After the Union victory at Fort Donelson, slaves escaping from nearby farms and iron foundries flocked to the area seeking freedom and protection. By March 1863 some 300 refugees lived here at the freedmen's camp that came to be known as "Free State." The camp contained houses, a school, and a church. It was scattered in and around the town of Dover and throughout the entire Union encampment. It was the largest of the freedmen's camps established around Forts Henry, Heiman, and Donelson, ad it lasted into the 1880s. The northern army used many of the residents of Free State as laborers to help build the Union Fort Donelson on part of the ground now occupied by the national cemetery. Benevolent societies, like the Western Freedmen's Aid Society, assisted the Union Army by providing clothing and teachers to the freedmen, and administering religious and medical services. Many enlisted in the Union army as Union States Colored Troops after Fort Donelson became an army recruiting station for African Americans in November 1863. These and others gave Union forces a decided edge in fighting the war in both the eastern and western theaters.
Such slaves as were within the lines at the time of the capture of Fort Donelson... will be employed in the quartermaster's department, for the benefit of Government.
Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, General Order No. 14, February 26, 1862
Education was a major priority among former slaves. By 1864 over 100 students attended the freedmen's school at Fort Donelson, which received praise from teachers and military officials alike.
Freedmen's Camps in Tennessee
In 1860 about 25 percent of Tennessee's people were slaves. With the fall of Fort Donelson and the advance of Union armies into the state, many ran away from their owners in search of freedom. This resulted in a network of contraband camps being set up across middle and west Tennessee.