John C. Winsmith’s Black Confederate

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.

13 comments… add one

  • J. L. Bell Nov 14, 2010

    But negroes are very uncertain and tricky creatures so it is difficult to tell what is the real truth in this case.

    Yes, those people have such odd ways of showing their loyalty to their masters and the Confederacy.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 14, 2010

      It’s a telling comment, but it can’t be entirely detached from other moments in which Winsmith reveals a certain amount of confidence and trust in Spencer. What I love about the letters is that it gives us a picture of the interaction between the two over a significant period of time. Clearly, Winsmith had difficulty accepting that perhaps Spencer truly desired to be free.

  • Allen Gathman Nov 14, 2010

    I look forward to your publication of all of Winsmith’s letters — based on this sample, they must provide a valuable window into the master-slave relationship. It does seem amazing that they could be together so long, yet Winsmith would still find Spencer’s motivations so inscrutable. It also seems to reflect a common tendency by slaveowners to underestimate the slaves’ desire for freedom.

  • Peter Nov 14, 2010

    I don’t think one can draw any clear inferences on Spencer’s thoughts from these letters. It is most likely that he “truly desired to be free,” but there is no way to tell from what Winsmith says. In fact, we don’t even know the circumstances of Spencer’s flight from these letters. Was he captured by the Yankees? Was he coerced by the free black? Did Spencer and the other black even escape?

    • Kevin Levin Nov 14, 2010

      You are absolutely right, Peter. The only point I would make, however, that favors assuming Spencer ran away is that he waited until Winsmith was away from camp. It is going to be extremely difficult to give voice to these slaves given the nature of the evidence.

  • Bailey Nov 15, 2010

    Did one have to prove that they were white (in today’s sense) to join the various Confederate armies? I ask because my mother’s ancestors in North Carolina were wealthy, free (for many generations) they looked white (by later Jim Crow standards and some of them would later go on to “pass”) and lived a totally different life than most of my other mixed ancestor. Yet, when war broke out all of that family went on vacation, a four year European vacation. Of course, I can’t know their politics (well I suppose I can try to track down some of their letters), but their story made me wonder about all the other families of similar background. What I do know is that pre Jim Crow some states were a lot less “black and white” than we realize.

  • London John Nov 16, 2010

    Is it OK to make a couple of points here unrelated to Winsmith?
    (1) Is it possible the Black Confederates nonsense originated among re-enactors? I gather that Confederate te-enactors are considered more authentic or “hard-core” than Union ones, and I’ve read that some Black re-enactors got bored with always being the 54th Mass and wanted to join the Confederate re-enacters, who obligingly invented some Black Confederates for them to re-enact. Daft, but no dafter than the SCV.

    (2) How is Joseph T Wilson rated as a source? In the Black Phalanx he has a chapter on “the Confederate Service” which as far as I remember says there were no actual Black soldiers in the CSA until the last weeks. Wilson himself started his war in the Louisiana Native Guard, a militia unit of free “men of color” (ie mixed race) whose officers were men of color as well as the other ranks. It was never mustered into the Confederate army. When the Union captured New Orleans the LNG went over to the Union en masse.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 16, 2010

      I’ve speculated that the recent incarnation of the black Confederate narrative took hold in the years following the release of the movie, Glory, in 1989. To make a long story short, the movie’s emphasis on black Union soldiers and the theme of emancipation made some folks feel defensive about their own identification with the Confederate past. The black Confederate narrative balances the moral scales. I don’t think it has anything to do specifically with reenactors.

      Wilson’s book is still well worth reading, but keep in mind when it was published and that historians have gone far in supplementing these early studies. Wilson is, however, correct in pointing out that it is only in the last few weeks that the Confederate Congress approved the enlistment of slaves. He is also correct about the service of the Native Guard. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  • Angela Walton-Raji Nov 23, 2010

    I found your piece on John Winsmith and the fate of his slave Spencer to be interesting. As I read the piece, I too wondered what might have happened to Spencer, and whether or not he survived the war and lived to breathe the breath of free air.

    My guess is that Spencer met some kind of unfortunate fate, as I have searched for him in the 1870 Federal Census and he does not appear to be in the vicinity. I did notice that in the community of Spartanburg SC in 1870, there was a Peggy Winsmith living in Spartanburg with many children and an older woman. All of them are black, and I believe that Peggy might have been the same Peggy that was referred to in the letters of John Winsmith.

    I am also guessing (no evidence, admittedly) that Peggy was probably Spencer’s wife, as he sent greetings to Peggy in more than one letter by John Winsmith. With that possibility, it is difficult to imagine the pain of separation from his wife and children, and my guess is that his only coping mechanism was to be so very agreeable to his enslaver, should the possibility emerge of his ever seeing Peggy and family again. His agreeable demeanor was always mentioned, yet, the master still harbored a degree of distrust and belief in the how Negroes were such “uncertain and tricky creatures.” Their trickiness was never attributed to any belief on the enslaver’s part in the Negro’s humanity, or the basic desire for freedom.

    DATA from Census—–

    In 1870, in that household were:
    Rosetta Winsmith 60
    Peggy Winsmith 40
    Rose Winsmith 20
    Simpson Winsmith 17
    Chilaret Winsmith 12
    John Winsmith 7
    Hannah Winsmith 5
    Annie Winsmith 4
    Emeline Winsmith 3
    Richard Winsmith 1

    With that, I noticed that there was a gap in the ages and births between Chilaret, and John. Could those be the years of separation? There were also several children under 10. Did Spencer make it back home to his wife? Could Peggy have been subjected to the whims of another person given access to her, especially before 1865,and fathered children with her? Had Peggy remarried after the war and after freedom?

    No answers are known, to this, of course and will probably never be known. One can surmise that Spencer met an untimely death, for after freedom he would have most certainly been with his wife Peggy, whom he had mentioned every time he could send regards in letters written by the enslaver, to the family back home. Of course he might have survived and returned to Peggy, but then died through accident or disease before the 1870 census as well.

    This cannot be determined, but the story and letters you shared were indeed interesting.

    Thank you.

    Angela Y. Walton-Raji
    Genealogist and Researcher.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 23, 2010

      Hi Angela,

      I also have the information from the 1870 census, but you ask a number of very interesting questions that at some point I am going to have to consider. It’s a fascinating story. Unfortunately, I have no idea what happened to Spencer after his disappearance from camp. Glad to hear that you found this to be of some interest.

  • L. Thompson Apr 7, 2014

    John Winsmith is my fourth great uncle. I have been learning a lot about him through these letters. Thank you, Kevin.

    • L. Thompson Apr 8, 2014

      To be clearer, it is Dr. John Winsmith that is my fourth great uncle. He legally changed his name from John Winn Smith. His son John Christopher Winsmith is my first cousin four times removed.

      I like to think that Spencer saw the opportunity to free himself and took it.

      • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2014

        I like to think that Spencer saw the opportunity to free himself and took it.

        I found accounts of a number of body servants leaving at this point so I think you are probably right.

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