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.