“I Tore His Back and Legs All to Pieces”
I have a couple of accounts of the whipping of camp slaves during the war, but nothing that comes close to the brutality illustrated below. Masters punished their camp slaves for any number of reasons, but it almost always came back to trying to maintain a difficult balance between the assertion of authority and slave privilege in an environment that differed dramatically from home.
Thanks to Ken Noe for sharing this letter from Lieutenant John B. Evans of the 53rd Georgia, which was written to his wife on December 2, 1864.
Mollie I am just through whipping Joe, I give him about four hundred lashes. I made him pull off all his clothes I tied his hands and feet. I then made him lie down on his blanket. I drove two stocks in my house and stretched him out full length, I think I give at least four hundred lashes, the reason I whipped him so was we caught him carrying off our meat to they [sic] soldiers. Mollie you better believe I tore his back and legs all to pieces. I was mad enough to kill him. — [John B. Evans Papers 1862-1865, Duke University Special Collections]
A couple things stand out once you get beyond the violent details. First, it was written in late 1864 at a time when many argue the presence of camp slaves had drastically declined. Even though I do not take a firm position on this in the book, I have my doubts that this was the case.
The reference to his “house” suggests that the punishment was carried out in isolation from the rest of the camp. I don’t want to make too many assumptions about the availability of meat in December 1864, but I suspect that Joe may have been punished for trying to make some money through its sale to the other soldiers. Camp slaves found a number of ways to make extra money in camp, some of which was with the approval of their owners and in other cases it was carried out in secret.
As to why he felt a need to share such detail with his wife? Evans may have owned one or two additional slaves. Perhaps he hoped to have this account shared with his other slaves as a means to maintain his authority at a time when tens of thousands had already run away or showed defiance through other means.
Final thought: We often hear that most enlisted men in the Confederate army didn’t own slaves and that therefore they had no interest in its perpetuation or defense. This and other accounts serves as an important reminder that these men interacted with slaves every day of the war. Confederate armies were slaveowning institutions and their continued function depended, in large part, on their presence.
The more you read about impressed slaves and camp slaves the more you begin to understand that the distinction between slaveowners and non-slaveowners makes little sense within the context of the army.