Devil's Punchbowl — An American Concentration Camp So Horrific It was Erased from History
The Devil's Punchbowl was a horrific concentration camp that you never learned about in history class.
Say the words concentration camps, and most will arise the topic of World War II and the Nazis; but the hard labor, constant threat of death, and barbarism these microcosmic hells presented weren’t unique to Adolf Hitler — in just one year, around 20,000 freed slaves perished in the Devil’s Punchbowl — in Natchez, Mississippi, U.S.A.
It was after the Civil War, a mass group of former slaves from Southern plantations had traveled north to reach freedom; but the bitter hearted soldiers, were so resentful of the people that were property had been turned free, had evil plans.
One tiny town’s population endured an influx in population, as researcher Paula Westbrook, who has extensively studied Devil’s Punchbowl, notes,
“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, the city turned to Union troops still lingering after the war to devise a merciless, impenitent solution.
“So they decided to build an encampment for ’em 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 named after a cavernous, bowl-shaped gulch walled off by tree-topped cliffs — an area unintentionally made perfect for a prison by nature, herself.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.
In the 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.
This horrible, inhumane 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.”
Cramped conditions inside locked walls and forced to work until exhaustion or death, led to disease and illness — a little-discussed but insidious issue for former slaves, killing up to one million individuals following the 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, information about these camps left a significant amount of leeway for conjecture, and a smattering of conclusions say those detained preferred the slightly greater freedom compared to brutality found on the plantations. Critics dispute Westbrook and Estes, and the number who died in the Natchez camps, saying the number is likely around 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 stages of emancipation, those who had been thrust into slavery and freed held a precarious place outside the society of their enslavement.‘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 backed by locals, who describe human skeletons occasionally washing free from the location in times of heavy rains and flooding. There are wild peach trees now on the basin where human beings, who believed they’d finally won freedom from slavery, sweated through work for different captors until death granted them ultimate relief from horrors they endured. 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 shame and facilitate collective memory loss. But there can be no doubt that 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.
No history book will be thorough enough to shed light on the excruciating conditions common to Nazi concentration camps — or even that forced, slave labor continued while America was readjusting its crooked halo after the Civil War.
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Devil's Punchbowl — An American Concentration Camp So Horrific It was Erased from History Reviewed by Jamm Real on 16:04:00 Rating: