George L. Wood On Slaves and Slaveowners

A friend of mine who is a regular reader and currently studying Union regimental histories published right after the war sent me the passage below.  It is from George L. Wood’s “The Seventh Regiment [Ohio Infantry]: A Record” that was published in 1865.  The regiment was raised in northern Ohio, principally from Cleveland and surrounding counties.  One of the most important developments in the historiography of slavery and the Civil War since the 1960’s is the focus on the slaves themselves as full historical actors.  Up until recently the tendency was to downplay their role in understanding emancipation, and the Lost Cause assumptions that interpret slaveholders as paternalistic figures left us with little understanding or appreciation of how slaves viewed their situation.

While professional historians have moved beyond the naivety and implicit racism of this interpretation there are plenty of people who continue to interpret the institution of slavery as benign and in some cases as beneficial along some vaguely formulated “spiritual” view.  The danger is that the goal of trying to prop up the slaveholder as a paradigm of religious/moral virtue necessarily negates taking seriously the perspective of those who are being held in bondage.  Of course Southern slaveowners believed that what they were doing was for the good of their slaves.  Acts of kindness such as offering Bible lessons or starting a Sunday School were just the tip of the iceberg.  Their paternalistic assumptions were probably formulated in part as a reaction to the humanity of the people they owned.  In other words it was perhaps a way of coping with their acknowledgment on some level that slavery was a cruel and barbaric institution.  The passage below offers some interesting observations about how the slaves viewed their masters and their captivity.  The complexity of their outlook anticipates some of the observations made by Eugene Genovese in the early 1970’s. [Note: I don't know anything about the author or his racial/political outlook apart from what can be reasonably surmised based on this passage.]

[77]  While at Charleston, we were deeply impressed with the profound interest the slaves were taking in passing events.  That down-trodden race, who had for years suffered every injustice at the hands of their white oppressors, were now the first to assist the Federal commanders. Through darkness and storm, they carried information, and acted as scouts and guides on occasions when it would try the heart and nerve of their white companions

From my own observation, I am confident that the slaves of the South, were just as well informed with regard to their relation to their masters, as we were.  They were, from the very first, impressed with the idea that this rebellion was to work some great change in their condition.  They were watching, with great interest, every movement of the troops, and were continually asking questions, as to the disposition to be made of them; thus evincing an interest in military affairs, of which their masters little dreamed. It is well enough to talk of the [78] deep devotion of slaves to their masters; but the latter have found ere this, I trust, that this devotion on which they have relied, has not prevented them from cutting their throats, when it was in the line of their duty, and by means of which they could gain their freedom.  An instance of this great devotion on the part of a slave for his master, was related to me while at Charleston.

A Mr. R—– owned a colored servant by the name of John; he enjoyed the unlimited confidence of his master, who was in the habit of trusting him as he would one of his children.  This confidence was reciprocated by a like devotion on the part of the slave for his master.  One day a neighbor told Mr. R—– that his John was about to run away, as he had repeated conversations with his servants on the subject.  Mr. R—– flew into a passion, feeling very much grieved that his neighbor should think, for a moment, that his John, whom he had raised from infancy, should prove so ungrateful as to leave him.  The only attention he paid to this timely warning was, to put still greater trust in his servant.  One day, shortly after this, John was missing; not only this, he had been so ungrateful as to take his wife and three children. The last heard from faithful John was, that he was safe in Ohio  Now Mr. R—– is a very good man and a Christian, and treat his servants very kindly; but that [79] God-given principle, a desire for personal liberty, actuated him in connection with other men of fairer complexion.  John, undoubtedly, left his old home and master with regret, but home and friendship, when compared with freedom, were nothing.

I was once told by a colored man, in whom the utmost confidence could be placed, that there has been for years an association among the negroes, which extends throughout the South, the purpose of which was one day to liberate themselves from slavery.  He said that hundreds of slaves who, apparently, were as innocent as ignorant, were tolerably well educated, and were secretly bending every energy to bring about an insurrection, which should end in their being released from bondage.  When asked if the field-hands were members of this association, he said they were; and although possessing less information than those living in the cities and villages, yet they were aware of what was going on; and after their work was done at night, they often met in their cabins, and talked over the prospect before them.  He also said, that in the larger cities of the South this association had regular meetings and officers; that they awaited only the proper time, when a tragedy would be enacted all over the South, that would astonish the world.

When we reflect that revolts have been common in the South, and they have been attend[80]ed by partial success, it does not require a great stretch of the imagination to believe that this association did really exist.  The fact of the intense feeling of hatred cherished by the people of the South against Northern fanatics, as they were termed, who came amongst them, is strong evidence in favor of the existence of some organized course of policy among the negroes.  The outward appearance of the slave is usually gentle in the extreme, although his inward feelings may be agitated to
such a degree, that in a white man they would burst forth in the wildest passion.  Therefore, this hatred of the South to the opponents of slavery must be traced to a fear of some secret organization, the object of which lay deeply buried in the reticent minds of the slaves.  The Southern mind was more
deeply agitated, from the fact of the want of this outward emotion on the part of their slaves; for had this strong desire for liberty, which was awakened in them, burst out in wild enthusiasm, it would have been readily checked by the severe punishment of individuals; but it was this secret working of this deep-laid desire for freedom that troubled them. The most guilty were, to all outward appearance, the most innocent.

While the Federal army occupied the country, the slaves were much less guarded in what they said.  One of these slaves, an old man, was passing [81] a tent one day, when a soldier said to him that he belonged to Jeff. Davis.  With a knowing look, he replied: ‘I did; but now, massa, I belong to Uncle Sam.  A colored woman, who had been a slave for years (as she is very old), came into our room one day, and taking up a paper, asked if we wanted it.  Some one said to her, as she was about leaving the room, that she had better not be seen with that paper, as it was not the sort her mistress admired.  Said she, ‘I know what missus likes; I can take care of it;’ and slipping it under her apron she left the room.  That slave could read and write, and yet her master knew nothing of it.  So it is with many others.  It may be asked how they acquire this knowledge.  They gain it in a great many ways.  Many of them learn of their masters’ children, with whom house-servants spend a great deal of time.  Having acquired a slight knowledge, it
stimulates them to greater exertion.  They obtain scraps of newspapers and parts of books, and thus gain a great deal of information entirely unobserved.  Few persons, at the commencement of the rebellion, had the least conception of the vast resources and power of the slave population of the South.  And it was not until they had fed and clothed the Southern armies for two years, and by [82] this means kept them in the field, that it was acknowledged.  Had it not been for its slaves, the South, long ere this, would have been compelled to yield obedience to the Government.  The rebels appreciated and used this element of strength from the beginning.  The Federal Government, through the influence of weak-minded politicians, rejected it; thus throwing an element of its own strength into the hands of its enemies.

Notwithstanding this harsh treatment, the slaves proved true to the Government; and finally, through the medium of this faithfulness, their vast services were acknowledged, and they have not only been taken into the private service of the country, but they have been admitted into the army, to swell its numbers, until the strength of their mighty arms, and the nerve of their fearless hearts, are felt by the enemies of the country on every
battle-field.  What a glorious thought! thousands of the oppressed fighting for the redemption from slavery of a race which has ever worn the chain.  When it is remembered that by this strife questions are to be settled which have ever disturbed the harmony of this country, and not that only, but questions which, when settled, will release millions of our fellow-men and women from the power of the oppressor, ought we not to be thankful that we are permitted to make great sacrifices in so good a cause?”

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

2 comments… add one

  • elektratig Dec 31, 2006

    A very nice passage. Thanks.

  • Joshua Blair Dec 31, 2006


    Excellent post. It is astonishing how many people believe that there was any authentic friendship between slaves and their masters.


Leave a Comment