The Esprit de Corps of Confederate Camp Servants

Slavery, Soldiers

Glad to see that so many of you found this morning’s post to be of interest. There is so much to unpack in the Caffey book regarding the presence of camp servants with the Army of Northern Virginia.  This passage is of particular interest to me.

Did you ever remark our servants on a march? They make me laugh. Soon as the word ‘march’ is whispered abroad, these fellows bundle up their traps, and get them into the wagons, by some sort of sleight of hand, for I know that my baggage, with ‘little tricks’ added, far outweighs the authorized sixty pounds — a captain’s allowance. After safely stowing away all they can, the cooks shoulder some large bundle of curiosities of their own, and with a saucepan, skillet, or frying pan, all march some fifty yards in front of the band, whistling and singing, forming in regular or irregular files, commanded by some big black rogue who, with a stick and a loud voice, enforces discipline, among his heavy-heeled corps. And thus they proceed far ahead, monopolizing all attention as we pass through towns and villages, grinning and singing as they go, and frequently dressed up in the full regimentals of some unfortunate Yankee or other.

First, here is one example that potentially helps to explain why so many Union soldiers and other observers claimed to have sighted entire companies and even regiments of blacks in the Confederate army.  More interesting, however, is the question of why camp servants were allowed to march together in what appears to have all the trappings of a distinct unit in the Confederate army. This is pure speculation based on my extensive reading into the primary and secondary sources so feel free to disagree.

We know that individual camp servants functioned in small groups within companies.  They worked together to complete specific chores, especially washing and cooking so it’s not surprising to find these men bonding with one another.  Marching as a group not only deepened those ties with one another, but gave the men a sense that they were a distinct part of the army itself.  In other words, it encouraged a sense of belonging.  The passage above points to unofficial ranks, which suggests that these men may have been disciplined by one another.  Confederates likely understood that the uniforms and marching together would have tied their slaves more closely to the army and even encourage them to stay rather than run away.  This would have benefited the Army of Northern Virginia given its proximity to the Army of the Potomac through much of the war and especially when it was on march in Maryland in 1862 and Pennsylvania the following summer.

Caffey suggests that the discipline exerted by servants may have been more severe than that of their masters.

I know an instance of a boy who ran from the Eighteenth Mississippi, just before Manassas, July, 1861. He was recaptured during the engagement; for the Yankees putting him in the front, together with other runaways, made him very uneasy, so he slipped into our lines again, but was seized by two colored men, who observed the manoeuvre, and was handed over to his master. His owner refused to see him, and the general wish of our servants was, that he should be hung or shot for a traitor! He was given over to them, and met a death at their hands more violent than any white person’s anger could have suggested. Incidents of this kind, however, illustrative of the colored people’s loyalty to the South, are too numerous and tedious for enumeration.

What better than slaves disciplining themselves.  It goes without saying that at no point does Caffey shift from describing these men as slaves to soldiers.  In fact, Caffey, like others, was entertained by these men on march.  “They make me laugh.”  What the author illustrates is the extent to which the challenges of camp life, march, and even battle stretched the master – slave relationship. We can read into this account what we want.  There is plenty here to highlight the narrow and self serving interpretations found on hundreds of black Confederate websites.

In the end, what we can see, if we pay careful attention, is how the Army of Northern Virginia practiced slavery.

7 comments… add one

  • Brendan Bossard May 22, 2013

    No matter how many accounts like this one that I read, I am never prepared for the condescending attitude of the writer. It always disturbs me. Only the morally blind sees nothing wrong with treating another human being like an amusing pet, or a junkyard dog. It also saddens me to know that there are still those who believe as the writer of this account did 150 years ago.

  • Betty Giragosian May 22, 2013

    Very interesting articles–both of them. Fascinating, really.

  • Daryl Black May 23, 2013

    The description of the large mass of slaves marching together reminds me of descriptions of dozens of slaves walking together to rural churches in the east Georgia cotton-belt. Before Turner’s Rebellion, the practice of slaves from various plantations gathering to walk to church was common. The white leadership broke this up in late 1831 and it is unclear if the practice was re-instated later. However, large, all black churches controlled by black deacons and preahcers existed in Augusta dating to the 1790s (such churches also existed in many southern towns). And by the late 1840s there were independent black churches in the rural districts. So the practice of slaves and free-blacks gathering in autonomous space and exerting discipline (official church discipline in these cases) was a part of everyday life in the decades before secession. This did not change their status as slaves and their subjection to the laws and customs of slavery. The system of coercion and force was complicated, sometimes contradictory, and always contingent.

    • Kevin Levin May 23, 2013

      Hi Daryl,

      Thanks so much for passing this along. You said: “The system of coercion and force was complicated, sometimes contradictory, and always contingent.” Couldn’t have said it any better.

  • Brad May 23, 2013

    This may be a stretch but the discipline by fellow slaves mentioned in the excerpts reminds me somewhat of the Jewish ghetto police (Jüdische Ghetto-Polizei, Jüdischer Ordnungsdienst) organized by the Nazis in the Jewish ghettoes in WW II.

  • TF Smith May 26, 2013

    Simple explanation – human beings don’t move well en masse, and movement in time is pretty much the only way to guarantee that a given group can be moved from Point A to Point B in a timely manner…so moving in step no more provides the designation of “soldier” than being part of a marching band or kindergarten class on a field trip.

    • Kevin Levin May 26, 2013

      Sure, but that doesn’t quite capture much of the detail of this account.

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