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The Devils Punchbowl

America's historical concentration camp that took the lives of more than 20,000 free black people!

The Devil's Punchbowl was a refugee camp created in Natchez, Mississippi during the American Civil War to house freed slaves.

In order to house the large numbers of African Americans, the Union Army created a refugee camp for newly freed slaves at a location known as the Devil's Punchbowl, a natural pit surrounded by bluffs. Many of the confined men women and children whose only crime was being free and black died of starvation, smallpox, and other diseases related to the horrific conditions they were forced to endure. It is suggested by some that over 20,000 innocent formerly enslaved people died there in one year!

After the Civil War, a massive exodus of former slaves from Southern plantations trekked northward in hopes of reaching a location of true freedom; but embittered soldiers both confederate and union, resentful that the people once considered property were now free, had other plans. One tiny town’s population mushroomed twelvefold from the influx, as researcher Paula Westbrook, who has extensively studied Devil’s Punchbowl, noted, “When the slaves were released from the plantations during the occupation they overran Natchez. And the population went from about 10,000 to 120,000 overnight.”

Unable to grapple with an instant population swell that made white people a minority, the city turned to Union troops still lingering after the war to devise a merciless, and evil final solution.

“So they decided to build an encampment for ’em (the free blacks) at Devil’s Punchbowl which they walled off and wouldn’t let ’em out,” former director of the Natchez City Cemetery, Don Estes, explained.

Devil’s Punchbowl is so named for a cavernous, bowl-shaped gulch walled off by tree-topped cliffs — an area unintentionally made perfect for a hellacious prison by nature, herself.The United States Army established two refugee camps below the bluff. One was located near the Devil’s Punchbowl. The other was also located below the bluff, but was further south.On July 4, 1863, Vicksburg fell to the Union. Five days later, July 9, Confederates surrendered to the Union Army at Port Hudson. Up and down the river, enslaved people who self-emancipated, otherwise known as runaway slaves — flocked to where the Union army was. They were seeking freedom behind Union lines. That meant thousands of former slaves flocked to Vicksburg, Natchez, Port Hudson, all along the Mississippi where the Union occupied. The Union army had no policy at the time for how to deal with the thousands of formerly enslaved people who were arriving in droves. Natchez had a huge influx of self-emancipated enslaved persons and the Union was not equipped to handle that, the public outcry was huge as many whites were fearful of retaliation from the newly freed slaves for their support of the confederacy so they established refugee camps.

The Union army called these camps contraband camps, referring to what the Union army took from the enemy. In addition to the two refugee camps established below the bluff, another was established at the Forks of the Road site and across the river in Vidalia. The people in the contraband camps suffered disease because of the overcrowding and poor sanitation, as well as from drinking Mississippi River water. “Under those conditions, they had mass deaths – daily deaths. If you look at the diary of the Bishop of the Natchez Diocese at the time, he talks about the conditions and the death there. Other reports that you get are from union officers who were sent down into the camps to inspect what was going on in the Union army along the river, to find out how many were in the camp and how many died.

A few whites died: white union troops, colored troops and so did the civilians — women, children, elders and the soldiers’ wives and sisters and mothers and children, sons and daughters in the contraband camps. The Natchez National Cemetery was established in 1866, Boxley said, and bodies of Union soldiers were disinterred from below the bluffs and reburied in the national cemetery, including U.S. Colored Troops. “Hundreds of them are unknown. However, 70 or 80 of them are known and you can see their burial records but none of this has to do with the Devil’s Punchbowl.

The part of the story that is untold and still in question, Boxley said, is what happened to the bodies of the civilians who died. Are they in the punchbowl? Did thousands die that no one wants to account for? That's the most important thing or part of this story to me. Where are the bodies? What happened to them?” The Historic Natchez Foundation, the Natchez National Park Service Has the answer: Visitors to Natchez and other tourism groups should lead the way to force them to answer the question of what happened to the black civilians who died? Maybe 20,000 was just the tip of the iceberg. What happened to the former slaves and citizens who died. Where are our ancestors?

A tangle of lush green now tops bluffs near the Mississippi River in Natchez, hiding past atrocities that took place when Union Army soldiers corralled and captured those freed slaves — in worse conditions than they’d endured previously as slaves on sprawling plantations. What isn’t often known about this horrifying tale is that deep within the depths of the Devil’s Punchbowl is not one, but three mass gravesites. In truth, one news clip couldn’t possibly do justice to revealing the heartbreaking atrocities of Mississippi’s Devil’s Punchbowl massacres. However, sharing the very existence of these mass graves in Natchez is the first step toward learning from the past and educating for the future.

In the unrelenting heat and humidity of the deep South, African American men toiled at hard labor clearing thickets of brush, while women and children — not seen as a viable workforce for the task — languished without food or water behind the locked concrete walls of the camp to die of starvation. The barbarous treatment didn’t even end when someone died.

“The Union Army did not allow them to remove the bodies from the camp,” Westbrook explained. “They just gave ’em shovels and said bury ’em where they drop.”

Bleak conditions of being cramped inside locked walls and forced to work until exhaustion or death also led to the spread of disease and illness — a little-discussed but insidious issue for former slaves, killing up to one million individuals following the ostensive emancipation.

“Disease broke out among ’em, smallpox being the main one,” Estes said of the concentration camp prisoners. “And thousands and thousands died. They were begging to get out. ‘Turn me loose and I’ll go home back to the plantation! Anywhere but there.’”

However, a dearth of information about these mostly postbellum camps indeed leaves significant leeway for conjecture, and a smattering of conclusions say those detained preferred the slightly greater freedom compared to brutality found on the plantations. Additional critics dispute Westbrook and Estes, and the number who died in the Natchez camps, saying the number is likely closer to just 1,000 — but without methodical record-keeping, the figure is impossible to verify with certainty. Either way, this black eye on American history is still one of the largest and most brutal acts of state-sanctioned death this country has ever seen.

As the Civil War drew to a close and during the nascent stages of emancipation, those who had been thrust into slavery and putatively freed held a precarious place outside the society of their enslavement. Thus, ‘legitimately’ freed individuals and ‘escapees,’ alike, were captured and held in ‘contraband camps’ — so named because, as commodities, they were considered contraband by Union troops who had no qualms about perpetuating slavery for their own benefit. Three such camps existed in the Devil’s Punchbowl area of Natchez.

Historians’ descriptions of Devil’s Punchbowl have been loosely anecdotally backed by locals, who describe human skeletons occasionally washing free from the location in times of heavy rains and flooding.

Wild peach trees now dot the basin where human beings, who believed they’d finally won freedom from slavery, sweated through work for different captors until death granted the ultimate reprieve — but Mississippians know better than to taste the bitter fruit fertilized with the blood of atrocity.

Like so much about the history of the United States, sadistic acts perpetrated by officials acting on behalf of the government have been criminally downplayed to lessen the shame and facilitate collective memory loss. But there can be no doubt — whether unintentionally or by design — thousands succumbed to inhumane conditions at these camps, under added duress of lacking the freedom so basic, it’s called the cornerstone of the nation.

Whatever the full truth about Devil’s Punchbowl, it’s a veritable guarantee no history book will be honest or thorough enough to shed light on the excruciating conditions akin to Nazi concentration camps — or even that forced, slave labor continued while America readjusted its crooked and tarnished halo after the Civil War.

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