Did Impressed Slaves Serve the Confederacy?

jake3

I want to quickly follow up on the last post about the UDC’s recent induction of an African American woman, whose ancestor was brought into the Confederate army as a camp servant. In the post I referenced the UDC’s guidelines for membership and speculated as to whether they might be interested in welcoming the descendants of the thousands of impressed slaves who toiled for the Confederate government throughout the war. Thanks to UDC member, Betty Giragosian, for the following comment.

Kevin, my African American friend joined the UDC on the record of her great grandfather who helped build the earthworks in Gloucester, Virginia. This was giving material aid to the Confederacy. Maybe his service was not on the battlefield, but it was service, nevertheless. She told me that when she saw the earthworks for the first time she burst into tears. She is proud and happy to be a member of the UDC and we are proud to have her. She is an asset to our organization. We have never barred African Americans from membership. Someone wonders why there is a push to gain membership of African Americans. I do not think this is, that there is a push. This is a different time and place. Why not give us credit for changing for the better.

While I appreciate the comment I believe it reflects a flawed understanding of the relationship between slaves and the Confederate government. I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating. White southerners who either volunteered or were drafted into the Confederate army served as citizens of a nation. We understand citizenship as involving a reciprocal obligation between the individual and state. The government protects the rights of the individual and maintains order and in exchange it may be necessary at certain times for citizens to come to the aid of the state in the form of military service. 

What is continually lost on people in this discussion is that slaves were not in a legal position to serve the Confederate government during the war. The impressed slave served his master, who in turn was obligated to provide “material aid” to the government in the form of his property.

On the subject of impressed slaves I can’t recommend Jaime Martinez’s book, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South, enough. What is so striking is that the thousands of slaves that were impressed were largely invisible because they did not have a claim on the government as did the enlisted soldier. Slaveowners struggled to maintain some sense of oversight of their property within the state, federal and military bureaucracy that oversaw the impressment process and the day-to-day activities of individual slaves. One of the reasons why the debate over black enlistment into the Confederate army was so divisive was because it would potentially place blacks in the same relationship to the Confederate government as whites.

This is a different time and place. Why not give us credit for changing for the better.

That might be, but the relevant history is static. Confederates were very clear as to the meaning of service during the war. There is a reason as to why the UDC has only recently opened its doors to African Americans. It could not have happened without distorting the relevant history that collapses the all too salient distinction between white and black/slave and free. Mildred Rutherford and her generation did not make this mistake. Perhaps we should acknowledge social/racial progress within the UDC as a result of these ceremonies, but it’s unfortunate that historical integrity has to be sacrificed.

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27 comments… add one

  • Betty Giragosian Dec 19, 2013

    Kevin, I am sure the man of whom I wrote must have been impressed into service. I cannot imagine that a slave would have voluntarily fought for the CSA. We cannot be sure of the circumstances, and never will, unless it were written down somewhere. We know that he gave aid to the Confederacy. That was the basis of his descendant’s joining the UDC. Giving aid is one criteria for membership. I don’t believe in the first 100 years of our organization that there were African American women seeking membership. We have all changed, for the better. I am going to ask ny friend if she knows of the circumstances.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 19, 2013

      Thanks for the follow up, Betty.

      I cannot imagine that a slave would have voluntarily fought for the CSA.

      It’s difficult to imagine because by definition slaves did not have the freedom to make such decisions.

      We know that he gave aid to the Confederacy.

      This only makes sense as long as you acknowledge that the individual in question had no choice as to whether he was going to give aid to the Confederacy. It would be more accurate to say that the Confederacy benefited from the work that slaves performed.

    • GDBrasher Dec 29, 2013

      The thing that breaks my heart here is that this woman took pride in the work of her great grandfather at Gloucester, but only to the extent that it showed his work for the Confederacy. As you know, my book reveals the role that those exact same fortifications, and the ones across the York river on the Peninsula, played in building northern support for emancipation. Oh how I wish that when she was looking at those works she had understood how his labors there ultimately helped lead to freedom for his people.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Dec 19, 2013

    I sense a critical difference here that’s more than a distinction.

    When we honor veterans (real soldiers, as recognized at the time), we don’t ask whether their service was voluntary or compelled, or if it was a sign of patriotism or a sign of something else (need for income, for example). We simply honor the soldier’s service, sometimes without looking too closely at motivation.

    So long as we understand that impressed slaves were not soldiers, then we have to recognize that their labor served the Confederacy. Representing the nature of the “service” is critical. How do we address other issues of coerced labor where the service provided by the labor should not be seen as an endorsement by the laborer of the cause that labor, willingly or not, assisted? Certain examples come to mind.

    If the SCV/UDC wishes to open their membership ranks to descendants of involuntary laborers who were clearly not recognized as soldiers at the time, that’s up to the organization in question. Misrepresenting that labor or the status of that laborer is another question altogether, as is drawing certain conclusions from the fact of such labor that serve present-day myths (if slaves worked for the Confederacy, then they endorsed the Confederacy, so the war had nothing to do with slavery, and so on).

    • Kevin Levin Dec 19, 2013

      Thanks for the comment, Brooks.

      We simply honor the soldier’s service, sometimes without looking too closely at motivation.

      It would be even more accurate to say that we honor their service to their country. In this case what we are recognizing is that obligation that all citizens owe to their country.

      So long as we understand that impressed slaves were not soldiers, then we have to recognize that their labor served the Confederacy.

      Agreed, though I recommend steering clear of referring to the word ‘serve’ since it all too often leads to confusion as to the nature of the service. I am reminded of Pete Carmichael’s preference for referring to these men as Confederate Slaves.

  • Robert Moore Dec 19, 2013

    “Confederates were very clear as to the meaning of service during the war.”

    I disagree, as that’s not entirely true, Kevin.

    “White southerners who either volunteered or were drafted into the Confederate army served as citizens of a nation. We understand citizenship as involving a reciprocal obligation between the individual and state. The government protects the rights of the individual and maintains order and in exchange it may be necessary at certain times for citizens to come to the aid of the state in the form of military service.”

    People might, today, understand this as such, but I would argue that it was not necessarily the way all of those who happened to wear gray understood it. The reciprocity was not a given, from the viewpoint of all of those who wore gray. “Citizens of a nation” sometimes meant “as understood by that nation”, but not by the man who was in the service of the same.

    As for the “invisible slave serving the Confederacy”, does Martinez discuss the slaveholder reimbursement legislation, for those slaves who died while in the service of the Confederacy?

    • Kevin Levin Dec 19, 2013

      Hi Robert,

      Point well taken. I am definitely oversimplifying things for the sake of argument and am perfectly willing to acknowledge that those who served in the ranks understood their service in numerous ways. Perhaps I should have stated that their presence in the army – whether volunteer or draftee – was the result of their legal status as citizen of the Confederacy – at least from the point of view of the government.

      Yes, Martinez goes into reimbursement legislation. You will find it to be particularly interesting.

  • AD Powell Dec 19, 2013

    Most people misunderstand the meaning of the word “slave.” They think it simply means someone who works very hard or works without pay. It’s more than that. A slave is someone who is socially dead. He or she has no legal or social obligations (that can be enforced) to anyone except the master or owner.
    Here’s a good book on the subject of slavery and social death:
    http://www.amazon.com/Slavery-Social-Death-Comparative-Study/dp/067481083X

  • Forester Dec 19, 2013

    Do you think that the nature of Southern historical memory could be changing?

    Perhaps the descendants of slaves and Confederates now see their history as something shared, rather than conflicting and opposite accounts? Western society in general is moving away from class-based thinking, and people of the future may view slaves and masters as one unified people. Royalty and commoners are both considered “English,” even though the people were once totally subject to their rulers (like slaves).

    “Confederate” may just become a general term like “English,” and under that definition, a slave is definitely part of “Confederate Heritage.” Just like how Confederates are part of the overall “American Heritage.” As long as slavery isn’t downplayed or denied, then blacks ought to be considered part of Confederate heritage. Modern historians recognize the Spartan Helots at Thermopylae as legitimate Greek soldiers (dispelling the old “300 Spartans” myth), even though they were considered slaves at the time.

    On a side note, I don’t like the long-standing gender segregation in these groups. I don’t want to join a “Sons” of Confederate veterans group…. I’d rather it just be merged into “United Descendants of Confederate Veterans” or something. And meetings with only men (or only women) just sound boring to me.

  • London John Dec 20, 2013

    Would it confuse the issue to consider work done by POW’s in eg WW2?

    • Matt McKeon Dec 20, 2013

      I think its a good parallel. If the Sons of the Imperial Army of Japan wanted to “honor” the Allied POWs who worked on the Burmese railroad for their “service” to the Empire of Japan, it would be a weird gesture.

      • Kevin Levin Dec 20, 2013

        The problem is that the UDC and SCV have a need to frame this “service” as reflecting some kind of belief in the Confederate cause. That is pure mythology.

      • Forester Dec 20, 2013

        It would be werid, Matt. But on the other hand, slaves and masters were part of the same country. Aren’t we talking about a modern black person choosing to join the UDC? If an American wanted to join the “Sons of the Imperial Army of Japan,” it would be strange but that’s his prerogative (assuming the Japanese group allows him to join).

        Now going around and placing Rebel Flags on black graves (when they have no evidence that the slave actually believed in their cause) …. that’s wrong. And I agree, it would be like putting Japanese flags on American graves.

        And Kevin …. yes, I see your point. The SCV and UDC are using impressed slave service as a “back door” way to slip Black Confederates back into the debate, since they can’t find tangible proof of black soldiers.

  • betty giragosian Feb 25, 2014

    Kevin, the UDChas never barred any race from membership. True, membership by African Americans was not sought. I believe our first members joined within the past 15 plus years.Now it is not an unusual event. Maybe we have become more appealing as an organization, if so,I am glad. If an ancestor gave material aid to the Confederacy, that is basis for membership. We have our criteria and this meets it. Our organization is satisfied.I related one story of membership. They vary. I told you about my friend and her great grandfather. There are surely other examples. I wrote you of one. She is an outstanding member. I am not free to further invade her privacy, but perhaps you might like to interview her. Getting back to my organization, we are not distorting history. You should not worry about us. Maybe if you studied up on what we do, you might like us. I thought we had covered all this month’s ago

    • Bob Huddleston Feb 25, 2014

      Of course, Betty, there are probably lots of blacks who qualify because of the Confederate military service of their ever so-great grandparents. The qualifying Confederate was not a BC but rather a 100% Anglo-American who engaged in miscegenation with slaves or free blacks pre- and post-bellum.

      BTW, my mother joined the DAR circa 1930 and I remember years later reading the application: it required proof of descent from a Revolutionary soldier – but the descent had to legitimate, thereby removing the possibility of descent from a 1770 African-American.

      • Betty Giragosian Feb 26, 2014

        Kevin, I never joined the DAR. However, a close relative joined on the material aid of her ancestor. It says on our applications that collateral or direct descent from a Confederate is required OR FROM one who has given MATERIAL AID TO THE CAUSE.. We have members who are not African Americans who joined on the basis of material aid. It is interesting to read of what that aid was, and we especially like to have such members. On the matter of misengenation–I have said the UDC has never denied anyone membership because of their race. As long as the requuirement is STATED ON THE APPLICATION, THAT IS ALL THE CANDIDATE NEED PROVE. I would not let this bother me, if I were you. We are satisfied with our requirements.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2014

          You are responding to Bob and not me.

          We’ve been over this question of “material aid.” Another word for it is forced labor. Whether you accept that or not tells me everything I need to know about how the UDC interprets slavery.

          • Betty Giragosian Feb 26, 2014

            Kevin, there was no place to direct my reply to you–maybe you did not wantt o hear from me. I did address my post to you by name. I will always respond to any remarks about the UDC. You have your interpretation about material aid
            We accept material aid, and that is that. I know the work my organization does, but am sure you prefer to think that we wear white sheets and dance around a blazing fire. We are much more than the ancestor worshipping group some like to believe we are. Demeaning remarks like yours will change nothing.

            Perhaps someday it will be proven beyond a doubt that there were black
            Confederate Soldiers. Perhaps they were Freedmen. I have heard tales that these facts were suppressed, again, only rumor. I really do not know how you guys will handle that–probably not too well.

            I don’t really know what you mean about interpreting slavery. It was what it was, awful. I think no one will deny that.

            • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2014

              I know the work my organization does, but am sure you prefer to think that we wear white sheets and dance around a blazing fire.

              Really? That’s the best you can do? Why not just admit that the UDC is now accepting the descendants of slaves that were forced to support the Confederacy in various capacities? I have absolutely no problem with that.

              • Betty Giragosian Feb 26, 2014

                Kevin, I can do a lot better than that, but it would not be printable.
                I don’t whether you like our practice of accepting members or not.
                I thiink this will be my last comment on your blog, and I am sure you are delighted with that. I personally am sick and tired of your steady berating of the south and the Confederacy. We do not need your approval and we certainly do not have to put up with your contempt.
                Surely you can do better than a constant flow of whining and smug superiority. I have noticed, however that you chose Virginia for your higher education.

                • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2014

                  So be it. I have no problem with the UDC admitting descendants of slaves who were forced to provide services that benefited the Confederacy. It’s called historical accuracy. You can choose to call whatever you want.

                  Take care Betty and best of luck.

                • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2014

                  P.S. Your argument basically comes down to the claim that black people gave “material aid” to their owners and their farming operation. I assume you would agree that this is somewhat vague and even a little dishonest.

                  • Betty Giragosian Feb 26, 2014

                    Kevin, I lied. Here I go again. How about the drafting of soldiers, north and south? Don’tyou think that maybe they were fighting under duress? Maybe they thought this was not their war, etc. Regardless, they were also compelled to give military service. We honour them. Why not the descendants of slaves who served in various ways? I feel that if the descendants of slaves are proud of their ancestors’ service, whatever it was, and if acceptable to the UDC,
                    then they are free to seek admitttance, and we are glad to have them. I am so proud ot these African Americans who do want to honour their grandfathers. There is nothing dishonest about their membership. The service of their ancestor’s has, in every case, been proven. We do not give out the information on members, or their heritage, or I would suggest that you make a study of it. These men served in various ways. I do belive in some cases, they were soldiers–remember the Freemen I hope that many more descendants will join us, in the future. Don’t be so judgemental of us. We are nice folks.

                    • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2014

                      Why not the descendants of slaves who served in various ways? I feel that if the descendants of slaves are proud of their ancestors’ service, whatever it was, and if acceptable to the UDC,
                      then they are free to seek admitttance, and we are glad to have them.

                      We are in complete agreement as long as the UDC openly acknowledges that these ladies are descended of slaves and not anything else unless the documents in a specific case show otherwise.What a slave was “compelled” to give was different on any number of levels from what free whites on both sides were often obligated to do given their relationship to the government. Slaves were “compelled” as a result of being owned. Let’s be clear about this.

                    • Betty Giragosian Feb 26, 2014

                      Bob and Kevin, the UDC has always acknowledged the descent from slaves of its African American members. Mrs. Rutherford was a magnificent woman, from all I hear. There is no way of knowing what she might do. Someone further up criticilzed my friend for bursting into tears when she saw the handiwork of her greatgrandfather. Perhaps
                      those thoughts didpass through her mind. i do not know. I have not read your book.

                    • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2014

                      Mrs. Rutherford was a magnificent woman, from all I hear. There is no way of knowing what she might do.

                      Yes there is. Read Karen Cox’s book on the UDC, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.

  • Bob Huddleston Feb 26, 2014

    Everyone needs to keep their voices down. If Mildred Rutherford hears our discussion, she is likely to rise out of her grave and smite down Betty and the other UDC members!

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