“I Have Been on the Battlefield”

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.

11 comments… add one
  • M.D. Blough Oct 5, 2015

    Kevin-I think you hit the nail on the head. For southern whites, particularly men, protecting white supremacy in the era of Jim Crow was as critical as it was in the days of slavery, if not more so. The reason I say, if not more so, is that, in the days of slavery, most blacks in the South were slaves and masters had almost unfettered powers over them. Free blacks were a small minority, always living on the edge and not in a position to make waves. After the war, whites were faced with maintaining white supremacy without the powers of the slave owner. It’s more complex than simple racism. It required whites to believe that the relationship of blacks, even where they formed the majority of the population, was the best possible one for BOTH races. Anything that attempted to put a black man on par with a white man was intensely threatening. Anyone who reads accounts from the 19th century South realizes how central the military experience, being a soldier, particularly on the battlefield where manly virtue and, in cases of being mortally wounded, piety could be displayed, to the Southern white male’s identity. Sharing that on the battlefield with someone who, even if the master was fond of his body servant/slave, would have, as Howell Cobb protested, been unthinkable. The “loyal slave” stories I’ve seen involve a “devoted” slave looking after the personal needs of the master, including going to great lengths to bring a wounded master or the body of a deceased master home. If you find the slave equivalent of even the “Molly Pitcher” type of story, I’ll be surprised.

    • Andy Hall Oct 6, 2015

      The “loyal slave” stories I’ve seen involve a “devoted” slave looking after the personal needs of the master, including going to great lengths to bring a wounded master or the body of a deceased master home. If you find the slave equivalent of even the “Molly Pitcher” type of story, I’ll be surprised.

      There are contemporary news accounts of camp servants grabbing a weapon in the middle of fierce fight, or picking off a careless Yankee every now and then — the latter usually framed almost as sport, the way you would describe a hunter making a particularly difficult shot. What these news accounts all have in common, though, is maybe so obvious as to be missed — they were news items, considered (for whatever reason) to be worth a few column-inches of space in the paper. They got attention because they were outside the norm, behavior that was (from the Confederate perspective) both laudable and worthy of note. That in and of itself underscores that combat activity by these men was the exception, rather than the rule.

  • David Oct 6, 2015

    Agree entirely M. D. I’m no historian, but I’ve read, (I lost count at 80), mostly southern diaries and journals, I’ve come across many accounts of man servants, (personal slaves). It seems that in most cases, sons of the plantation owner were given a slave at a very early age to do their personal bidding for his life. Women seemed to have the same. I’ve read accounts where they were about the same age, and also, if the main master died, their servant taking over the duties of his child. I’ve never read who made this decision. It seems that everything was social hierarchy. I read one recently where a private, (of a higher social ranking than his officers), refused an invitatIon to dine with them! It seems though, that if they had the money and clout to bring a servant to the field with them, they did. They wouldn’t of left home without him. They washed clothes, polished boots, cooked food, etc., and took care of a wounded or killed master. As M.D. says, bringing the body home seemed to be very important. In one, I remember that it was an order of the soldiers mother. I have never read where they took part in any battle. One slave got an honorable mention in a diary for bringing food to his master while the battle was in progress. Given the laws concerning guns in most slave states, I’d be surprised to ever find an account of a slave volunteering the information that he knew how to load or fire a weapon. Even if it was ok with the master, I can’t imagine he’d want anyone to know that he knew anything about firearms…..period. Couldn’t he have gotten his master into trouble in some cases? I’m not sure what the slaves punishment would of been, but chances are he wouldn’t of liked it. I can’t see any slave I’ve read about admitting they even knew what a gun was. I’ll keep a lookout for you, but I honestly don’t think that a slave purposely making it aware to anyone that they could shoot, much less taking a weapon onto a battlefield, ever happened. If it did, in my opinion, it certainly wouldn’t of been documented!

    • London John Oct 8, 2015

      Didn’t southern sportsman have slaves load their guns for them while shooting game?

  • kacinash Oct 6, 2015

    What is the context for Moore’s quote that you provided? Has he ever mentioned Northern soldiers before? Without knowing anything about the man or his world view, my initial take on that quote was somewhat different from yours. While I can see for sure the notion of proving masculinity by being on the battlefield (and not on a visit– his wording seems like he meant to suggest that he was there at the battle), the choice to add on “where the Yankees was slain” is of interest. Does he mention the dead to further illustrate the danger of the situation he faced? It is likely. But why specify only the Union dead? And why use the word “slain,” a word which seems to have some emotional resonance to it? It definitely is thought-provoking.

    Anyhow, thanks for sharing. I will have to get my hands on the book you referenced. I have never read any accounts of enslaved men in the war.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 6, 2015

      Great questions. I am the first person to admit that my interpretation is weak. Unfortunately, there is so little to go on.

  • lunchcountersitin Oct 6, 2015

    Kevin,

    You might be familiar with this gentleman; but if not, this might be of interest:
    Martin Jackson: Recollections of a Confederate Servant

    – Alan Skerrett

    • Kevin Levin Oct 6, 2015

      I am not so thank you very much for passing it along.

  • London John Oct 8, 2015

    Did slaves serve on the battlefield as stretcher-bearers?

  • Rosieo Oct 13, 2015

    How did slaves endure? Ability denied sickens one’s soul.

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