The Devil’s Punchbowl: The South is viewed as the wickedest in America’s turbulent past because of its treatment of enslaved blacks and the lengths to which it went to recapture slaves who attempted to flee to freedom.
However, the fate of claimed free Blacks in Natchez, Mississippi in the 1860s showed that the North was just as cruel on its own.
America, the ostensibly free and prosperous land, had its own concentration camp, which took the lives of 20,000 African-Americans, according to some estimates.
With Black males being persuaded to fight on the North’s side against the South in exchange for freedom, there was hope that life would improve after the civil war (1861-1865), but that dream quickly faded.
Following the Civil War, Natchez, Mississippi, saw a massive influx of former slaves as new residents flocked in, but the unenthusiastic townspeople built an “encampment” that forced all former slaves to live there. The former enslaved were subsequently denied the right to leave the region, which was then fenced off.
In a News story, Don Estes, the former Director of the Natchez City Cemetery, said, “So they decided to establish an encampment for ’em at Devil’s Punchbowl, which they walled up and wouldn’t let ’em go.”
“Disease came out among ’em, the biggest one being smallpox,” Estes continued. Thousands upon thousands of people died as a result. They begged to be let out. ‘Set me free, and I’ll return to the plantation!’ ‘Anywhere but there,’ says the narrator.
It will take time for the horrors committed against these African-Americans to be uncovered. The camp’s unusual name, ‘Devil’s Punchbowl,’ comes from the shape of the region, which features the camp in the bottom of a deep pit with trees growing on the cliffs above.
While the North’s propaganda claimed that the South’s desire to secede would break up the union and leave the United States vulnerable, another claim was that the South’s long history of slave trading was barbaric and needed to be ended.
Many Blacks fought alongside Union soldiers against Confederate soldiers of the south after the war was abolished and the enslaved were freed. However, soon after victory, the Union troops demonstrated that they were more concerned with containing the South’s economic advantage, which was made possible by the hard work of enslaved blacks.
Unhappy with the increase in the population of Natchez from 10,000 to 120,000 as a result of liberated Blacks, Union soldiers seized free males and forced them into labor camps, while women and children were imprisoned and starved behind the encampment’s concrete walls.
Within a year, the detention camp had slaughtered 20,000 liberated slaves.
But what caused such a high rate of death?
The Union Army prohibited the removal of bodies, telling soldiers to “bury their dead where they fell.”
Food and water are essential for human survival, but the encampment known as “Devils Punchbowl” lacked fresh food and water, and disease and malnutrition will soon combine to take loved ones in alarming numbers.
The fact that southern plantation laborers were so moved by their Natchez experience that they begged their white guards to allow them to return to the estates highlighted the appalling living circumstances.
Thousands of men, women, and children died as a result of weariness and malnutrition, as well as disease, the most common of which was smallpox.
Much of the ordeal at the camp was passed down orally, leading skeptics to speculate that the accounts at the camp were exaggerated. Those in the know, however, warn against drinking the citrus nectar from the nearby wild peach groves, claiming that decomposed human flesh fertilized their abundance.
Flooding from the Mississippi River exposes bone remains on occasion, and some believe mass graves embellish the former encampment. Once again, the story of the ‘Devils Punchbowl’ demonstrates that an African, Black, or Moor attempting to simply live, work, and earn a living can become fatal.