Over the past few days I’ve been working through wartime accounts of camp servants who took part in battles in one form or another. It’s a challenging topic for a number of reasons. As you might imagine wartime accounts authored by camp servants are next to impossible to find for the obvious reasons and the accounts of their masters must be treated with care. Postwar accounts by former slaves, in some cases written decades after the war, are even more difficult to interpret.
In dealing with the wartime accounts one thing I have noticed is that officers did not seem to make any assumptions about how their slaves would behave once a battle commenced. There is very little evidence that they intended for their servants to follow them onto the battlefield. I have found plenty of accounts of masters who specifically assigned their servants to guard their personal items, treat the wounded, bury the dead, assist doctors and a few that expected a meal to be ready once the battle ceased.
The one wartime account written by a camp servant that references the battlefield is very brief, but also revealing:
Tell them all I have been on the Battlefield where the Yankees was slain.
The letter was written by Stephen Moore to his wife Rachel from James Island, along the coast of South Carolina, on July 8, 1862. Stephen’s apparent literacy speaks to a complex relationship with his owners, the details of which are vague. This was news that Stephen wanted conveyed to everyone back home beginning with his family and extending to the other slaves as well. His reference to ‘slain Yankees’ perhaps suggest that he intended his first battlefield experience to confirm some level of identification with his masters and the rest of the unit, but there is no indication that Stephen viewed his battlefield exploits as reflective of loyalty to the Confederacy or unwavering fidelity to his master.
More importantly, there is no indication that he fired a weapon at Union soldiers.
It is likely that he viewed his participation in- and the dangers of the battlefield as an opportunity to display his manly virtues and as a way to earn respect from those back home. The information was likely intended to enhance his reputation as someone who stood out from the rest of the community based on a wholly unique set of experiences.
I am not denying that camp servants picked up rifles on occasion and took shots at Yankees. Glenn Brasher’s book on the Peninsula campaign points to numerous moments where blacks were spotted on the front lines, but their frequency is unclear as well as their position as impressed slaves as opposed to camp servants. I believe this distinction is important for a number of reasons.
There is evidence that suggests that officers were not always comfortable when confronted by camp servants on the battlefield, especially when engaged in an act that challenged their understanding of the master – slave hierarchy. Masters fought and behaved bravely on the battlefield while slaves were expected to serve. Apparent acts of bravery on the part of slaves threatened this careful balance. Officers sometimes internalized these moments by finding ways to poke fun at their slaves in an attempt to dismiss these demonstrations of manhood.
Interestingly, while former camp servants often exaggerated their role on the battlefield in postwar interviews for the WPA and in pension applications, Confederate veterans rarely highlighted their former slaves brandishing weapons and “killing Yankees” in the heat of battle. More often than not they focused on their faithful service and praised those servants who assisted their owners when wounded and who escorted the bodies of their masters home.
Anyway, just a taste of what I’ve been thinking about of late.