The most recent issue of The Civil War Monitor contains a letter-to-the-editor about a recent essay of mine on Confederate camp servants [Spring 2013]. From Mr. John H. Whitfield:
While the article was enlightening on the issue of enslaved Africans who were wartime “body servants,” it presented a rather narrow view of the panoply of roles in which the enslaved were critical to the Rebel war effort. For instance, the impressment of slaves, authorized throughout the Confederacy in 1862, sent countless men to construct earthworks at various strategic locations.
Mr. Whitfield is absolutely spot on regarding the place of enslaved blacks in the Confederate war effort. There are a number of excellent studies that examine these various roles, including books by Glenn David Brasher, Joseph Glatthaar, and Bruce Levine. Those of you with an interest in this topic will definitely want to check out Jaime Martinez’s forthcoming book, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South, which will be out with UNC Press in December.
My article focused specifically on body servants because they occupy a unique place not only in our understanding of the Confederate war effort, but more importantly, in our understanding of the end of slavery. While difficult to get at, accounts left by Confederate officers of their servants at war opens a window into the end of slavery. We literally see it unwind. The stories contained in this article hopefully shed light on the extent to which the master-slave relationship was stretched owing to the exigencies of war and ultimately severed permanently in the accounts of missing slaves.
In contrast with the thousands of nameless impressed slaves we know a great deal about the experiences of body servants even if we must rely heavily on accounts penned by their masters. These men left their mark during the war and these were the men who were remembered during the postwar period by their former masters. They came to occupy a central place in the myth of the Lost Cause as opposed to the thousands of impressed slaves, who have all but been forgotten. Finally, it is the body servants who in more recent years are now being remembered not simply as loyal slaves, but as brave black Confederate soldiers. In short, the story of body servants occupies an important place in our collective memory of the Civil War.
Hope that answers your concern, Mr. Whitfield. The essay is a shortened version of the first chapter in a book project devoted entirely to the history and memory of Confederate camp servants. Thanks for taking the time to read the article.