Revisiting Peter Carmichael on “Confederate Slaves”
This guest post on black Confederates/Confederate slaves by historian, Peter S. Carmichael, ran last July and received a great deal of attention. Given the number and range of comments on a recent post on the subject I thought it would be helpful to run it again for those of you who are new to the blog. I refrained from responding to most of the comments since we are still mired in fundamental problems when confronted with this question. Yes, a few of you out there get it that what is needed is serious research and attention to the question of what it is we are even talking about. Others are citing sources that make little sense without serious critical analysis while others are hung up on vague comparisons with the north that have nothing to do with the subject. And then there are always a few on the fringe who fail to see beyond their attachment to contemporary political/cultural issues. As far as I am concerned, Carmichael’s essay constitutes a starting point for those of you who first want to understand the broad analytical contours of the subject. It does not provide all the answers, but does address the questions that need to be examined.
“We were the ‘men’”: The Ambiguous Place of Confederate Slaves in Southern Armies
On August 6, 1861, the Richmond Enquirer ran an extended article, entitled “Ebony Idols,” on a camp slave named Sam who refused to leave his master during the battle of First Manassas. Sam received public acclaim for his stalwart behavior under fire, and the Enquirer recounted a boastful speech that he delivered to a group of Richmond slaves. Sam promised his black audience that “I wasn’t scared. I am not one of those kinds.” The story of Sam was intended to assure white audiences that slaves, even when the Yankees were shooting at them, would remain forever faithful. This claim of slave fidelity largely rested upon the Enquirer’s denying Sam his manliness, and utilizing antebellum stereotypes to describe black men as effeminate sambos.
Sam comes off as a child intrigued by the pageantry and sounds of battle but unable to grasp the seriousness of killing and death. His combat analogies, for instance, mainly consist of homespun references to life on the plantation. Sam describes bullets as “singing” around head “like mosquitoes in a big cypress swamp.” The paper even mocked the speech patterns of Sam to illustrate further his childlike state. “Ebony Idols” turns Sam’s performance into a veritable minstrel show for white entertainment. Sam admits that while under Union fire that his kinky air was standing straight up, but that as soon as the Confederates fired it returned to its natural state. The comedic intent of the author does not diminish the powerful psychological and political value of Sam’s purported actions for white readers who were nervous about black fidelity. Sam only joins the fight when he sees abolitionists killing white men. He does so, not for himself, but out of an uncontrollable rage toward the very people who were trying to free him. Sam, before picking up a musket, admits that “I didn’t kere nuffin for myself, case dis chile ain’t wuf much, no how; but to dee de nice white gemmen shot down by dem abolitioners, wur too bad.”
“Ebony Idols” emasculated male slaves like Sam and thus it depoliticized them, but this created nearly insurmountable intellectual and political risks for Confederate writers who needed to show the world that slaves could be aggressive defenders of the South and devoted enemies of abolition. To claim that slaves would rather make war on the abolitionists and not on their masters, whites had no choice but to acknowledge, at least to some degree that slaves were also men. The end of “Ebony Idols,” reveals this critical and jarring contradiction that surfaced when Confederates at least partially conceded that slaves were also men. “Gentlemen,” continued Sam, “do any of you know why we call that place Men—asses Junction? Well I’ll tell you; the abolitionists met us there and we were the men and they were the asses.”
Confederates slaves, which I will use interchangeably with the specific historical term “camp servants,” served a number of practical, political, and psychological purposes for the men in the ranks (The use of Confederates slaves rather than black Confederates is a critical distinction that I make. The former accurately conveys the role of coercion in the master slave relationship, which was also present in the Confederate army, even among white and black men who were emotionally close and shared the dangers of battle. Black Confederates obliterates the status and social reality of enslaved men and racializes them beyond any recognition as to their true function in Southern society). This paper will focus on how slaves created intellectual and practical dilemmas for a slaveholding class that needed slaves to be both subordinate and politically assertive. There were camp servants who picked up a musket in battle or rescued a wounded white soldier, but these acts were not patriotic expressions of Confederate loyalty as wartime Southerners and Lost Cause advocates have claimed. Patriotism is a purely voluntary act. The presence of coercion in slavery, moreover, creates an insurmountable challenge for those who want to describe slaves as Confederate heroes. In reality, many Confederate slaves capitalized upon the masters’ need for black political action to demonstrate a sense of self-worth that they had long repressed. While Confederate slaves successfully challenged popular conceptions of what it meant to be a black man, these “victories” did not earn them the public recognition they sought, nor did it insulate them from the brutality of an institution that was even more unpredictable and volatile within the setting of a Southern rebel army than it was on the plantation.
In 1861 white Southerners initially expected their slaves to contribute only their physical labor to the cause. They could not imagine nor did they desire that their camp servants would act like independent men who functioned outside the master’s realm. Although Confederates envisioned a dependent role for their slaves, they unwittingly expanded slave autonomy by requiring their camp servants to serve as both caretakers and comrades. To be sure, cleaning and cooking were the primary duties of camp servants, but white families, before sending their boys off to war, asked male slaves to act as the guardians of their young masters. It was common for the family matriarch or patriarch to tell a slave that they were responsible for protecting their sons from the moral and physical dangers of army life. Visual evidence further demonstrates that Confederates desired more than labor from their slaves. They needed to believe that a shared purpose existed between black and white, and early war photographs reveal this expectation. Many images show black and white men sitting together as brothers in arms, even though the slaves rarely carried a weapon. They are often touching, arms locked together. Camp servants were also forced to wear Confederate gray uniforms for the photographer. These images downplay hierarchy and coercion, and show how Southern whites imagined their slaves as Confederate companions and not just as someone to do laundry and cook.
Once a slave entered a Confederate camp, however, he quickly discovered that chores took precedence over comradeship. Living conditions were harsh and the work unrelenting. Confederate General Dorsey Pender complained in 1861 that “I am horrified to see how white men calling themselves gentlemen neglect their poor helpless negroes in this camp. They have free boys in most cases forced from home—and in several cases when they get sick they are allowed to die without any care on the part of those who are responsible for their well being.” Pender’s concern for the welfare of camp servants was rare. In fact, it is striking how little Confederate soldiers mentioned their camp servants by name in their correspondence. When they were identified, it was usually in regards to a task. The work routines and living patterns of camp servants goes beyond the scope of this paper, but this subject deserves greater attention from historians. There is no question that Confederate soldiers of all classes considered cleaning and cooking women’s labor. A number of scholars have made such an observation, but it is worth repeating that a Confederate’s basic comfort level and his sense of being a man depended upon having a camp servant. Soldiers of the slaveholding class were especially vocal in their need to have a camp slave to prove that they were gentlemen. Some Southerners even attributed military prowess to units that possessed scores of camp servants. Virginian John Wise, for instance, judged the 3rd Alabama to be an imposing military unit because it was followed by a train of slaves.
On a deeper, personal level, a white owner saw the camp servant as an extension of himself. Scholars like Eugene Genovese and Bertram Wyatt-Brown have brilliantly explored the interconnectedness between white and black identities, especially how white self-esteem and honor drew heavily from slave behavior. Confederate soldiers felt personally humiliated when their slaves ran off to the Federals. Most blamed the Yankees for stealing their “faithful servants,” but it was not always possible to deny the reality of black autonomy.
The battlefield stands out as a unique arena of political contestation where racial boundaries were extraordinarily fluid and slaves could show themselves to be brave, aggressive, and violent, just like any other white man. All of the emotions, bottled up from years of servitude could be released in combat without fear of white reprisals. As one might expect, slave reactions to combat were extraordinary varied. Many African Americans employed popular racial ideas to avoid danger. When a group of Georgia soldiers asked a slave why he always ran away from the enemy, he replied: “’You are white and I am a negro and can’t stand the racket.’” Some were willing to play the comedic sambo in order to earn a free pass behind the lines. The slaves who preferred strategies of self-preservation performed a vital psychological need for their masters. Not only did their actions confirm white notions about black manliness, but they also provided Confederate with an outlet to project their own fears in battle. North Carolinian Samuel Walkup, for instance, rarely divulged how his slave Hall felt about anything except when it came to combat. Walkup wanted the white and black folks back home to know that Hall stood by his side during the battle, but he also disclosed that his slave admitted to being “badly frightened” by the shelling. Hall was probably frightened, and chances are that Walkup and his white comrades were scared too, but Walkup used his slave to highlight his own courage, to hide his fears of battle, and to remind white folks that African Americans were incapable of acting like men.
To acknowledge that some slaves shouldered a musket in battle and fought next to their masters is not to validate the neo-Confederate perspective of black fidelity. The number of slaves who saw combat is impossible to determine and a distraction to a more critical and important lines of historical inquiry. Muster rolls and Compiled Service Records simply fail to convey the terms and motivations of slave military service. Anyone who reaches conclusions about black fidelity through crunching numbers cares little for complexity. For those who play the numbers game to demonstrate that legions of slaves were faithful Confederates do so, I believe, because it allows them to overlook the social context of bondage and the vast primary and secondary literature on slavery. In other words, they can purport to make scientific claims though numbers without ruffling their ignorance.
I urge us to put aside the numbers game and focus on the experience of slaves and Confederates soldiers. A critical issue I believe is how Confederates tried to reconcile black valor in battle to antebellum assumptions that slaves were not and could never be real men. Confederates never overcame this challenge during the war, unable to find a consistent way to explain slave behavior in battle. In most cases they invented comedic episodes to construe slave bravery as an aberration that still conveyed the inherent loyalty of slaves. Camp servant “Uncle Freeman,” for instance, left his master and worked a number of odd jobs in Richmond before rejoining his Mississippi regiment. He was portrayed upon his return as the “dutiful slave,” bringing molasses, bread, and sausage for the men. A member of the unit was impressed that Uncle Freeman ventured to the picket line despite the warnings of the other soldiers. As soon as the enemy opened fire, the slave disappeared with all the food. When he returned to the army a second time, Uncle Freeman told everyone how “the Yankees had blowed him plumb to Richmond.” The soldiers did not interpret his departure as an act of disloyalty to either his master or the Confederacy. In fact, the story of Uncle Freeman was employed to highlight common assumptions about black manliness—-that blacks would always shirk from danger and that they were not trustworthy. Even when a slave performed like a veteran solder, his white comrades were quick to define him as an outsider. After slave Levi Miller fought with the Texas brigade at the battle of the Wilderness, the soldiers elected him to an honorary position. This position did not bring him advancement or authority, which would have been the case if Miller had been white. Instead, the honorary position essentially turned him into a beloved mascot, and he became a source of amusement and comfort to the Confederate rank-and-file. According to one Texan, Miller was a “pet with every man.” The ease with which Confederates classified their slaves as something less than men is hardly surprising. Simply calling a slave a boy or uncle after a bloody battle could effectively blunt a camp servant’s claim to real male power.
On a day-to-day level, it was relatively easy for Confederates to deny camp servants like Levi Miller status as men. Public representations of slave valor, however, proved more difficult to finesse, especially after the North’s successful employment of black troops. Confederates could not afford to ignore slave participation in battle. To do so would be squandering an opportunity to show that African Americans were willing to die for their masters as well as a Southern nation. A Richmond newspaper editor in 1864 succinctly captured the challenge to the Confederacy: “What troops of the enemy have advanced more determinedly upon our breastworks and fought more gallantly than their colored? Will they not fight for their masters and mistresses, for their homes and firesides, better than for their worst enemies—the Northern minions?” Camp servants had raised the troubling question of arming the slaves long before this Richmond editor or Patrick Cleburne’s 1864 circular calling for the Confederate enlistment of African American soldiers. This paper will not address the 1864 and 1865 controversies regarding the arming of the slaves, but early war explanations of camp servant bravery helped form the intellectual foundation of the pro-slave enlistment argument.
The issue of slave behavior in battle pushed Confederates to think more deeply about the “fixed nature” of African Americans, and this inquiry was inextricably tied to questions of white manliness and its compatibility with army life. Early in the war many Confederate writers wondered if Southern men could surrender their independence for the collective exertions demanded by the cause. Obedience seemed to be lacking among white soldiers who fiercely resisted the restrictions of a new military regime. Battle-tested camp servants were juxtaposed to white soldiers who seemed irretrievably undisciplined. A few Confederate writers immediately recognized that slaves exhibited disciplined bravery in battle. The idea of disciplined bravery enabled Confederates to acknowledge the fighting potential of black men while reaffirming slave subordination. Savagery, a trait long associated with male slaves, was also a valued characteristic of any fighting man, but such a quality was ridiculously dangerous when connected to gun-toting African Americans. Rather than applaud the raw aggression of camp servants in battle and run the risk of either alienating proud white soldiers or scaring naïve civilians, Confederate writers articulated a neutered expression of black manliness that was firmly rooted within the racial and class boundaries of human bondage. A writer for the Richmond Enquirer captured this perspective: “With the negro, his has been a life of discipline; this portion of a soldier’s duty will consequently fall naturally to him, and will prevent all insubordination which might otherwise be expected to arise.”
The complex and contradictory ideas that Confederates held toward slaves in combat created opportunities for camp servants to expand their physical autonomy, to enhance their reputation in the quarters, and to exercise male power. In the army white men were forced to serve a higher authority, and military duty constrained the master’s ability to rule over his slaves. The lack of constant white supervision freed camp servants to do a number of things, including to sell their labor to other Confederates. One Confederate general Dorsey Pender was amused and irritated by the entrepreneurial success of his camp servant. “The rascal seems to have plenty of money, but I have ordered him to allow me to be his treasurer. He has managed to dress himself in a nice gray uniform, French bosom linen shirt—for which he paid $4—has two pairs [of] new shoes.” The slave’s fine clothing signified to Pender that he was losing control, and that his slave was challenging the established order, for plantation slaves were always issued the coarsest dress. The sight of a slave wearing French shirts constituted an insubordinate act to Pender.
The fluidity of slave life in the army, although vexing to Confederate soldiers, actually served whites well once furloughs became scarce. Camp servants ironically had the freedom to serve as the vital link between the home front and the military. Many slaves essentially became surrogate patriarchs as they, not white soldiers, could move between camp and plantation with minimal restrictions on their movements. On the farm, slaves executed their masters’ demands, surveyed operations, and returned to camp to report on conditions back home. African Americans in the Confederate ranks were quick to exploit their newfound power. They reminded their masters that they were the only men who could observe life on the farm and represent the interests of the absent white patriarch. Within the realities of slavery, camp servants received privileges and freedoms that gave them an undisputed leadership role in the slave community. Their elevated status inflated the self worth of many camp servants and created distance from those other slaves whom they considered inferior.
The preferential treatment that many camp servants received was not lost on the nonslaveholder in the Confederate army. Anger and frustration led some white soldiers to humiliate and physically abuse camp servants. But racism did not dictate a uniform set of reactions among Southern soldiers. One non-slaveholder in the ranks, for instance, asked the War Department to give every soldier a slave to be “his servant in camp & in battle to be a soldier by his masters side.” Although not a privileged officer, this white man still wanted the services of a slave and was willing to stand in the ranks next to an African American. The varied responses of white soldiers to Confederate slaves remind us how racism as a universal explanatory device prevents us from appreciating the diversity of attitudes and actions among Confederate soldiers.
Lost Cause writers and neo-Confederates today have emphasized companionship between white and black as proof of slaveholder benevolence and slave fidelity. While professional historians have successfully demolished this ridiculous interpretation, scholars have not fully explored the intimate relationships between Confederate soldiers and their slaves. Intimacy does not deny the role of coercion, violence, and humiliation. If we are to unmask the inner-thoughts of slaves and uncover the complex reasons why some risked their lives in battle, then we need to explore the emotional ties that existed between white and black men. Take for instance, the story of Georgia slave Neptune King, who ran a gauntlet of Union fire to recover the body of his owner, Henry King. The night before the fighting, King confided to Neptune his fears of the coming battle, of not returning to family in Georgia, and of his desire for a more spiritual life. Neptune was essentially King’s confessor, a fatherly role that Neptune had played since King’s youth. In fact, Neptune referred to King as “my young master.” The emotional ties of a lifetime elevated Neptune from a position of abject subservience to a place where he enjoyed the confidence of his owner. To be sure, this was not a partnership of equality, but a relationship of subordination that created voluntary and involuntary ties of dependence. Long after the war, Neptune still felt the emotional intensity of losing his owner. To a gathering of Confederate veterans, he recalled that the gunfire intensified when he found King’s body. Rather than go behind the lines, Neptune told the audience that he stood his ground, holding his owner’s lifeless body in his arms while shrapnel and bullets rattled around him. Neptune wanted his audience to know that he was never “afraid.”
We will never know all the reasons why Neptune remained with the Confederate army and ultimately risked his life for his dead owner. Fearing punishment for failing to bring home his master might have motivated Neptune. Maybe he had hoped for extra privileges for his black family back on the plantation or special recognition for such valorous behavior. It is possible that he accepted his position as a means of survival. What is clear, however, is that Neptune felt an emotional attachment to King, a bond that did not translate into a grand political act on behalf of the Confederacy as Southerners at the time insisted or some are deluded into believing today. Nor did Neptune take to the battlefield to demand rights and privileges reserved for white men. Rather, Neptune found the battlefield to be a racially neutral setting where he could show the world that he too was a man without risking a reprisal from Southern whites who saw him not as a comrade but as someone who was owned by another human being. Neptune’s proclamation of male power—that he felt no fear in battle—is fundamentally an assertion of self-worth and dignity in the face of a cruel system that either demeaned or demonized black men.
Unfortunately, Neptune’s story has been either co-opted by the neo-Confederate crowd as proof of black loyalty or quickly dismissed by some academics as white propaganda. Both groups need to stop sparring and start acting like historians. I am not hopeful that this will happen, as the political agendas of both sides will not allow either party to disengage. But for those who can put politics aside, who do not need to invent a mythical Confederate army of black and white brothers, and who do not need to demonize the white South for slavery, Neptune’s account might bring an end to this tiresome morality play. The combatants over this issue today, I might add, love to perform this play because it keeps the focus on them and not on the historical actors. If we put the spotlight on Neptune, however, his story reveals how little we know about the many and varied moments of emotional and physical intimacy that existed between males slave and their male owners. We must explore these complex encounters, which promise to reveal new insights into the master-slave relationship, African American manliness, and class divisions within the slave community as well as Confederate society as a whole.