"Lord, until I reach my home": Inside the refugee camps of the American Civil War

Abigail Cooper, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation explores the inner life of the refugee camps of the Civil War. Called "contraband" camps because the refugees were considered the confiscated slave property of Confederates, the camps were the first great cultural meeting grounds the war produced. This dissertation gives close study to the refugee camps over the course of the Civil War period, comparing the experiences across the South with a special focus on the religious transformations that occurred there. It analyzes sources through a process of triangulation—examining slave interviews and narratives, missionary texts, government military records, and fragmentary evidence collected from various regional archives—in order to uncover the practices and artifacts outside of institutionally understood religious rubrics in the study of history. First, this study elucidates the cross-cultural encounter that took place in the camps not only as an interracial experiment between white and black but also as an exchange between black slaves of different cultural backgrounds. Second, this dissertation shows that the camps were breeding grounds for religious revival. Here was a meeting not of slave religion but of slave religions, and the syncretic forms and clashes that resulted are not yet described nor understood. Finally, this study promises to challenge histories of emancipation that celebrate black military service as the sole source of contraband freedom and citizenship. Rather than creating a solution for the contrabands, the advent of Union black military recruiting was a trauma, upsetting family reunions and making claims to land and subsistence more tenuous. This dissertation evaluates the cost of military service and the alternative scenarios refugees themselves proposed.

Subject Area

African American Studies|Religion|History

Recommended Citation

Cooper, Abigail, ""Lord, until I reach my home": Inside the refugee camps of the American Civil War" (2015). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3709436.