Surviving Slavery in the Confederate Army

The Confederacy’s reliance on slave labor throughout the Civil War is easily explained. The difference in population between North and South necessitated the mobilization of as many black bodies as possible. Enslaved people were needed on the home front to harvest crops for the army. They labored in mines, constructed rail lines and earthworks, and manufactured artillery in places like Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works.

This slave labor freed up more white men to shoulder arms in the army. In short, the Confederacy could not have survived long without maximizing the muscle of the institution of slavery.

Unfortunately, this reliance on slave labor tends to disappear when thinking about the performance of the army itself. Popular memory envisions armies of white men in camp, on the march, and on the battlefield. However, a closer look reveals that Confederate armies were just as reliant on slave labor as the nation itself. The institution of slavery sustained the army from teamsters, who drove the wagons to hospital attendants to the body servants or camp slaves of individual officers.

Andrew and Silas Chandler

As I have mentioned numerous times, the Army of Northern Virginia may have included as many as 10,000 slaves as it moved into southern Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. The army was not simply protecting slavery on the home front, it was protecting it within its own ranks. Indeed, the distinction between home front and the army in this regard makes little sense when looked at this way.

Freedom came for roughly 4 million people in a variety of ways by the spring of 1865. Tens of thousands of black men fought for it in the Union army. Others were freed by the Union army itself after 1863. Still others experienced the transition from slavery to freedom in the confusing and often deadly space of contraband camps.

One way or another, they had all survived slavery.

The same holds true for the thousands of slaves still present in Confederate armies. They survived disease, the grueling marches over dusty roads, and even the dangers of the battlefield itself.

Neo-Confederates today believe that these men should be remembered and even celebrated for their “service” and “loyalty” to their masters and the Confederacy, but this is little more than a relic of the self-serving narrative that has always fueled the needs of people who are unwilling or unable to come to terms with defeat and emancipation.

These men should be remembered. They should be remembered for having survived slavery in the very place where its future was decided.

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8 comments… add one
  • Cody C. Engdahl May 2, 2019 @ 6:33

    Outstanding. Thank you for this article.

    • Kevin Levin May 2, 2019 @ 7:09

      Thanks for the positive feedback.

  • George Brown May 2, 2019 @ 8:51

    I appreciate this common sense perspective that I never thought of prior. At this point, I have no reason to question it’s veracity. Thank you

  • London John May 2, 2019 @ 12:08

    This is indeed common sense.A question arises – what were the slaves taken by the Confederate army doing before the war? Generally in “total” wars women take over men’s heavy work, but as slave women were already doing heavy work that wasn’t an option.

    • Andy Hall May 2, 2019 @ 14:41

      The Confederacy had a very hard time getting slaveholders to hire out their bondsmen to work on military projects like fortifications, railroad repair, and so on. Here in Texas, a succession of military commanders alternately used threats, appeals to patriotism, and substantial payments, but there was always a shortage. The slaveholders mostly didn’t trust the military with the health and lives of their chattel, which in many cases formed the majority of their personal assets. And it was philosophically a problem for the Confederate government to be too high-handed about it, given that the whole purpose of secession in the first place was to prevent interference with slaveholders’ rights to their “property.”

      The Confederate national government authorized the impressment of African Americans as laborers for all sorts of tasks relatively early on, and continued through the war. There was a lot of pushback from individual states, whose legislatures were often filled with men whose own slaves were subject to impressment by the government. This was authorized at east as early as March 1863. But opposition by the states got so bad at one point that Jefferson Davis suggested that the Confederate government flat-out buy 40,000 slaves, just to not have to deal with the difficulties of conscripting laborers from recalcitrant owners.

      Free African Americans werre in a particularly precarious position regarding this sort of conscription, as they had no one to speak for them. Bell Irvin Wiley, in Southern Negroes, 1861-1865, notes that an addendum to the Confederate conscription law passed in February 1864 included the instruction that “impressment of slaves was to be made only after the impressment of free Negroes had failed to meet the needs of the government.” In short, free African Americans were more in danger of being pressed into Confederate service than most plantation slaves, whose masters would generally find ways to obstruct their conscription and the loss of labor that would entail.

  • Msb May 4, 2019 @ 0:56

    As to surviving the Confederate armies, I can never forget the white soldiers who thought it was so amusing to force two slaves to have a duel.

  • Bernard May 18, 2019 @ 13:08

    You do know Mr, Chandler was NOT a slave?

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