This morning The New York Times published an interesting piece that raises the question of whether ‘interracial love was possible’ in the South during the Civil War-era. The story will likely raise strong feelings that either affirm or deny the possibility of genuine other-regarding emotions between master and slave during this period. The very question demands careful attention to how we interpret the relevant historical context and the language we employ to describe the master-slave relationship.

Reading it reminded me of my own struggles describing the relationships between masters and camp slaves throughout the Civil War. I did my best to try to explain how the exigencies of war stretched and challenged the boundaries and expectations that both parties understood at the war’s outset. The biggest challenge was having to rely overwhelmingly on the masters’ perspective in describing this relationship, especially in those instances involving claims of other-regarding concern between the two parties.

This problem of interpretation was most pronounced in cases of camp slaves rescuing their masters on the battlefield, escorting a dead body home, and in cases where one or both parties fell ill. I never lost sight of the fact that violence and control defined the master-slave relationship, but on a number of occasions I was forced to acknowledge the possibility of genuine other-regarding concern.

It should come as no surprise that the publication of this book is likely going to upset the neo-Confederate community and those who still embrace the Lost Cause. But I also wonder whether I will be labeled a slave apologist or worse as a result of even suggesting the possibility of feelings of mutual care, empathy, and sympathy between master and slave.

I guess we will have to wait for Fall 2019 to find out.

About Kevin Levin

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19 comments add yours

  1. Those of us who know you, Kevin, know your interest is in scholarship and you have no personal agenda either Lost Cause or slave apologist. I am very much looking forward to this new work on an incredibly interesting but clearly difficult subject.

  2. I think masters could ‘love’ their slaves the same way they loved a good horse or dog. You might sit up all night with a sick horse, but still ride it to death to save your own skin. Not like a friend you might be willing to die for – the slave existed for the master’s convenience and not vice versa.

    • I have one example of a slaveowner whose care of his sick camp slave was clearly predicated on the treatment received earlier in return. You make points that I kept in mind as well throughout the research process and yet this man’s perception of his slave appears to go beyond that of a “good horse or dog.” Thanks for the comment.

    • That’s a good point. Anyone ever hear of a white Confederate solder braving enemy fire to drag his wounded camp servant off the battlefield, or taking a furlough to escort the company cook’s body back to the old home place?

    • I have to take exception with this, because such comments imply that every master held the same monolithic sentiment. While many certainly treated enslaved people no better than a “horse or dog,” almost all knew and conceded there was a difference. This is evident across the spectrum of Southern society. They did not view the enslaved – men, women, and children – like animals and to say otherwise is not being intellectually honest. Sadly, the forced relationships between white men and enslaved women reinforces that very fact.

      Moreover, I would argue that a master who owned one slave, let’s say, versus a master who owned dozens is simply a different dynamic on multiple levels. And like people today, almost every person is different in how they feel, communicate, and treat others. Could there have existed emotion, i.e. empathy, like we might feel today? Of course not because they existed in a plane of reality that is nothing like ours. But was there some sort of genuine human emotion between enslaved and free? Perhaps, and if so we will never really understand it.

      It may be a poor example, but my grandparents had a husband-wife relationship that is not at all like what exists today, at least for the most part. They were also products of their time, and today my grandfather would be accused of being sexist. But did she love him? I know for a fact she did.

  3. It strikes me that one other explanation for slaves feeling attachment toward slaveowners could be a case of Stockholm Syndrome. In a war zone, where the threat of imminent death would, in many cases, be a stronger motivator than the possibility of freedom, viewing the slaveowner as a benevolent protector would not be an entirely unreasonable reaction.

    • Perhaps, but keep in mind that the majority of time spent between master and slave was not in a war zone or battlefield. It was in camp.

  4. I know at least a couple of the sources you are referring to, and anyone that would label you a “slave apologist” would have to be someone that refuses to see complexity in not only history, but in human emotions. And as we know, human emotions are often heightened in wartime, and very frequently do not seem to make sense. Just like any other type of relationship, the master-slave relationship was a complex one that no serious thinker or scholar should try to force into a preconceived “one size fits all” interpretation. But as you know well, there are people out there that do that with, on both sides of an agenda.

  5. In “The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White”by Henry Wiencek (St. Martin’s Press the author describes a pre-Civil War relationship between Robert Hairston and a slave, Elizabeth, with whom he is described as living as husband and wife Not only that, but they had a daughter who Hairston openly acknowledged as his child. On his deathbed, Hairston executed two consecutive wills freeing his daughter and leaving, in the first will, the bulk of his considerable estate to her and, in the second, he left everything to her. The white Hairstons managed to cheat her out of it, despite the efforts of the nephew who drafted the first will to protect her and her mother. It’s a very complex story that is actually carried on in how the nephew lived his life so I can only refer you to the book for more. I should add that I actually worked for many years with a woman, a D.Ed. who was in charge of our HR matters, who was born into the Black branch of the Hairston family and she was satisfied with the book.

    I can’t say such relationships were anything but very rare, especially one which was conducted so openly. The reaction of white society was clearly one of rage towards any white who challenged the social hierarchy and absolute refusal, with the cooperation of the legal system, to admit that the partner and the offspring of such relationships had any claim to their fatheTrs’ estates, even when the father tried to convey an inheritance

    • I enjoyed the book as well. Even though it is only briefly referenced in the movie Free State of Jones I appreciated the focus on the trial of Newt Knight’s grandson in the 1940s. Just recently watched it again.

    • There is a similar situation down my family tree—a Leonard Briscoe Compton lived openly with his slave and when he died his brother John grabbed most of his estate and the court case went all the way to the Supreme Court—John won mostly, but Leonard’s children received part as they were not slaves. John also had black children but that was on the down-low (until DNA outed his trysts 100+ years later).

  6. In any institution involving hundreds of thousands of people over a period of years, you can probably find examples of anything.

    But the power disparity between master and slave was so great, how is true affection(as opposed to pretended) possible?

  7. To put it another way: The server at Dunkin’ Donuts hoped I would have a nice day. Imagine what I could get her to say if I could sell her children.

  8. Careful, careful, folks. Don’t let discussions like this undermine your pervasive hatred of white Southerners and your bedrock belief in diabolical, Southern white evil. It’s what you live for!

    Andy, if the scenario you describe ever happened, you can bet it would have been suppressed out of existence after the war. Or, if it made it through, it would end up being ridiculed and trashed by people like you on your fake “civil war” blog, especially if it was handed down through the generations of a family. Our families cannot be trusted to tell the truth, so if some academic “historian” doesn’t relate the incident, it didn’t happen. Just look at how you floggers trashed Ann DeWitt and Mattie Clyburn because they did wrong-speak — spoke forbidden words.that did not portray white Southerners as the spawn of the devil….

  9. Regarding the concern you express in the last paragraph, I wish more people were willing and able to engage with history without injecting their present-day agendas into it. Uncovering evidence of affection and loyalty between some masters and slaves in a culture that involved millions of people should hardly be surprising, nor would it undermine the basic facts of slavery’s evils. Like you, I hope people will actually read your book before commenting on it and do so with open minds and respect for a trained historian’s research and conclusions.

  10. “The biggest challenge was having to rely overwhelmingly on the masters’ perspective in describing this relationship”. Quite. I think it would have been quite impossible for slaves to say or record what they really thought, so maybe this question is just inaccessible to history?

  11. There is nothing unusual or unnatural in human history about people of very unequal social and/or legal status falling in love or showing a marriage-like devotion to each other and their children.

    Stafford’s career was fairly typical for his time and place; his personal life was not. He never married, but fathered six children by Elizabeth Bernardey, a mulatto slave nurse. Bullard’s discussion of Stafford’s decision to move his family to Groton, Connecticut―and freedom―before the Civil War

    https://www.amazon.com/Robert-Stafford-Cumberland-Island-Planter/dp/0820317381/

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