Celebrating a Certain Kind of “Black Confederate”

Impressed Slaves Working on Fortifications

[Cross-Posted at the Atlantic]

One of the things that jumps out at you when you look closely at the profile of the African Americans celebrated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans as “black Confederate soldiers” is that they were all body servants.  The best examples include Aaron Perry, Weary Clyburn, and Silas Chandler.

  • They “followed” their masters to war
  • Identified closely with the Confederate cause
  • Rescued their master on the battlefield (dead or wounded) and brought body home
  • Were awarded pensions for their “service”
  • Remained life long friends with their former owners

I’ve suggested before that this narrative owes its popularity to its close connection to the mythology surrounding the loyal slave that took hold even before the war.  What is interesting, however, is that body servants were not representative of how the Confederacy utilized slave labor during the war.  In fact, we know that the number of slaves brought into the army with their masters as servants dropped by the middle of the war for a number of reasons.

More representative of the experience of “Confederate slaves” were those impressed by individual states and the Confederate government for various war-related projects such as the building of fortifications and roads.  In fact, as the number of body servants dropped, the number of impressed slaves continued to rise as a result of legislation on the state and federal levels.  Yet, the SCV/UDC have little to say about these men.  Of course, it is not difficult to surmise as to why.  The first problem is that most people are not even aware that tens of thousands of slaves were impressed during the war.  It’s a measure of where we are in terms of our popular understanding of how African Americans experienced the war. What is important to keep in mind, however, is that there is no difference between the legal status of body servants and those who were impressed.  They were all legally owned.

Impressed slaves were not attached to individual Confederate officers.  Their experiences during the war did not conform to that of a body servant and the specific narrative sketched above.  And that is the crux of the problem: It is much more difficult to blur the distinction between a slave and soldier in the case of an impressed slave than that of a body servant.  Acknowledging impressed slaves also raises a host of other problems that modern day champions of black Confederates are likely to want to resist.  For one, we know that slave owners resisted the attempts on the part of the state and Confederate government to impress their slaves as a violation of their property rights.  This brings into sharp focus just how important it is for black Confederate advocates to steer clear of the coercive nature of the master-slave relationship.

I suspect that this is why the body servant will continue to serve as the hallmark of the SCV’s understanding of the role that African Americans played in the Confederate war.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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21 comments… add one
  • RUDOLPH YOUNG Nov 28, 2014 @ 20:01

    Jim a Covington, a slave in Richmond County, North Carolina was impressed to work on the coastal defenses in 1863. He did not return to Rockingham until 1865. Local people noticed that he called himself James Pemberton. He had stories about working at the Richmond White House. word came from Richmond that Jim was a traitor. He then denied that he ever called himself Pemberton . He said that he was always Jim Covington. ThenJim Covington went to parts unknown. His son James Pemberton was located in Montgomery County.

  • Peter Winfrey Feb 21, 2012 @ 5:08

    Visiting the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg over the weekend, I went to presentation when an audience member asked the African American presenter on why he thinks “thousands of Blacks fought for the Confederacy”.

    The presenter accepted the notion, and used the example of 2 African American color bearers in the 14th Tennessee at Pickett’s Charge as evidence that there were Black Confederates.

    It seems like the myth is very much alive and well.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2012 @ 5:11

      It is alive and well. Can’t say I am surprised at all to hear this.

    • Andy Hall Feb 21, 2012 @ 6:26

      That incident seems to come out of Into The Fight – Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg by John Michael Priest. Anybody know this book?

  • London John Feb 20, 2012 @ 12:21

    A small point – the pensions referred to were paid by the taxpayers of southern states, not by the former owners or their heirs?

  • Forester Feb 20, 2012 @ 11:44

    Forgive my ignorance, but what exactly does “impressed slave” mean? Am I to understand these were slaves taken from masters by the CS goverment? :-/

  • Pat Young Feb 20, 2012 @ 7:49

    While the body servant often performed services that a Northerner would do for himself, and was as much a luxury as anything else, the slaves involved in constructing fortifications were performing vital war work. The dangers to the slaves are obvious from the reluctance of owners to supply them. Human capital all often too was destroyed by the harsh conditions and exposure to fire.

  • Tom Logue Feb 20, 2012 @ 6:31

    One of my favorite stories concerns the son of Jim Pemberton. Jim Pemberton was an American who Jefferson Davis owned as a slave. By all accounts, Davis treated Pemberton about was well as any person treated one of his slaves. Davis trusted Pemberton to manage other slaves. Davis took Pemberton’s son with him went he went to the Confederate White House. Obviously, Pemberton’s son also occupied a relatively privileged position compared to other slaves. Like any other real American would do, however, at his first chance he and his wife fled at great risk to themselves from the relatively-privileged position in order to gain their freedom.

    The human, and American, and Southern urge for freedom is irrepressible. In the first place, it was enslaved Americans fleeing for freedom that generate much of the friction that lead to the civil war. It was the existence of enslaved Americans (over 40% of the Confederate population) that helped hold off international recognition of the Confederacy and limited the Confederacy military and strategic options. By the end of the war, 200,000 Americans who had been held in slavery had obtained freedom and fought for the Union (10% of the U.S. forces). They had risked all to obtain liberty. It is a very American story. The SCV is trying to create a counter-narrative that ignores these truths. And yet, I suspect that if their ancestors where held in slavery, they would have done the same thing as that other American, Jim Pemberton’s son.

    • Bernard Feb 20, 2012 @ 7:28

      Speaking of myth-laden narratives, your tale about Jim Pemberton suffers many of the same faults you assign to the SCV for their narratives.

      There was a historical slave Jim Pemberton (not his son) who went to Benjamin Butler in 1864, claimed to have escaped from the Confederate White House, and asked Butler for payment in exchange for intelligence. He seems to have been connected in some way to the better-known Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a free black woman who had been employed as a maid in Davis’ Executive Mansion but was part of a Union spy ring operating through a bakery in Richmond. Unfortunately most of the Union documentation about Bowser’s spy ring was destroyed at the end of the war.

      There is no evidence that this Pemberton was a “trusted” and high-ranking slave of Davis, and little evidence he even had any connection to the Davis family before the war. He did not flee “at his first chance,” but rather no earlier than January 1864 when he showed up at Fort Monroe seeking payment for his information. General Butler was immediately skeptical of the information he provided, the main piece of which consisted of a fanciful story that Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens had recently left on a top secret diplomatic trip to Great Britain. And there’s no evidence whatsoever of a wife being involved, though Bowser, who he may have been associated with, did flee in 1865 after her cover was blown.

      • Tom Logue Feb 20, 2012 @ 9:40


        I will check my sources. I thought I read these facts in one of the modern biographies of Jefferson Davis.

        A quick check on the internet indicates that Davis enslaved a person named James Pemberton, who he treated with special privledges. And various Southerners held as slaves by Davis did escape from the Confederate White House. I have read that, in one instance, one of them set fire to the mansion as part of his effort to escape, although other accounts say that fire was caused by a child held in slavery.

        It was my understanding that one of the men who escaped was the son of James Pemberton — and that appears to be confirmed in part by your story of a man also named James Pemberton appearing to Butler. That was clearly not James Pemberton, the father, and I suspect may have been Pemberton’s son and namesake, who was the person I was referring to.

        I will try to find the citation to the reference to James Pemberton’s son.

        If I spread false statements, you are right to call me on it and, obviously, I am sorry and I apologize. But I think what I said was correct.

        • Tom Logue Feb 20, 2012 @ 10:56


          I do not have access to a library today, but even over the internet, in Google Books, there are numerous citations supporting the story I gave above. The root source seems to be the January 9th, 1864 entry from Mary Chesnut’s famous diary in which she refers to the escape from the Confederate White House of two Americans named Betsey and Jim. She says Mrs. Davis was shocked that they wanted to escape. Other sources identify this Jim as Jim Pemberton, Jr. See, e.g. J. Mobley, Weary of War, p. 67 (“In early 1864, slaves Betsey (Mrs. Davis’ maid) and Jim (probably Jim Pemberton, Jr., whom Davis had brought with him from Brierfield) ran away.”). References to Jim Pemberton, Jr.’s father, James Pemberton, to whom Davis gave special privileges are all over the place and are normally cited to show what a benign slaveholder Davis was.

          To me, the most interesting part is that these Americans, probably occupying the best imaginable position one could hold as slaves, still chose freedom. Very human, very American, very Southern.

          • Tom Logue Feb 20, 2012 @ 15:51


            Final point. Contrary to what you said, General Butler’s notes of the interview with Jim Pemberton, Jr. show that Pemberton was Davis’s “body servant” who waited on Davis at table and who had been owned by Davis since he was little. Pemberton was paid for the information he supplied.

            By the way, the notes are in the National Archives and can be viewed on the internet. (That astounds me).


            • Bernard Feb 20, 2012 @ 16:44

              Butler’s notes are structured as a Q&A and only repeat what Pemberton told him in the interview. They do not attest to the veracity of his claims (and the main one is patently false – a fanciful story about Alexander Stephens running off on a secret mission to England). He paid Pemberton a nominal reward for the story and forwarded it up the chain of command. Unlike Bowser though, there isn’t much evidence that the Union placed credence in what he said.

          • Bernard Feb 20, 2012 @ 16:35

            Tom –

            You constructed a lengthy narrative about how “trusted” and “privileged” Jim Pemberton was with the Davis family on account of his presumed father. That’s all conjecture though, as historians aren’t even 100% sure if it’s the same person. Nor did the information he provided to General Butler convey a high degree of privilege or trust – instead he gave Butler an entirely fanciful story about Alexander Stephens secretly hopping on a ship to Europe.

            You then stated that Pemberton fled at the very first opportunity. Yet the Pemberton that Butler picked up fled no earlier than January 1864.

            You’ve now added another story about another runaway Davis slave setting fire to the Confederate White House. Yet that person was not a slave. It was the aforementioned Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a free black maid in the paid employ of the Davis family who was part of the Union spy network in Richmond. She set the fire in as a diversion to her own escape from Richmond after her cover was blown and her Union contact was discovered in a nearby bakery.

            Please be aware that my point is not to deny that a slave name Jim Pemberton fled the Confederate White House. That much seems to have happened, and you’re right – it is a compelling and very human story on its own merits.

            But you also embellished that story for many miles beyond what the historical evidence supports. Those are precisely the type of embellishments that I suspect you would call out an SCV type on if he attached them to the story of a “black confederate” – i.e. taking a known but sparsely documented event and filling in the details with flourishes for which we have no evidence.

  • Emmanuel Dabney Feb 20, 2012 @ 4:49

    Nor do these groups recognize the impact of impressment on free blacks, such as my own great-great grandfather and all of his brothers at various points during the war.

    Nor do these groups typically look at the ways in which slaveholders were not fans of the impressment of their human property. Of course we know this subject regarding slaveholders and slaves in relation with impressment has been most recently discussed in Confederate Reckoning.

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