But Are the Accounts True?

black confederate

Today I am working on the final re-write for an article on Confederate camp servants that will be published in an upcoming issue of The Civil War Monitor.  This involves reviewing changes made by the magazine’s editorial staff and responding to questions re: clarity, substance and interpretation.  I am having some difficulty with one particular paragraph that I wrote about accounts of slaves on the battlefield.  Here is what I wrote:

Camp servants who did not or could not escape were exposed to all the dangers of military life, from disease to the battlefield. Accounts of slaves marching into battle alongside masters, assisting them if they were wounded, or securing the body in the event of death, as well as tales of shooting at Yankee soldiers, remain the most contentious aspect of the memory of these men. Many of these accounts come from Confederate veterans’ postwar writings and rarely include the voice of the slave in question. As a result, they tell us much more about white southerners’ ideal version of their former slaves and not the often complex factors that motivated slaves during those moments of grave danger and uncertainty.

It goes without saying that I am not in any way concerned about whether these stories demonstrate that the men in question were soldiers.  That, however, still leaves us with the accounts themselves.  The editors responded with the following comment.

You don’t say whether you believe these accounts are accurate / reliable. I wonder if somehow you might, in a way to separate fact from fiction, as much as possible. And more detail would be nice in the way of quotes / evidence / examples.

The thing is, I do believe the general outlines of these stories.  Camp servants were on the battlefields, they fired weapons at Yankee soldiers, and they rescued masters from the field and even escorted bodies home for burial.  What I have trouble with is moving beyond the realm of personal memory to the question of historical veracity.  None of the stories that I utilize include corroborating accounts between slave and Confederate officer and the vast majority that we do have were written after the war.  Even the few accounts from former slaves leave me with more questions than answers.

The bigger challenge for me in interpreting battlefield accounts involving camp servants is that I struggle with how to reconcile the element of absolute authority that defined the master-slave relationship and the kinds of emotional bonds that were clearly present in certain cases.  It’s a world that I simply do not have much of anything in terms of a frame of reference through which to interpret.  It can hardly be denied that camp servants/slaves were present on battlefields and experienced all kinds of things.  What that experience meant, at the time, for both slave and master as interpreted through postwar sources largely alludes me.

19 thoughts on “But Are the Accounts True?

  1. hjs21

    I think it is difficult at best for us today to put ourselves in the slaves shoes. We of course want to believe that each and every one of them did not want to be in the situation in which they found themselves, and would have done anything – anything – to be rid of it. A lot of folks seem to be having that problem with Samuel L. Jackson’s character in the new Tarantino flick, just as many had problems with the black character in “Ride With the Devil.” I don’t know that we can do it, honestly. Or do it honestly.

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    1. KHalleron

      Why do people spend decades doing jobs they hate? Because they fear what lies outside the known. I’m sure this is one of the many things at work in the master/slave relationship.

      Keep in mind that most of the camp servants had been house slaves – I can’t see a CS soldier taking along one of the field hands. These slaves had had it better than the field slaves, but were in constant danger – a misstep could always send them into the fields where brutality and early deaths awaited them. In a way, they had been brainwashed from infancy to identify with their masters. Many of them were ‘part of the family’ in more than words. It’s a far more intense version of ‘Stockholm Syndrome.’

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      1. Kevin Levin

        Thanks for the comment. What do you base the claim that most camp servants served as house slaves on? I’ve thought that as well, but have never seen much direct evidence in support of it.

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        1. KHalleron

          I don’t have direct evidence, either. I base it on human nature – I’m sure cavalry soldiers took their best horses to war, too, not their plow horses.

          The relationship between master and house servant was much more intimate, for many reasons – familiarity and kinship being the strongest. They’d no more take a field hand to wait on them than they’d take an unbroken horse. They’d want someone who could cook and clean and take care of their clothes – skills a house servant would have and a field hand would not.

          I think the counter-claim, that most of them weren’t house servants, would require a strain of logic.

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    2. Lyle7

      What Bull Runnings says.

      Personally I don’t see why people struggle with coming to turns with the complexity of slave life. It was more than just stereotype. Like with anything else in life it was complex. Just let the facts speak for themselves. Tough stuff for us if we don’t like the facts.

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  2. disqus_vZD8XyTbtc

    In Crown Hill Cemetery there is a Confederate Plot which holds the remains of the Confederate POW”s from Camp Morton here in Indianapolis. Each state has it’s own slab engraved with the names of the men, their rank and unit. I visit there at least once a year, and am always struck by the fact that several of the names have “servant” by them in their column. So evidently they even followed them into the prison camps as well, rather than using the master’s capture as a reason to try to escape.

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  3. TFSmith1

    KHalleron’s point is an interesting one; again, I can’t point to anything substantive in terms of sourcing, but the reasoning seems solid. A camp slave for an officer is essentially functioning as a “batman” – cook, laundryman, orderly, etc. – and has to be aware of the appropriate social standards between “gentlemen” to function in the otherwise structured organization of a military force. This practically screams “house” as opposed to “field”…

    The point about “family” connections is a good one, as well.

    Worth pointing out that unarmed camp followers is hardly something new in human history; “militarized” personnel with similar roles would include the “Hiwis” of the German Army during WW II.

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  4. Andy Hall (was AndyinTexas)

    First, congrats for taking this subject on again, in print. It’s a complex subject, but at least on a blog you can always revise what you wrote, or further explain/clarify later. Putting it down on paper, “fer reals,” would be daunting.

    I think a great many of the stories about the actions of personal servants on the battlefield are based on real events, although there is (as with every other memoir) always the possibility of embellishment or exaggeration. That simply happens with old war stories (from any conflict), and there’s usually no way verify or corroborate it. Both the former soldiers and the former servants had reason to highlight these stories, both during the war and decades later. I’m certain that for a least some former servants (e.g., Crock Davis, Steve Perry) made a conscious decision embrace those stories later in their lives, even if they exaggerated the truth or, in some cases, were made up entirely.

    I believe Kate is right about most of these man having been either house servants or someone in close proximity to the soldier’s family, for the practical reasons she outlined. There are a number of known examples, and it was an explicit theme promoted years later when Lost Cause orthodoxy became established, particularly stories of young men who had grown up together as master and servant/companion (e.g., Thomas Nelson Page’s short story “Marse Chan.”) It’s a theme that carries down right to the present in stories like that of the “Chandler Boys,” that are more happy, retroactive myth-making than anything else.

    So what one is left with are many stories, many (most?) of which are at least broadly based on real events, but (as you say) almost always filtered through white voices, and told for the benefit of a white audience though outlets like the Confederate Veteran magazine. The best you can do, I think, is to acknowledge that events like these did happen, but that the deeper questions about the servants’ own thoughts and considerations and motivations are still less clear than the contemporary published record makes them out to be.

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    1. Kevin Levin

      I can’t seem to escape the subject.

      It’s incredibly frustrating not to have the kind of wartime evidence that would help shed light on the complex relationship between master and slave, but even with it I find myself incapable of coming to terms with the strong other-regarding feelings that were clearly present in some cases.

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      1. Andy Hall (was AndyinTexas)

        There is no question that there was a personal connection in many (though certainly not all) cases. But there were also cases like the Confederate officer (Comer?) who wrote repeatedly about how wonderful it was to have his servant in camp, how loyal and trustworthy he was, right up to the point where the servant ran off to Union lines. Those Confederates and their servants always understood the their respective roles. Some African Americans continued to make accommodation to that after the war, and willingly participated in reunions as former “faithful slaves.” Many others — a large majority, I suspect, given the relatively few number of old black men who seem to have participated in these reunions, compared to the number of servants, cooks, teamsters and other workers who much have been part of camp life in 1861-65 — did not, and put that part of their lives behind them.

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        1. Kevin Levin

          All good points, Andy. In a sense, Confederate veterans and former servants continued to use one another to achieve certain ends or maintain a useful fiction. Veterans could reinforce in their own minds and for those who attended reunion activities the Lost Cause version of slavery and former servants may have been able to use their role to some advantage at a time when blacks as a whole were politically, socially, and economically marginalized.

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          1. Andy Hall (was AndyinTexas)

            When reading accounts of of bravery under fire by black servants, written by (or for) white soldiers, it helps to keep in mind that the accounts reflect well on the whites, too — that they were so beloved by their servants that the latter would risk their lives, remain on the old place after emancipation, etc.

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            1. Kevin Levin

              Such accounts make it easy to push aside the fact that slaves were legal extensions of their masters in favor of a picture of slaves as emotionally invested in the goals of their owners and the Confederacy.

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              1. Daniel Weinfeld

                I know we’ve discussed this before, but when we start guessing about the motivations of slaves in the Confederate ranks, I can’t help but surmise that many of these “loyal” servants were the blood relations of the men they served. We know that in at least some cases, some such slaves were treated relatively well, and all but acknowledged but their master/fathers. For these men, the motivations were obviously deeply complex and I don’t think it far fetched to assume that at least a few identified with their Confederate half-brethren.

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      2. Lyle7

        I see that Hollywood is making Twelve Years a Slave into a movie. I read this account in both high school and college.

        Do we know that this account is an actual black narrative or are the facts surrounding the account still so obscure to not totally trust the story? If it is truthful, it’s got to be the best slave narrative in existence. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it is very good and shows the complexity of the antebellum South from the the perspective of a slave extraordinarily well.

        Otherwise, we just have to let the actions and not the words of some of these people speak for themselves. It’s conjecture either way to try and cipher why they did what they did.

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  5. EarthTone

    In the book “The State of U.S. History,” edited by Melvyn Stokes, an essay by Michael Tadman discusses the concept of the “key slave.” Tadman says that slave masters had a unique and relatively benevolent relationship with a small set of house slaves. These key slaves would likely have been more loyal, and perhaps even, more “loving” or “affectionate” (I use these terms in a platonic manner) in the way they dealt with the master. Wartime servants probably fit the “key slave” classification.

    (It is interesting to me, and I think useful to note, that a particular set of bondsmen were called “servants,” versus the more generic term “slave.” “Servant” implies an attachment to, and perhaps, a personal relationship with, a particular person; “slave” refers to one of a gang of slaves who, for example, works in the field and has no real personal relationship with a master.)

    This is an except from an essay by the late James Hollandsworth, ( http://mdah.state.ms.us/pubs/pensioners.pdf )about black Confederate pensioners, which I think is useful:

    “Loyalty to the Confederate cause (by black recipients of Confederate pensions) is another issue that has received a good bit of attention. After Reconstruction, Confederate veterans made much of the loyalty of black noncombatants. In fact, loyalty was the rationale for expanding the eligibility for Confederate pensions to include this group. Correspondence from pension files in all five states suggests that most black noncombatants were loyal to their masters and that this loyalty was reciprocated. For example, several black non- combatants went to prisoner-of-war camps with their masters rather than accept offers of freedom when they were captured, a circumstance that can be verified by correspondence in the Official Records…

    “It is tempting to assume that the loyalty of many black noncombatants was representative of black southerners in general, but this conclusion is not warranted. Black southerners who were recognized in Confederate memoirs, eulogized at Confederate reunions, and eventually awarded Confederate pensions, were selected from a select group. They were a select group in the first place because they were allowed to accompany their masters to the army. Clearly, a slave-owning Confederate soldier who was about to embark on the hazards of active army life would not take a trouble-maker, a slacker, or an unreliable slave with him to war. It is reasonable to assume that black noncombatants were picked to accompany their masters because of the loyalty they had demonstrated long before there was a prospect of war.”

    Hollandsworth’s point is that these wartime servants were unique, representing a small, perhaps “super loyal” (my term) sub-group of bondsmen. They may well have been the idealized slaves that their masters portrayed them to be; after all, the slave’s favored status came at the pleasure of his particular owner, and the slave surely knew this.

    - Alan

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    1. Kevin Levin

      It’s an excellent essay. Hollandsworth makes an excellent point that the granting of pensions to these men has everything to do with memory of loyalty. The pensions also functioned to reinforce racial hierarchies at the turn of the twentieth century.

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