Slaveholding in Robert E. Lee’s Army

Glatthaar Table

The latest issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era (September 2016) includes Joseph Glatthaar’s Robert Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture, which compares the cultures in the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia. The essay includes a number of helpful graphs, including the one above, which shows that slaveholders were over represented in Lee’s army compared with the rest o the slave states.

Here is Glatthaar’s analysis from his essay:

Certainly one of the most powerful pieces of evidence for motivation among soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia was slaveholding. Southerners seceded largely to protect their property rights in slaves and their right to take that property (slaves) into the territories. Mississippi, for example, officially justified secession with the words “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery–the greatest material interest of the world.” Slaveholding had a powerful grip on Robert E. Lee’s army. While one in eight soldiers was a slaveholder, personal and family slaveholding essentially doubled the statistic for the slave states in general–totaling thee in every eight (37.2%) soldiers compared to one in five (19.9%). Four in ever nine soldiers (44.4%) lived in slaveholding households. Add to that those who had family members who were slaveholders, those who worked as overseers, and those whose business derived largely from slaveholders, and well over half fell into that category of attachment to slavery. Because of the overwhelming percentage of enlisted men compared to officers, 89.7% of all personal and family slaveholders in Lee’s army served exclusively as enlisted men–privates, corporals, and sergeants. Even poor whites supported slavery. Emancipation would result in economic competition from newly freed blacks. Racism reinforced that hostility by elevating poor whites and suggesting that someday, they, too, might be able to own slaves. [pp. 320-21]

For those of you familiar with General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse and its companion volume this analysis is nothing new.

It is worth raising in light of the popularity of the movie, Free State of Jones. This is not a criticism in any way of the movie, but is worth reminding people that slavery may have united white southerners across the Confederacy more than it worked to divide them in specific places such as Jones County.

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32 comments… add one
  • Mark Snell Aug 31, 2016 @ 4:04

    Also, racial misogamy was ingrained in white men (radical abolitionists excluded) on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, regardless of their socio-economic status.

  • London John Aug 30, 2016 @ 5:11

    “Even poor whites supported slavery. Emancipation would result in economic competition from newly freed blacks. Racism reinforced that hostility by elevating poor whites and suggesting that someday, they, too, might be able to own slaves. ”

    Didn’t racism mean that poor Whites didn’t want the Blacks to be free because they might have to mix with them? The expectation of owning slaves was just ordinary american optimism in a slaveholding society. Southern ideologues claimed that slavery did indeed elevate poor Whites by making not being a slave a sort of good. Some claimed the South was more democratic than the North because all non-slaves were equally members of a racial aristocracy.

  • Josh Liller Aug 27, 2016 @ 18:41

    Does Glatthaar draw his conclusions from a sample of the ANV or did he compile a complete list of everyone who served in the ANV and matched as many as possible? (Alfred Young counted heads for his statistical analysis of the ANV in the Overland Campaign.)

  • Andy Hall Aug 26, 2016 @ 8:03

    I don’t think “racism” as we think of it today is especially useful in discussing attitudes in the 1860s. It was largely a default condition; in the quote above it might be better to say, “ingrained assumptions of white superiority reinforced that hostility by elevating poor whites and suggesting that someday, they, too, might be able to own slaves.” Clunky, but more precise.

    • HankC Aug 31, 2016 @ 6:10

      I think I’d make a subtle change to your point to ““ingrained assumptions of whiteST superiority”.

      The, in their minds, ‘whitest’ (white Anglo-Saxon protestants) portions of society generally looked down their noses at Catholics, Irish, Mormons, Italians, Jews and others, assigning them various places, classes and castes in American society, relegating African-Americans to the lowest (‘mudsill’ according to Hammond).

      The difference between Northern and Southern societies is, of course , the crux of the conflict. Below the Ohio River, a black’s place was assumed to be slavery. Above, African-Americans had more freedom, but often/frequently/usually ‘not in my backyard’.

      As an endnote, I empathize with the young soldiers fighting on either side for their society despite their societal leaders intentions. I admire their courage, bravery and loyalty regardless of the political symbols thrust upon them.

      • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2016 @ 6:13

        The difference between Northern and Southern societies is, of course , the crux of the conflict. Below the Ohio River, a black’s place was assumed to be slavery. Above, African-Americans had more freedom, but often/frequently/usually ‘not in my backyard’.

        Christopher Phillips’s new book, The River Ran Backwards (Oxford University Press) muddies the waters on this significantly.

        • HankC Sep 1, 2016 @ 2:45

          Can you clarify the issues that Phillips muddies?

          • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2016 @ 3:09

            Without going into too much detail, Phillips suggests that unfree labor was a fluid category in the Middle Border. African Americans were forced to labor in Northern mines, indentured on lifelong contracts, and legally defined as second-class citizens through Black Codes.

      • Andy Hall Aug 31, 2016 @ 8:47

        Sure, I agree with that. We all have our biases. Although I’d still argue that the distance between a white yeoman farmer in Alabama or Tennessee and an enslaved field hand was still greater than that between a Boston Brahmin and someone like, say, Patrick J. Kennedy.

  • Patrick Jennings Aug 26, 2016 @ 7:10

    I like Glatthaar’s numbers and his research is sound. He does, however, have a tendency to push the noodle a bit far rather than let the facts carry the thesis. Slavery was without question central to any view of the war and why the South was fighting it and his argument that emancipation would have an economic impact is sound. But…the notion that “racism…suggesting that someday, they, too, might be able to own slaves” is almost preposterous at this juncture. More work needs to be done to prove this.

  • Jasper Smith Aug 26, 2016 @ 4:38

    I was in the 18th Michigan Infantry and fought Nathan Bedford Forrest and he said “If we ain’t fighting for slavery what the hell we fighting fur.”

  • Scott A. MacKenzie Aug 25, 2016 @ 21:06

    Glatthaar’s argument is so helpful in explaining Confederate motivations. Yes, the war was about slavery. A common faith in the institution kept them in the fight. His work ought to be read in comparison to Mark Weitz’s A Higher Duty and Michael Pierson’s Mutiny at Fort Jackson, among others. Those with greater connections to slavery, either by personal or family ownership or residing in a slave-rich area, tended to remain with the cause.

    I’d like to see a companion study of the western Confederate armies, to see how the Army of Tennessee compared to the ANV.

    • HankC Aug 26, 2016 @ 5:37

      Virginia attracted the first wave of organized Southern units.

      Regiments from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi were sent east in 1861 to help capture Washington and end the war. These men were their state’s elite and the most enthusiastic about secession and fighting to protect their slave property. They also came to be considered crack troops who fought with great élan.

      For comparison, no CSA units from Virginia, North or South Carolina fought at Shiloh and only 2 tiny Georgia units did.

  • Christopher Graham Aug 25, 2016 @ 15:26

    “Even poor whites supported slavery. Emancipation would result in economic competition from newly freed blacks. Racism reinforced that hostility by elevating poor whites and suggesting that someday, they, too, might be able to own slaves.”

    Is this passage footnoted?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 25, 2016 @ 15:32

      No. The endnote elaborates on the statistics referenced earlier in the paragraph.

      • Christopher Graham Aug 25, 2016 @ 16:26

        That’s not a claim, it’s a cliche, and should be dealt with as such.

        • Josh Liller Aug 25, 2016 @ 18:43

          Wealth in the antebellum South meant plantations and slave ownership. Sure, the majority of Southern farmers would never have any real chance of becoming wealthy, but why should they be constrained by reality? Reality doesn’t stop poor people in the 21st century from playing the lotto hoping to win big or from opposing higher taxes on the rich because they believe that someday they too might be rich.

          • Erick Hare Aug 26, 2016 @ 7:02

            James Henry Hammond is the perfect example of this socioeconomic mobility and ideals espoused in antebellum Southern society.

            James Henry Hammond came from a non-slaveholding family in South Carolina who went on to become one of the biggest slaveholders in the South before the Civil War and was best known for coining the phrase “King Cotton” as a South Carolina politician before the war.

            He rose to the pinnacle of Southern society before the war and consistently espoused this ideology which pervaded the South before, and during the war.

            • Margaret D. Blough Aug 26, 2016 @ 8:00

              Hammond left no doubt about it. In the same speech in which he proclaimed that cotton is King, he also included this passage:

              >>The Senate, as in Committee of the Whole, having under consideration the bill for the admission of the State of Kansas in the Union — Mr. HAMMOND said: . . .But sir, the greatest strength of the South arises from the harmony of her political and social institutions. This harmony gives her a frame of society, the best in the world, and an extent of political freedom, combined with entire security, such as no other people ever enjoyed upon the face of the earth. Society precedes government; creates it, and ought to control it; but as far as we can look back in historical times we find the case different; for government is not sooner created than it becomes too strong for society, and shapes and moulds, as well as controls it. In later centuries the progress of civilization and of intelligence has made the divergence so great as to produce civil wars and revolutions; and it is nothing now but the want of harmony between governments and societies which occasions all the uneasiness and trouble and terror that we see abroad. It was this that brought on the American Revolution. We threw off a Government not adapted to our social system, and made one for ourselves. The question is how far have we succeeded: The South so far as that is concerned, is satisfied, harmonious, and prosperous.

              In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves. We found them slaves by the “common consent of mankind,” which, according to Cicero, lex naturae est. The highest proof of what is Nature’s law. We are old-fashioned at the South yet; it is a word discarded now by “ears polite;” I will not characterize that class at the North with that term; but you have it; it is there; it is everywhere; it is eternal.

              The Senator from New York said yesterday that the whole world had abolished slavery. Aye, the name, but not the thing; all the powers of the earth cannot abolish that. God only can do it when he repeals the fiat, “the poor ye always have with you;” for the man who lives by daily labor, and scarcely lives at that, and who has to put out his labor in the market, and take the best he can get for it; in short, your whole class of manual laborers and “operatives,” as you call them, are essentially slaves. The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want to employment among our people, and not too much employment either. Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street in any of your large towns. Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, when you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South. We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity. Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves. None of that race on the whole face of the globe can be compared with the slaves of the South. They are happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from the intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations. Yours are white, of your own race; you are brothers of one blood. They are your equals in natural endowment of intellect, and they feel galled by their degradation. Our slaves do not vote. We give them not political power. Yours do vote, and being the majority, they are the depositaries of all your political power. If they knew the tremendous secret, that the ballot-box is stronger than “an army with banners,” and could combine, where would you be? Your society would be reconstructed, your government overthrown, your property divided, not as they have mistakenly attempted to initiate such proceedings by meeting in parks, with arms in their hands, but by the quiet process of the ballot-box. You have been making war upon us to our very hearthstones. How would you like for us to send lecturers and agitators North, to teach these people this, to aid in combining, and to lead them?<<

              "Cotton is king" Speech by Sen. James Henry Hammond of South Carolina to the United States Senate, March 4, 1858

            • HankC Aug 26, 2016 @ 8:25


              His ‘rise’ was *somewhat* bumpy as one of his ‘ideals’ was also serial incestuous adultery.

              • Erick Hare Aug 26, 2016 @ 9:33

                The reason I referenced Hammond was to provide an example, within the antebellum South, of the social hierarchy of the time, and the model Southern whites aspired to.

                Nobody is perfect we all have our flaws, but in this instance Hammond is one of the best examples of how the quote from Glaathar questioned earlier in this thread isn’t just a cliche, but a fact substantiated within the historical record from the time.

                • Christopher Graham Aug 26, 2016 @ 10:03

                  Hammond was an exception to the rule. Charles Bolton and others have documented the relative inability of poor/non slave- or landholding- whites to achieve any significant or lasting social mobility.

                  But Glatthaar’s quote is a cliche because it is a reflection of Wilbur Cash via Clement Eaton (someone correct me if I’m wrong here). It was a historiographic moment when (Frank Owsley aside) historians envisioned the white south as consisting of large planters and poor whites only. We now have a more capacious understanding of not only the yeomanry, but how the lived experience of ordinary whites was so intertwined with slavery (through economic partnerships, extended families, and slave hiring) that this binary of “don’t have slaves/want slaves” is meaningless as an explanation.

                  It also fails to take into consideration more recent work by scholars who have explored the language of political ideology, domesticity, and lived religion in how ordinary southerners defined the stakes, but have not found anything substantial regarding economic competition.

                  (And you’re right, Drew Faust’s book on Hammond is fantastic.)

                  • Erick Hare Aug 26, 2016 @ 13:37

                    By no means was I implying that the model Hammond exemplified within Southern society was universal or widespread throughout the South, large regions of the South clearly didn’t buy into the hierarchy propagated by the planter class in the South (ie West Virginia, Eastern Tennessee, parts of Arkansas, North Carolina and Mississippi).

                    However, the planter class certainly held great influence in the rest of the South and that hierarchy was the ideal for the majority of whites living in plantation regions of the South. Fear tactics were used by planters to keep the majority of the South, at least initially, aligned with their ideology.

                    Otherwise Lincoln’s hopes early in the war for Southern Unionist sentiment to overwhelm Secessionist curved would have had much more viability and traction than it actually did in the first couple of years of the war.

                    • Kevin Levin Aug 26, 2016 @ 14:20

                      What do you see as examples of “fear tactics”?

                    • Christopher Graham Aug 26, 2016 @ 16:30

                      [Response to question below]

                      Don’t know what Erick sees as fear tactics, but I’m thinking of things like the violent vigilante responses to occasional religious dissent against the prevailing mood on slavery in places like piedmont North Carolina (in 1850-1852) and east Texas (1858?). Elsewhere, Steven West and Barton Meyers have documented secessionists’ armed intimidation at polling places in 1860 and beyond.

                    • Kevin Levin Aug 26, 2016 @ 16:34

                      Thanks. I was aware of the intimidation tactics at polling places, but haven’t thought about it in the context of religious dissent.

            • Erick Hare Aug 26, 2016 @ 9:53

              Also for those interested in learning more about James Henry Hammond Drew Gilpin Faust, author of “This Republic of Suffering”, wrote an excellent biography on Hammond titled “James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery”.


          • BPS Aug 27, 2016 @ 7:25

            I think it was WJ Cash in “Mind of the South” that detailed how many southern planters were only a generation or so removed from the log cabin. Upward mobility (for whites) was part and parcel of the drive for more land–many white southerners envisioned taking Cuba or other parts of south America and adding it to the confederacy. The ultimate self-made man of the Civil War was Nathan Bedford Forrest, born dirt poor, but a millionaire when the war began.

  • AD Powell Aug 25, 2016 @ 14:05

    This incident was not depicted in the movie “Gettysburg.” I wonder why.

    Old Pete, “Slave Raids” and the Gettysburg Campaign

    Confederates’ ‘slave hunt’ in North a military disgrace

  • William Satterwhite Aug 25, 2016 @ 14:05

    Just wondering, is it possible these numbers skewed by generals and other officers like Wade Hampton who where major slave owners and who through inheritances were related to more slave owners vs the more “typical” foot soldier as represented within “… Jones”?

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