Historians concerned about the fate of African-Americans in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War are working to piece together the story of the Devil’s Punchbowl, a hellish concentration camp in Natchez in Mississippi which might be one of the most disturbing incidents in all of American history.
America’s hellish concentration camp: The Devil’s Punchbowl
Following the end of the Civil War, there was a mass exodus of former slaves from the southern plantations. These men, women, and children migrated north in the hopes of building new lives for themselves. The migration of former slaves was deeply unacceptable for the former Union soldiers who were bitterly disappointed about the outcome of the brutal war and decided to take their revenge. The most brutal example of this was in Natchez in Mississippi.
Natchez experienced an enormous influx in its population following the conclusion of the war, with the vast majority of the new inhabitants being former slaves. In response, the local people built an encampment at Devil’s Punchbowl and rounded up all of the black people and forced them to enter. Once they were there, they walled off the area and refused to let them out.
Inside the Devil’s Punchbowl, the former slaves endured even more hellish conditions than they had experienced on the brutal southern plantations. Thousands of men, women, and children perished because of exhaustion and starvation. The people there were also struck with serious epidemics of disease. Don Estes says that thousands of the people there died of smallpox. Despite the intense suffering of the people inside the encampment, the former soldiers had no compassion and simply gave the men shovels to bury the dead where they had fallen. The conditions became so intensely bad that the former slaves inside would plead with their white guards to let them return to the plantations.
It is very difficult to definitively explain what happened at Devil’s Punchbowl. Much of the evidence about this incident has been gleaned from the oral reports of local people which means that any conclusions have been criticized. Some people have claimed that only a thousand people died at the encampment, whereas others have said that the prisoners preferred life there to their existence there to the plantations. As there was no methodical record-keeping, it is very difficult to definitively dispute these criticisms.