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.