The African American Geography of Civil War Tennessee is an interactive map showing the landscape of emancipation as it unfolded from 1861 to 1865. Every point on the map is linked to primary documents and images that tell the story of people, places, and events. As slavery and plantation life dissolved in the crucible of war and occupation, Tennessee became a laboratory of innovative social arrangements for African Americans. This application provides new tools and powerful geospatial software for looking at these transformative events during a time of profound social change.

Across Tennessee, as Union and Confederate armies fought over territory, they also competed for civilian support and military labor. The need for labor on both sides was evident from the start. The Confederate government began a policy of impressing slaves for military labor in 1861, yet denied African Americans the right to become soldiers. The Union army, too, resorted to coercive impressment of African Americans, initially defining them as a form of “contraband” property. Later, it afforded them the opportunity—for the first time—to be paid for their labor on military projects and, eventually, to earn their freedom by serving in the United States armed forces.

With the arrival of the Union army in Tennessee, African Americans faced many challenges. As towns and countryside changed hands, freedmen and slaves alike had to decide whether to go or stay. Some voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way, crossing military lines to seek protection and work with Federal forces. Some left the state to get away from the possibility of a return to slavery. Others fled Deep South states under Confederate control to seek refuge in Union-controlled Tennessee. Large refugee populations (including, of course, thousands of children) are one of the chief—and most under-appreciated—features of this fluid, wartime landscape.

In Federal hospitals and army encampments, freedmen and “self-emancipated” men and women made up a portion of the work force. The US military recruited African Americans for paid employment working on fortifications, railroad trestles, bridges, and tracks. In Tennessee, missionaries and freedmen’s aid societies were active in establishing schools and distributing food to refugees. Most importantly, the enlistment and service of African American soldiers in Tennessee provided an irrefutable case for freedom and the most compelling evidence that slavery was coming to an end.

The primary sources presented here—first-person accounts, paintings and sketches created by soldiers and war correspondents, hand-drawn maps, photographs, military correspondence, muster rolls and contemporary newspaper accounts—are connected with the events they document. When linked to contemporary topography using GIS (Geographic Information System) software, they allow us to connect this history to specific, sometimes surprising, places. Seeing them “on the ground” provides a rare opportunity to reconsider historic events. Reading original narratives within this new geographic context may raise new questions about the past, and inspire families and communities to explore new research sources in order to fill out the historical record.

If you would like to submit comments or inquiries to the Tennessee State Library and Archives, please phone 615.741.1883 or write

Credits: Tennessee State Library & Archives, Fullerton Geospatial Lab at Middle Tennessee State University, State of Tennessee STS-GIS, Tennessee State Museum, funded with a grant from the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area

Image Credits: Sergeant Dick Johnson, U.S.C.C., Looking Back at the Civil War in Tennessee Collection. Image of unidentified woman courtesy of Tennessee State Museum. All other images courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives