An Army of Slaves

One of the things that researching and writing Searching for Black Confederates has done is shifted how I think about slavery and the Confederate army. More specifically, it has forced me to reconsider how to approach the relationship between the Confederate soldier and slavery.

Historians such as James McPherson have written extensively about the defense of slavery as a motivating factor for Confederate soldiers by citing letters and diaries. References to slavery have helped historians to better understand why soldiers joined, why they reenlisted as well as other topics such as Confederate nationalism. Many in the neo-Confederate heritage community and others typically respond by citing the percentage of enlisted men who owned slaves. The assumption being that if they didn’t personally own slaves they couldn’t have possibly had any interest in defending the “peculiar institution.”

“Grim Harvest of War” by Bradley Schmehl

Historian Joseph Glatthaar shifts the focus slightly in his examination of the Army of Northern Virginia by looking not simply at slaveowning Confederates, but enlisted men from slaveholding families. Both McPherson and Glatthaar have shed important light on this subject, but in the hands of both slavery often comes across as abstract or removed from much of the day-to-day experience in Lee’s army and elsewhere.

But what happens when we fully appreciate that Confederates interacted in close quarters with enslaved people every day? They did so in camp, on the march, in hospitals, and even on the battlefield. Instead of simply inquiring into the ways that slavery may have motivated Confederates at different points during the war, we need to start asking how close interaction with enslaved people shaped their understanding of the war. We need to begin to see the Army of Northern Virginia and other Confederate armies as armies of slaves.

In September 1862 Dr. Lewis Steiner reported the following about the make-up of Lee’s army as it moved through Maryland:

The most liberal calculations could not give them more than 61,000 men. Over 3,000 negroes must be included in this number. These were clad in all kinds of uniforms, not only in cast-off or captured United States uniforms, but in coats with Southern buttons, State buttons, etc. These were clad in all kinds of uniforms, not only in cast-off or captured United States uniforms, but in coats with Southern buttons, State buttons, etc. These were shabby, but not shabbier or seedier than those worn by white men in the rebel ranks. Most of the negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabres, bowie-knives, dirks, etc. They were supplied, in many instances, with knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, etc., and were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederacy Army. They were seen riding on horses and mules, driving wagons, riding on caissons, in ambulances, with the staff of Generals, and promiscuously mixed up with all the rebel horde.

Notice that Steiner never once referred to these men as soldiers. What he observed was an army operating on the backs of enslaved labor, from uniformed body servants or camp slaves to teamsters and other impressed workers. What is important to acknowledge is that these men were fully integrated into the army as enslaved labor.

According to Kent Masterson Brown, Lee’s army may have included as many as 10,000 enslaved people when it arrived at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.

I tried my best to understand the relationship between Confederate officers and their camp slaves in the book, but I am left with numerous questions about how the presence of thousands of slaves impacted the men serving throughout the army.

  • Did the rank-and-file acknowledge the crucial role that slaves played in maintaining the organization and fighting integrity of the army?
  • What responsibilities did soldiers assume in maintaining control of the army’s enslaved population?
  • How did soldiers respond to the large number of runaway slaves following campaigns such as Gettysburg?
  • What cultural significance did slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike attach to the presence of slaves in the army?

These are just a few of the many questions that I am left with. I’ve always maintained that it is important to acknowledge that Confederate armies functioned as the military arm of a government whose goal was the protection and expansion of slavery and white supremacy.

Of course, the irony is that it was an army of slaves that ultimately helped to place the Confederacy in a position where it had a chance of achieving this goal on more than one occasion during the war.

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my forthcoming book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Pre-order your copy today.

18 comments… add one
  • MikeC Apr 2, 2019 @ 13:59

    Woodward addressed some of those questions in Marching Masters.

  • Nora Carrington Apr 2, 2019 @ 22:07

    This oddly makes me feel marginally better about the raft of contemporary folks who’ve claimed slaves were eager to defend the Confederacy; so eager they “signed up” as it were, given slaves could not enter into contracts. I figured it was early-onset Trumpism, but it may be only wishful thinking combined with mistaken oral history.

    • Andy Hall Apr 5, 2019 @ 14:42

      It clarifies a great deal about the Confederate “heritage” movement when you realize that, at it’s core, it’s about promoting and reinforcing a shared, modern-day political/cultural/religious identity. It’s about imagining their ancestors 150 years ago as being just like themselves, and (in turn) taking validation from that imagined inheritance.

  • Msb Apr 2, 2019 @ 23:34

    “The assumption being that if they didn’t personally own slaves they couldn’t have possibly had any interest in defending the “peculiar institution.””
    Of course this is a ridiculous argument, particularly when one remembers that pro-slavery advocates argued explicitly that the system engaged and benefitted every man with a white skin, by making social status dependent on color.
    Thanks for another thoughtful post.

  • Shane Anderson Apr 3, 2019 @ 5:03

    3000 is only 5% of 61,000. How many of those 61,000 men do you think actually interacted with or even saw one of that 5% on any sort of regular basis?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 3, 2019 @ 5:17

      First, this is the number that Steiner shared. The actual number could have been higher, though it is difficult to know given the condition of the Army of Northern Virginia in September 1862. As to your question, it’s difficult to know the nature of and extent of the interaction. Keep in mind that slaves functioned in a wide range of roles that were vital to the performance of the army.

    • Andy Hall Apr 4, 2019 @ 5:01

      “How many of those 61,000 men do you think actually interacted with or even saw one of that 5% on any sort of regular basis?”

      Steiner himself addressed that when he wrote that the African American men “were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederacy Army. They were seen riding on horses and mules, driving wagons, riding on caissons, in ambulances, with the staff of Generals, and promiscuously mixed up with all the rebel horde.” In Steiner’s view, no one in the Confederate army at Frederick could’ve missed them, because they were present and conspicuous in every part of it.

      Steiner’s account has to be taken with some caveats, particularly since he was a civilian with little or no military experience, so his estimates of numbers and specific roles of the men he saw are subject to question. But nonetheless, there’s every reason to believe that Steiner was reporting what he saw and what he believed he’d witnessed.

      • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2019 @ 5:18

        I completely agree. Important reminder re: Steiner’s civilian status.

  • Mike Hawthorne Apr 3, 2019 @ 15:27

    It would be interesting to have figures on the literacy rates of the Confederate rank and file, to get an idea of how many could have left written opinions if they had wished to.

  • Mike Apr 3, 2019 @ 16:53

    Analyzing the Civil War or Slavery in a 21st century point of view is useless and smells of an agenda. That someone would mention Trump in this conversation proves my point. Saying the Civil War was fought to preserve Slavery is as misguided as saying it was fought over states rights. Much to complicated for one letter or book.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2019 @ 0:23

      Saying the Civil War was fought to preserve Slavery is as misguided as saying it was fought over states rights.

      Right, let’s just ignore what Confederates themselves said about the war.

  • fundrums Apr 4, 2019 @ 7:58

    I’ve always been interested in how many slaves stayed with the families that they served after the war. I’m primarily speaking of the nannies and house servants who may have had a closer relationship with their owners family and continued that relationship. That said, this could also be said for those who served their masters in the army while on campaign. It seems hard to believe but there could have been bonds that were formed between them. Of course there is no way to tell but I’m sure there were instances that this was true.

    Michael Aubrecht

    • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2019 @ 9:20

      I’m primarily speaking of the nannies and house servants who may have had a closer relationship with their owners family and continued that relationship.

      It’s a question worth pursuing, but I do think it is important to frame it around the very limited opportunities that formerly enslaved people had in the postwar South.

      It seems hard to believe but there could have been bonds that were formed between them.

      I actually pursue this to a certain extent in the book. I think it is important to remember that body servants (camp slaves) shared faced many of the same hardships during the war. Of course, any attempt to get at the complexity of this relationship must be done through the lens of the master-slave hierarchy.

    • Mike Furlan Apr 10, 2019 @ 8:35

      “I’ve always been interested in how many slaves stayed with the families that they served after the war.”

      There is a meme here, “One does not simple walk into freedom.” Even if you did walk, (after being pulled off the train, because “black”) you might not be allowed to board the steamship to get passage across the river again because “black.” Also too, if you owed your old master a dollar, there is another reason you couldn’t leave.

      “Southroners” wanted to keep “their” labor force after the war.

      Furthermore most Yankees were not exactly welcoming, to put it mildly.

      In short, unless the local white folks were not tying to kill you right now, you might logically decide to make the best of your really bad situation.

  • fundrums Apr 5, 2019 @ 3:03

    Kevin, I should know this from my own work but excuse my brain fart it’s early and I wanted to comment. Did the whites that held the same roles as the black camp slaves (cooks, teamsters etc.) get pensions equal to those who fought?

    Michael Aubrecht

    • Kevin Levin Apr 5, 2019 @ 3:20

      That’s a question that you would think I should be able to answer, but unfortunately I cannot. My guess is that it depended on the state in question. The amount allocated for former body servants in Mississippi, for example, was very limited. This was true in other states as well. It would be interesting to look at Virginia, whose pension program was the most extensive of any former Confederate state.

    • Msb Apr 6, 2019 @ 7:00

      Well, they would have been paid while serving, which enslaved people weren’t.

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