation. It even explains American “tipping culture” today.
It’s fair to say the Union military was ill-equipped (having supplies heavily stretched even for its own purposes) and unprepared to handle the crisis thrown upon them. And it was even worse off trying to work through the cruelty of defeated Confederates trying to swindle and cheat the refugee/freedmen system to increase suffering and spin a false narrative that any suffering of the most weak and ill should be blamed on their liberators.
Think about the Nazis blaming deaths of their prisoners on liberation by Allies; that’s what Devil’s Punchbowl sounds like when the (obviously biased) voices out of Mississippi try to say it was liberation that caused a humanitarian crisis for slaves.
Let me break down briefly how the Confederate propaganda works, even to this day:
- “Mostly women and children” — the Confederates relieved themselves of any responsibility for own slaves (given emancipation eliminated human trafficking market), as well as created as much burden on the approaching Federal forces as possible. Thus these populations in dire need of assistance and put into refugee camps hastily, were a direct result of what the Southern Confederacy so cruelly practiced; to abandon their own weak, ill and infirm, including elderly, women and children.
- “Men were put to hard labor” — the Union records indicate how able-bodied freemen were happier and healthier when assigned work and purpose. Chopping wood is cited, for example, and the Union encouraged this independence and self-sufficiency within the refugee camps. They also could choose the hard work of becoming educated and soldiers, which obviously opened up even more safety to them. The Union Army in several places notes that freemen who took over plantations operated them better because harder working than the white plantation owners who refused to do any work at all (dependent entirely on fraud like slavery and/or theft of wages).
- “Emancipated slaves were not allowed to leave, had to bury own dead” — the spread of small pox and other communicable diseases easily explains why movement was limited, not to mention lack of food and clothing made movement in harsh weather questionable (temperatures were reported as both extreme hot summer and cold winters, very humid). Quarantine and shelter-in-place are unfortunate refugee tactics but a reality of preventing worse disasters.
Some clues of propaganda also are easy to find. One is the number of dead being wildly overestimated without any source material. Every article on the Internet claiming 20,000 dead is to be seriously doubted. There’s no evidence of that anywhere and none of the articles give a source.
Also a clue is when no dates are mentioned anywhere. When was a camp setup? On what timeline did people die such as per day? Which months had highest death rates? Were people denied leave specifically to prevent spread of small pox?
As you can see in this post I’ve provided answers to all of these, in a way that can easily be verified by anyone else.
Speaking of disease quarantine, if you really get into the regional history, it had a similar camp setup in May 1802 when small pox broke out in New Orleans (still under Spanish rule at that time, about 200 miles away by boat on the Mississippi river).
The new governor of the Mississippi Territory William C. C. Claiborne, appointed by Jefferson, barred sale of goods from Louisiana, used a new health law to force vaccination (newly popularized by England in 1797) and prevent variolation (a risky practice started after 1721)… then he created a “small pox camp” just outside Natchez.
When small pox broke out among the liberated slaves who had been forced by retreating Confederates into being refugees, someone very likely thought back to the Claiborne forced containment model outside Natchez.
If people are going to criticize the Federal government in 1863 for using methods that worked in 1802, they need to explain the difference.
Incidentally, Natchez is in fact the name for the people native to this area for a 1,000 years… who also in the 1700s were greatly affected by small pox.
The high death toll from small pox in the Natchez region even around the time of Civil War is easily reviewed in Union Army records such as this one from 1868.
In conclusion it’s wrong to allow the Devil’s Punchbowl propaganda to continue, since a Confederate humanitarian disaster strategy shouldn’t be blamed wholesale on the Union being ill-prepared to respond. Abrupt care en masse (collapse of Confederate slavery) was a non-trivial problem for the Union military to solve, hopefully for obvious reasons.
Devil’s Punchbowl narratives thus spread from calculated slaveholder strategy to exploit emancipated slaves and harm the Union for selfish gain, as ever. It mostly continues as a propaganda campaign based on a grain of truth turned into a pernicious lie about America.
To tell it accurately is to say it was a humanitarian crisis manufactured by bitter slaveholders who pushed Blacks towards death and desperation yet wanted it all to be blamed on someone else (approaching Union forces abolishing slavery).