Yesterday I shared a short excerpt from the John H. Claiborne letters, which are located in Special Collections at the University of Virginia. I was looking for one particular letter in which he discussed his camp servants. Unfortunately, no date was included in the description of the collection so I had to make my way through roughly 50 letters. I finally found it at the very end, but it was well worth the time spent. Claiborne briefly references a number of slaves that assisted him as chief surgeon in Petersburg, but not until the letter below did he reflect on their place in the army as well as the future of slavery.
Claiborne references the impressment policies of the Confederate government along with his own responsibilities as a slaveholder. There is a great deal of paternalism that courses throughout and an interesting passage in which he reaffirms the supposed loyalty of his slaves. In reading the letters you get a clear sense that Claiborne and his slaves endured great hardship in Petersburg during the final year of the war, but in the end his slaves never move beyond being acknowledged for their instrumental value.
December 21, 1864,
I do not know whether I shall send any of the negro men. They will hire at heavy prices to the Government here – and it will assume the responsibility of their safe keeping and pay for them if lost. If disposed to run away they can as readily go from N.C. as from this place –- as is proven in the case of Mr. Thomas’ boy and of others who have been sent there. And moreover, if I hire them to private individuals, the Government in its regular impressments will probably get some or all of them during the year – and work them I cannot tell where. For these reasons I have pretty much concluded to keep them near here; but I cannot say positively yet what I shall do. I can probably get from 40 to 80 dolrs. per month for the boys and have them fed – with privileges of buying clothes at Gov. prices – and seeing to them myself if sick or in trouble. Joe & Isaac were ordered out on the Weldon R. Road the other day with a number of others (carpenters to repair the Bridge); but Isaac soon came to me to intercede for them & get them off. He said he was afraid the yankee cavalry would get them. I told him I hardly thought the enemy would get him unless he went to them. He said “they would never get him then – that he had no idea of leaving me.” I think they are as loyal as any. Indeed I do not know any one else here who owns as many as I do who has not lost some. The Gov. will take a great many another year and I would not be surprised at their being purchased & eventually freed. I think the days of slavery are numbered in this State if not in the Confederacy – and that is another reason why I would not take more trouble to keep mine than is required by duty – duty to them as well as myself. I am sure mine are better off with me as master than they would be free, and as Providence has placed them in my hands – of course I must act for the, as in all things else, as “one that must give account”. As an investment – to a man in my situation in life – they are unprofitable and exceedingly troublesome – and I have often wished I was happily rid of them all. Even as domestic servants – they are the most troublesome and expensive system of “help” in the world. It is a humane & benevolent system though to the slave – and as an heir loom and inheritance to all true Southern men – I have prized it and sought to nourish and defend it – and should even now part from it with a feeling as if I were breaking up old & cherished aspirations. God help the poor creatures that shall fall into the hand of their yankee friends. Having no conception of any of the feelings that we cherish for the negro and knowing in their wise economy the waste & expense of slave labour the poor creatures will soon be numbered with the unhappy Indians and colonized under the earth.