Civil War: The Untold Story: Q&A with Director Chris Wheeler

Posted on: August 23rd, 2013 by Julia Rocchi

"It's not just about who we were then. It's about who we are now."

So says Great Divide Pictures of its upcoming documentary series Civil War: The Untold Story. Slated to air in early 2014, the series looks at the Civil War through the lens of the Western Campaign, and also dives into the homefront, politics, slavery, and the relatively unknown roles African-Americans played in the conflicts.

This last point particularly interested us at PreservationNation, where we've covered the role of contraband -- or self-emancipated enslaved people -- on YouTube, on this blog, and through our work at National Treasure Ft. Monroe. We caught up with Chris Wheeler, the series' producer-director, to ask him what he learned about this forgotten piece of history while filming.

What did you know about contraband camps before starting this documentary? What did making the film reveal to you about them?

Like most Americans, I knew nothing about the story of the contrabands before producing “Civil War: the Untold Story.” I was introduced to it while working on a film for Shiloh National Military Park. In addition to that battle in southern Tennessee, the NPS also interprets contraband stories at a beautiful visitor center in Corinth, Mississippi.

Prior to learning this story, I never gave a lot of thought to the gap of time for the enslaved from the war’s onset in 1861 to Lincoln’s emancipation on January 1, 1863. What fascinates me is the courageous way that thousands of escaping slaves took in securing their own destiny.

For the film, we interviewed Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens of the University of Mississippi. She articulates it this way: “The very presence of a contraband camp I think speaks to the testimony of black people’s ability to create power even in the most powerless situation.”

Corinth, Miss. contraband camp. Credit: National Park Service
Corinth, Miss., contraband camp.

Draw a line for me from contraband to the Emancipation Proclamation. How are the two ultimately connected?

It’s impossible to truly understand the Emancipation Proclamation without understanding the contraband phenomenon. Thousands of men, women, children and elderly from Virginia to the Mississippi River saw the war’s beginning as their opportunity for freedom, and sought refuge with Union forces advancing into the South.

No in one in the U.S. government anticipated this, including Lincoln himself. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was still the law of the land, and by that measure, Union forces were legally obligated to return the escaping slaves to their Southern owners.

Political leaders were now faced with a fundamental question: In this time of civil war, were the contrabands still slaves or were they now free? Congress tried to address this issue through failed pieces of legislation called “The Confiscation Acts.”

Personally, I think the inspiration actions of the escaping slaves gave Lincoln the political capital to do what he personally intended -- emancipating 3.9 million human beings living in the South. The president positioned his Emancipation Proclamation as crucial to the Union “war effort.”

Corinth, Miss. contraband camp. Credit: National Park Service
Another view of the Corinth, Miss., contraband camp.

Tell me more about the contraband band in Corinth, Miss. What was unique about that camp at the time?

After the victory at Shiloh, Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant advanced south and captured a strategic rail center at Corinth, Mississippi. Corinth was located in the heart of cotton country; thus there was a large population of slaves within a 200-mile radius.

Most of the contraband camps throughout the South were logistical nightmares -- overcrowded, disease-ridden, and full of unrest. But the Corinth camp, organized in November 1862, was an exception. The refugees set out building a community -- laying out streets, constructing homes, constructing a church and hospital.

Volunteers from the American Missionary Association arrived and began teaching the refugees to read and write -- something forbidden by law in the South. One missionary at Corinth marveled: 'You will find them every hour of daylight, at their books," he reported. "We cannot enter a cabin, or tent, but that we see from one to three with books.”

By March 1863, the numbers at Corinth swelled to some 6,000 refugees.

A still from the documentary, "Civil War: The Untold Story," depicting the contraband camp. Credit: Great Divide Pictures
A still from the documentary depicting the contraband camp.

The Corinth camp was eventually disbanded, but what was its lasting impact?

Corinth represents that crucial first step thousands took from bondage to freedom. The Corinth contraband camp was at once a glimpse into a life of freedom, and a harbinger of the struggles ahead. In the midst of building their community at Corinth, refugees are ordered to evacuate and journey 100 miles to another contraband camp in Memphis.

Dr. Amy Murrell Taylor of the University of Kentucky states in our documentary that Corinth “has a lot of hope and a lot of promise but it is blown away in some ways by the changes in the military situation, and in some ways that really is representative of what happens in a lot of places, and tells us something about what it means to become free in the middle of a war. So the story of Corinth is, in some ways the story of what happens everywhere.”

The story of the Corinth contraband camps graphically shows that the enslaved were not helplessly waiting to be freed by President Lincoln. Rather, they seized the moment and became dynamic agents of their own emancipation. In many ways, the Corinth camp poignantly reflects the triumphs and struggles that continue to this very day.

A still from the documentary, "Civil War: The Untold Story," depicting the contraband schools. Credit: Great Divide Pictures
A still from the documentary depicting the contraband schools.

What will people take away from this documentary that they perhaps don’t get in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln or Ken BurnsCivil War?

Mr. Burns’ groundbreaking documentary relied primarily on a stunning collection of photographs. Civil War: The Untold Story takes advantage of the photographic record but supplements with highly produced recreations of battles that were produced using hundreds of reenactors. Many of the scenes were filmed on the actual grounds where the battles were fought.

Instead of focusing on the battles of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, we focus on “the Western Campaign” fights in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia. Our film also focuses more on the relatively untold stories of the Civil War, most notably, the African-American experience, from enslaved, to contrabands, to emancipation, to joining the military to fight for that freedom.

Regarding Lincoln, we delve into storylines (including the contrabands) that ultimately lead to the passage of the 13th Amendment. Thus, we think Civil War: The Untold Story can be regarded as a prequel for the millions who have seen Spielberg’s Lincoln.

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Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the associate director for digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

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