The Community of the Civil War Regiment

Lucy Nichols, slave

Lucy Nichols at a reunion of the 23rd Indiana, circa. 1890s

I had one of those moments this morning when reading the work of another historian opened my eyes to ways to deepen my own thinking about a particular subject.  Much of what I’ve written about in the first chapter of my black Confederates book explores the relationship between individual camp servants and their masters.  It offers a survey of the wide range of relationships and how they evolved owing to the exigencies of war.  The second chapter examines the presence of former camp servants at Confederate veterans reunions as well as the issuance of pensions by individual southern states to blacks for the vital roles they played during the war.  I’ve been struggling with how I can link these two chapters conceptually.  Despite claims to the contrary, individual relationships usually did not continue after the war along the lines of the loyal slave narrative.  That said, we do need to make sense of the presence of camp servants at these reunions.

Thanks to Barbara Gannon I think I may have found a way to draw some connections between wartime and postwar experiences of these men.  In “‘She Is a Member of the 23rd’: Lucy Nichols and the Community of the Civil War Regiment” Barbara tells the story of the efforts of the men in the unit to secure Nichols a pension from the federal government.  Nichols was a slave before the war, who ended up with the unit as a nurse from 1862 to 1865.  Although Lucy never officially served as a nurse, but the men acknowledged her as a legitimate member of the unit in their testimony in support of her pension.  Barbara offers a broader definition of the Civil War regiment that looks beyond the muster rolls.

The community of the regiment, as understood by its members, was not always the same as the official military organization defined by the army.  Instead, membership in a regiment had more to do with the shared suffering of men and, in this case, a woman, than with the official muster roll.  Moreover, it was not so much the “red badge of courage”–battlefield wounds–that created this fellowship; instead, it was suffering that occurred between battles by soldiers who were on the march, exposed to the elements, and subject to diseases that were endemic to Civil War regiments. (p. 185)

Focusing on the community should give me a way to look beyond the individual relationships to gain a clearer sense of how camp servants were perceived by others in the units.  It should be especially helpful in understanding how shared experiences during the war could have translated into invitations to appear at reunions.  Of course, it is absolutely necessary to interpret all of this through the lens of a slave system and white supremacy, but this does provide a way of diffusing the reckless claims that these men were soldiers.  Often you get the sense that many of these references to black soldiers is a way of suggesting a certain intimacy or shared experience.

That doesn’t mean that the value camp servants earned in the eyes of the other men was always positive.  I’ve come across countless references of Confederates enjoying a good laugh at a slave’s expense.  There are also plenty of cases of abuse as well.  The entertainment value that these men provided continued into the postwar period.  Newspaper accounts of reunions often reference these wartime stories and in some cases veterans expected these former slaves to once again assume those roles.  In other words, these stories must balance those that acknowledge the shared hardships in camp, on the march, in the hospital and, on occasion, on the battlefield.

Barbara’s conceptual focus also makes it easier to interpret the steps that Confederate veterans took to help former slaves secure pensions from individual states later in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It is not a stretch to interpret the assistance that Confederate veterans gave to former slaves in helping them secure a pension as falling within the idea of a regimental community as outlined by Barbara.  They may have been slaves, but the experiences of shared suffering would have been sufficient to bring about a helping hand.  That doesn’t mean that veterans viewed these men as equals or as soldiers.  And finally, none of this can be interpreted outside the social, political, and racial contours of a Jim Crow society.  Anyway, you get the point.

Thanks, Barb.

16 thoughts on “The Community of the Civil War Regiment

    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I was happy to see your essay in the book after having heard you talk about Nichols last year in Richmond. See you next week at the MHS.

      Reply
  1. Brad

    With all due respect, there has always been a shared experience when men have been through struggle and have shared deprivation together, including death of comrades. This is not necessarily community but shared sacrifice. In my view, it’s the sacrifice that have bound them together. Maybe I’m being simplistic but to me, it’s rather crystal clear. I’m sure you have seen Band of Brothers. If you haven’t seen it or seen it in awhile, it may be worth a viewing.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I am not sure what the point is since I pretty much agree with you. I am simply trying to find a way to conceptualize the presence of slaves in an army that led to some sense of community.

      Reply
  2. pbinkley

    I was struck while reading _Love & Valor – Intimate Civil War Letters Between Captain Jacob and Emeline Ritner_, (an Iowa officer and his wife) how much the community of the regiment was a projection of the community from which the unit was recruited. There’s a steady stream of people traveling back and forth between the regiment in the field and the home towns, carrying gifts and letters and money and newspapers and gossip. Jacob and Emeline each hear news about the other’s situation via a variety of channels, not just from each other. I’d imagine that a soldier’s memories of his fighting community after the war must have been laced with all sorts of connections that extended out from the military context to his other social networks. I’ve wanted to explore this aspect of soldiers’ experience further; I’ll definitely get hold of Barbara Gannon’s paper.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      An excellent point. I highly recommend G. Ward Hubbs’s Guarding Greensboro: A Confederate Company in the Making of a Southern Community, which offers a thoughtful overview of the evolving relationship between one unit and its home town.

      Reply
  3. Rob Baker

    I’d recommend John A. Lynn as well. He is a terrific scholar when examining the culture of battle.

    As far as the post above, I am having a hard time accepting the total argument here. I do think that regimental communities probably exhumed the characteristics of the community from which soldiers were recruited. However, cohesion in war resides soundly within the context of battle. Mainly because this is the only regimental community marker which the outside world would not understand. I am not dismissing the impact of the suffering in between fights, but that situation would be comprehended by one on the home front. Starvation, sleeping in the cold, marching, are all comprehensible qualities. Battle on the other hand, is controlled carnage. The soldiers themselves acknowledged this at the time in their letters home. In many cases, they simply wrote that their experience was indescribable. In other words, if I were to nail down the relationship among regiments and the slaves within regiments, I would not dismiss the visualizations and experiences of battle that both parties shared (whether fighting or not). It makes the slave to community relationship contextually special. It is true that it may provide certain “charismatic” figures with an in to suggest slaves were soldiers. But I think dismissing battle leaves us with an interpretation that parallels the home front and war front.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Rob,

      I don’t think Barbara argues that the shared experience of battle is less important. However, in the case of the 23rd Indiana their unit histories and postwar reminiscences by individual soldiers placed a great deal of emphasis on these other factors. This would have been especially true for units who did not experience much fighting to begin with.

      Reply
      1. Rob Baker

        Understandable.

        Barabara states, Moreover, it was not so much the “red badge of courage”–battlefield wounds–that created this fellowship; instead, it was suffering that occurred between battles by soldiers who were on the march, exposed to the elements, and subject to diseases that were endemic to Civil War regiments. (p. 185)

        Barbara establishes this argument on the foundation of letters written about the time in between battles. I disagree with this premise for a couple reasons. 1.) time in between battles has more down time to write letters, it is not too revolutionary to assume the majority of letters would be written in and/or about this time frame. Quantity does not demonstrate what impacts soldiers the most. 2.) Depending on the level of the “in between,” the in-between can associate itself with the condition of combat which is overlooked. In the case of the 23rd, much of their marching was towards or for battle. Such as the 22 hour march to aid U.S. Grant in Belmont only to be late to the battle, which the 23rd showed remorse for. The long marches to Ft. Donelson and Henry. The Campaign of Vicksburg are also examples. In these references, movement has at the outcome of it, Battle. In the case of Vicksburg, that is truly a unique form of “in between” in connection with a siege which should not be dismissed as simple, in between battle. 3.) Historians, such as McPherson, have already examined the soldier’s unwillingness to write about battle for numerous reasons 4.) I wonder if Barbara missed an opportunity to highlight the disdain for marching without seeing combat. (see page 190, bottom of the main paragraph) She cites this as a list of importance instead. Though she may be right, I feel that other interpretations can be drawn from the cited sentence. 5.) Lastly, in a regiment that saw little fighting, they might have sought justification in their actions. In addition to this, they opened the door for others to justify their service. I think Barbara is pushing a new a unique understanding of the regiment and its service. However, I do not think it is applicable in many cases. Lucy was included because of the communal understanding of that regiment. The 23rd does not show any significant changes in make-up due to the element of combat, which is the essential focus point of the history of soldiers. Combat, is not a main impact on the 23rd’s community. The community is affected primarily by the “in between.” Therefore, the reflective community argument holds. Can this argument really be used across the board? If marching was all that was needed to prove Lucy’s service, then what of the thousands of slaves accompanying the Confederates? Which might be what you are suggesting in terms of slaves and regimental relationships. In that case I pose some questions.

        If marching quantifies service, do we then lump in fighting units with non-fighting units or differentiate between the two? If we make that division, then the slaves of each must be analyzed differently. Which means that each regiment is peculiar in its own right and must be examined separately in each case.

        Will fighting units have the same outlook towards service as non-fighting units? And what of their slaves?

        Are there really that many Confederate units that saw little to no combat which mirrors the case of the 23rd?

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Actually, she establishes this primarily by the letters the men wrote after the war in support of Nichols’s pension application. Again, I don’t believe that Barbara is minimizing the importance of the battlefield; rather, she is proposing that we look beyond it to understand why the men felt it important to support Nichols. They believed that she was a member of the regiment. It’s not only about marching. The men also emphasize the shared suffering that many endured long after the war.

          I am thinking about her concept of the community because it helps to get around the thorny question of whether slaves (camp servants) were part of the regiment. As you know that typically comes down to a claim that they were a soldier. I think it’s worth exploring ways to acknowledge their presence in a meaningful way that bridges the wartime – postwar divide.

          Reply
          1. Rob Baker

            I’m not disagreeing, I wrote “about” not “during.” I accept her premise for the case of the 23rd IN., but I don’t think it is across the board applicable. I used marching, because she spends the majority of the argument on “marching,” or in between battles being a defining characteristic for the 23rd.

            I think if you attempt to analyze slave interaction in the sense of regimental communities, you run the risk of generalization. Communities are usually different. Using Barbara’s premise, the regiment would reflect the uniqueness of their respective community. The ol’ double edged sword of trail blazing while becoming the target of deconstruction, i.e. community “splitters.” On the other hand, you might find patterns.

            Reply
  4. London John

    (1) The community of the regiment: have you ever discussed “A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs” by Susie King Taylor? She was a laundress with a black Union regiment raised in liberated territory in SC, and it seems that the wives and other family of the soldiers were part of the C of the R to a greater extent than in regiments recruited far from the front. As escaped/liberated slaves they had no option but to travel with the regiment.
    (2) The most benign version of the attitude of Confederate soldiers to black camp servants rather reminded me of Kipling’s “Gunga Din”, about a “native” water carrier attached to a British regiment in India. (How much Kipling knew is perhaps shown by the fact that “Gunga” would be a Hindu name derived gfrom the river Ganges, and “Din” , usually spelt “Deen” is a Muslim surname.)

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