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.”
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.