Over the past few weeks I’ve made steady progress on my new manuscript, which is now tentatively titled, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Enduring Myth. The first chapter on the history of Confederate camp servants serves as what I hope will be a solid foundation for the rest of the study. No historian has been more helpful to me in framing this chapter than Eugene Genovese, especially the short book, Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South, which he co-authored with his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese.
The book offers a concise overview of those elements of slaveholding paternalism that the Genoveses have explored over the course of their career up to the moment of secession. They close with a brief analysis of the war years and even references a few examples of camp servants. This is where my study enters.
My goal in the first chapter is to outline the role that camp servants played in propping up the intellectual world of a slaveholding society. There is no denying that the mobilization of this specific group took place for reasons of necessity. In that sense they can be included among that much larger group of impressed slaves that supported the war effort on the state and federal levels. The critical difference, however, is that camp servants, in contrast with impressed slaves, were not nameless. They lived and worked in close proximity to whites beginning with their masters and likely interacted at times with members of the broader community.
Camp servants embodied the intellectual assumptions that framed the master-slave relationship over the course of the antebellum period. They served as a constant reminder for slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike of the perceived virtues of slavery, but that did not mean that the exigencies of war did not at the same time test it. In short, the war tested whether the paternalistic relationship that had evolved by the time of the war was genuine or tied together by a thread.
The war offered Confederates plenty of room to maneuver in how they assessed that relationship. Acts of apparent fidelity toward one’s master such as bringing water and ammunition onto the battlefield or securing the body in case of death took on increased importance. On the other hand acts of disloyalty had the potential to shake the very foundation of the slaveholder’s intellectual and emotional world. This is the history that over the past few years I’ve struggled to understand.
It is striking to consider the vast gulf that divides individuals and organizations today, who are committed to remembering camp servants as soldiers, with their Confederate forebears. The vast majority of the stories told about black Confederate soldiers involve individuals who were camp servants. The transition from camp servant to soldier is a very recent shift in public memory and it tells us a great deal about how Confederate heritage groups and other individuals have chosen to remember in order to reconcile themselves to the larger shifts in our collective memory of the war and slavery.
Confederate soldiers never faced this dilemma. They never made the mistake of referring to camp servants/slaves as soldiers because they didn’t need to do so. Their slaves embodied all of the virtues that they believed would contribute to Confederate victory. It would be a victory delivered not by black and white Confederate soldiers, but by a slave society. Slaves and masters at war embodied what might be dubbed, Confederate Exceptionalism. This hope survived right up to the very end of the war when the Confederate government finally authorized the enlistment of soldiers from the slave population.
The more time you spend reading the wartime accounts from officers of the slaveholding class the more you understand that what eventually occupied a crucial place in the Lost Cause narrative was already firmly in place by the end of the war. Stories of loyal slaves in Confederate camps dominated postwar accounts while the debate over arming slaves was all but forgotten. It’s the loyal slaves/camp servants who were welcomed back to Confederate soldier reunions and it was the loyal slaves/camp servants who were awarded pensions by former Confederate states by the turn of the twentieth century.
These stories came to embody the collective memory of Confederate Exceptionalism.