This is one of the most unusual accounts that I have ever come across about Confederate camp slaves. It is also one that I am struggling with how – if at all – to utilize. The account comes from Battle-Fields of the South: From Bull Run to Fredericksburg. This 2-volume work was published between 1863 and 1864 and written by an “English Combatant.” The writer supposedly served in a Mississippi regiment and saw action in Virginia. His account is supplemented with accounts from other soldiers.
This particular account reportedly took place before First Manassas.
It is certainly a hair raising scene, but is there any truth to it? I should first point out that this account is cited in numerous studies from Bell Wiley’s Southern Negroes to Ervin Jordan’s Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia. Other passages can be found in books about the battle.
In a recent blog post, Al Mackey questioned the overall value of the book. It’s worth reading and he definitely deserves some kind of medal for making it through both volumes. Al’s close reading of the text leaves little doubt that one should approach it with a good deal of caution and skepticism.
This certainly captures my initial response to the excerpt above. I have never heard of Union soldiers placing escaped slaves in harm’s way as described by the author. My first move was to look for any corroborating evidence, but I came up empty. A fellow historian and expert on the battle and the relevant primary sources confirmed my suspicions.
That takes care of the Union side, but what about the description of the execution of a camp slave at the hands of his fellow slaves? I am unaware of any corroborating evidence among Confederate sources related to the battle. The scene is framed as a common expression of “loyalty to the South,” but it can’t be dismissed for that reason alone.
With all of that said, I am still left with the following question: Of all the ways to describe slave loyalty, why sketch out such a violent scene that pits slave against slave? Assuming that it is a fictitious scene, how did the author even come to imagine it?
I have read a number of other accounts that suggest that camp slaves organized themselves around an unofficial hierarchy and that certain communal bonds developed during the war. Is it possible that these men viewed this escaped camp slave as a betrayal that deserved punishment?
Even with all of the problems in this account I am still not ready to toss it aside. Any thoughts?