As many of you know I am in the beginning stages of a book-length project on the subject of black Confederates. While much of my blogging has centered on countering the nonsense coming out of certain camps concerning numbers and vague references to “loyalty” and “reconciliation” my real interest in this subject is firmly grounded in the war itself. I am particularly interested in how the Confederate war effort shaped the master-slave relationship. As I type this I am staring at rows upon rows of books that explore slave life and culture during the antebellum period. I’ve learned a great deal from these books. However, what I want to better understand is how the exigencies of war shaped the institution during its final few years, particularly in an environment away from what both parties had grown accustomed to.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time re-reading the John C. Winsmith letters, which I’ve finished transcribing and hope to publish at some point soon. You can read about Winsmith in an earlier post, which includes one of the roughly 250 letters that he wrote over the course of the war. Winsmith’s letters, which detail his relationship with his personal servant, Spencer, presents historians with a rich spectrum of experiences that deserve closer study. One gets a sense of how close proximity between master and slave drew both closer. At the same time the eventual outcome of this story raises profound questions about the extent to which the two truly understood one another.
At no point does Winsmith refer to Spencer as a soldier and at no point in this collection of letters does he refer to black Confederate soldiers. Reading these letters one gets the sense that Winsmith would have been horrified to learn of black men serving as soldiers. I’ve written quite a bit about these references, but I am curious as to what you see.
Sullivan’s Island, April 26, 1861
I have been doing very well in my quarters here in the Moultrie House, having a comfortable room [etc]. Spencer has proved himself an excellent cook and our mess cannot listen to the talk of his leaving: he was a little home-sick for the first few days, but is now anxious to remain; and believe he is making more money than any of us: he has become washer [?] and is adept at every sort of duty. The time that I do not require his attention, I give him for himself.
April 29, 1861
Spencer has had a cold, but is now better. He sends howdye to Peg and the other negroes. He was very glad to get those nice things from home, and they were so much better than what we have been having.
May 10, 1861
Abram is here safe, but looks rather wild and a little confused. He will soon become accustomed to a crowd. He will be placed under Spencer’s charge for a few days, and I hope he may improve the time and learn fast so as to be able to do me some service in Va or elsewhere.
May 12, 1861
Abram has been installed in office as Spencer’s successor in the culinary department [etc]. Spencer will instruct him and thinks he can make something out of him during the few days he will have him in charge. I think he is disposed to learn, and may do very well, but will never be equal to Spencer.
May 19, 1861
Abram is doing very well, and I think he will make a very good cook, but he never will be equal to Spencer as a servant. Abram seems to be perfectly willing to go any where with me.
August 22, 1861, Fairfax, C.H.
Spencer still continues quite feeble, but has been much benefited by Father’s prescription. Father thought of returning home quite soon, but says he may remain longer on account of Spencer’s condition.
August 27, 1861
Spencer is doing well, and is now able to attend to his regular duties.
September 12, 1861
Spencer is well and sends howdye to Peg and children. He was much pleased with his letter and will answer it soon.
September 29, 1861
I stood our trip finely not withstanding the very bad weather we had during a part of the time while absent. Leaving camp on last Saturday afternoon we had not marched far before a rain came upon us. We went as far as Falls Ch that night a distance of 9 miles. I took Spencer along to carry my knapsack [etc], and Ralph and I with him stopped at a house on the road, and drying ourselves thoroughly had a most delightful rest. Sunday just after daylight we left and joined to Regt. Then we proceeded to Upton’s Hill in sight of Munsin’s to do picket duty. The enemys lines are not so near the former as the latter place, and therefore our men got no shots at the Yankees. The view was fine, and just such as I have described in a former letter as having enjoyed from Munsin’s. Occasionally in the distance we could see the Yankees moving about, but no fight occurred during our stay. Last night a little after dark it was reported that the enemy was advancing in two columns on our right and left with the view of cutting off our advanced posts, and therefore the order was given to fall back. We retired from our position about 11 o’clock and came back by a different route making the distance here 13 miles. After coming severeal miles this way we met troops going forward to occupy the advanced posts we had left, it having been ascertained that the enemy’s movements were feints. I cannot think it will be long before we have another battle near here, as the Potomac is said to be thoroughly blockaded by some of our masked batteries, and no doubt an attempt will be made to take them by land. We reached our camp a little after sun rise, and I had a refreshing sleep after getting breakfast. Ralph and Spencer stood the trip very well. It will be sometime before our turn comes again[.]
October 3, 1861
You all must think of me a great deal, and seem very anxious about making me comfortable this winter; for scarcely a letter comes from home that does not speak of sending me something. In Mother’s last letter she says she is preparing some articles of clothing for me which will be sent by the first opportunity. At present I have plenty and as much as I can well carry. You know soldiers are not allowed much means of transportation. I will, however, with the aid of Spencer, be able to carry whatever I may need. I shall take good care of myself, and am pretty sure I will be able to stand the winter very well…. Spencer is well, and is invaluable to me. I do not believe there is a better servant in the Army than he is, and I do not have any fears of his being deceived by the Yankees.
November 23, 1861, Camp Near Centreville
Spencer has had a cold, but is now better. He sends howdye to Peg and the children and to all the negroes.
December 10, 1861
Spencer is well, and hopes soon to get home. He sends howdye to all.
May 7, 1862, Camp Johnson, Near Columbia
Spencer wants some soap – common – and you had better send a couple knives and forks and a small quantity of hominy.
June 24, 1862, James Island
Enclosed I send you statement of my account with the Confederate States. My Pay Roll is in my trunk at Capt Small’s should anything happen to me, Spencer will hand you Capt S’s recpt, and all my papers, which I will have in an envelope addressed to you.
June 28, 1862
We fare very well – get beef bacon, flour, potatoes, [and] rice, all from the Commisary at Govt price. Spencer [and] Bob are excellent cooks. I would like if we could hire a good cook so that Spencer could go home, as I know Father must need him very much.
July 13, 1862, Charleston
I will leave for Columbia to-morrow and see Col. Preston on Tuesday the 15th; but as all the conscripts will not be in camp by that time, I will embrace the opportunity to run up home for a day or so; and you may send the carry all to meet me on Wednesday the 16th at Jonesville I had to leave Spencer in charge of my affairs at camp, as Bob was gone.
July 24, 1862, Janney’s Hotel, Columbia
My Dear Father: I have just recd the enclosed letter from Jim Moore, from which you will see that Spencer is missing. I have had no more information than that contained in the letter, but will endeavor to find out all about the circumstances of his leaving as soon as I get to Camp, and will write to you.
July 28, 1862, James Island
Well I have learned very little additional in regard to Spencer. He went out on Sunday morning the 20th in company with another boy from the Regt, having obtained a permit from Lt. Nesbitt to go for potatoes near River’s house, which is not more than ¾ mile from the Stono River, in which there were some Boats. They did not return, and their absence being reported to Maj. Duncan, he sent out several companies to scour the surrounding words [etc], but nothing could be seen of them, nor of any trace where the Yankees had been. It seems to be a doubtful point whether they went off to the Yankees of their own accord, or were captured. Most of the men in the Co think Spencer was captured, as he took nothing away with him and went off in his shirt sleeves, and from his conduct nothing had occurred to make them suspect that he meditated on escape. The watch which he wished to take was a galvanized one. I hear, that he had bought in town, and wanted to dispose of it as I had told him he would go home soon. He brought all my things over right when our Regt moved, and I have missed nothing. If he was captured he will very probably make his escape at the first opportunity. But negroes are very uncertain and tricky creatures so it is difficult to tell what is the real truth in this case.
July 29, 1862
So you had heard of Spencer’s being gone before you received my letter. I wrote all the particulars I could get in my letter to Father. You may know I miss him very much, but I will not let the matter worry me in the least as I know it will do no good.
July 30, 1862
There was no indication that nay Yankees had been on land recently, so I rather think Spencer went with the boy who was with him to the boats in the river.
August 4, 1862
In regard to Spencer I have nothing more to write except that the boy who went off with him was a free boy from the city who was hired as a cook by one of the Cos. here. He carried off nothing with him and had not collected the money owing to him in the Regt. It may be that this negro persuaded him off after they left camp. The reason I asked you for Josh was that I could very easily train him here as a servant, and I only expected him to assist who-ever we hired as a cook. If you think he will not do me any good, and that I cannot train him in camp, then he had better not come.