Was Levi Miller a Black Confederate Soldier?

I can already anticipate the response to Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth in certain quarters. I am going to be asked to respond to newspaper accounts in northern newspapers referencing armed black men; pension documents that upon closer inspection are clearly marked for former body servants or camp slaves; muster sheets that cite the presence of cooks in the army. We’ve seen all this before ad nauseam. It is almost always unaccompanied by any attempt at interpretation beyond an implicit assumption that the Confederacy could not have been fighting to protect the institution of slavery. It is the ultimate non-starter that gets us no closer to understanding the history of the Confederacy and the role of African Americans in the army. Even more unfortunate, however, is that such an approach leaves little room to probe case studies that complicate our understanding of Confederate military regulations and expectations surrounding race.

“Press Forward Men! by Bradley Schmehl

Consider, for example, Levi Miller, who was issued a Virginia Confederate veteran’s pension in 1907, seventeen years before the state expanded its program to include body servants, impressed laborers, and teamsters. Miller entered the war as the camp slave of Captain John J. MacBride of Company C, 5th Texas Infantry Regiment. His name can be found on muster sheets in the section set aside for cooks, servants, and musicians, but by 1864 he occupied a unique place in the regiment. Muster sheets dated to the bloody campaigns of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House in the spring of 1864 have him listed as a private. Decades later Miller was recalled to have been ” elected to the rank of private”—a ceremonial move likely made in acknowledgment of his loyalty to his master and conduct in camp.

According to his pension application, Miller claimed that he was “engaged in combat with the Army of Northern Virginia in their operations in Tennessee, Georgia, as well as in Virginia until surrendering with the rest of the company at Appomattox.” Miller’s affidavit was secured from none other than the company commander, Captain J.E. Anderson, who roughly forty years later spoke of him as he had served as a soldier: “Levi Miller stood by my side and [no] man never fought any better than he did, and when the enemy tried to cross our little breastworks, and we clubbed and bayoneted them off, no one used his bayonet with more skill and effect than Miller.

There can be little doubt that Miller occupied a unique place in his unit and that he assumed many of the roles of a soldier, most importantly as a battlefield combatant. Obituaries published after his death on February 25, 1921, followed Anderson in praising Miller’s conduct on the battlefield, but they tended to frame his life as they would have for any former slave who was present with the Confederate army. The Winchester (Va.) Evening Star, for instance, claimed that Miller, “was one of the few colored men regularly enlisted in the Confederate army,” but echoes of the Lost Cause were never far removed: Miller “was affectionately known among the white as well as colored people of this section as the grand old man of his race. He always had a deep love for everything southern, and although born a slave, it was his loyalty to his state that led him to enter the southern army and fight through the four entire years of war.”

Miller’s place in the army straddled the roles of both slave and soldier, but legally he remained the property of John MacBride. It is also worth noting that Miller’s name does not appear on any official lists of the 5th Texas Infantry, which suggests that his status as a soldier was honorary. Miller’s place within the unit by the end of the war had as much to do with the relationship he established with his master as it did with the relationship he formed with the rest of the men in the unit, but his story is unique and ought to be understood as such.

Many will finish reading this and immediately jump to the conclusion that Miller was indeed a Confederate soldier. No one in the army or on the home front during the very public and divisive debate about slave recruitment in 1864-65 cited Levi Miller or anyone else in his position as evidence that black men were already serving as soldiers. Based on the available evidence it is clear that he was never enlisted as a soldier. Miller remained a camp slave and was freed only as a result of Union victory in 1865.

But if we put aside the narrow question of whether Miller was a soldier we see a much more interesting story that deserves further study. My overall argument in the first two chapters of the book that focus on the war years is that the challenges of camp life, long marches, and even the battlefield itself altered the relationship between master and slave in profound ways. I see Levi Miller as a prime example of this phenomenon.

My book will not be the last word on this subject. In fact, one of the things I hope the book does is open up avenues for further research. As we get closer to publication date I will share other areas that arose in the course of my research and writing that deserve further attention from people who are serious about better understanding how slaves were utilized in the Confederate military.

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.

17 comments… add one
  • Bernie. Cyrus May 9, 2019 @ 4:56

    “The free colored men of this city [Charleston] have had a meeting, collected $450 for the Soldiers Relief Society, passed resolutions very creditable to them indeed, and presented the money.” (Sept. 3,1861, p. 86)
    Why They Fought James McPherson

    • Kevin Levin May 9, 2019 @ 5:14

      Thank you for making my initial point that unfortunately this discussion for many often begins and ends with quoting something without offering anything in the way of interpretation. First, what book are you referring to? McPherson’s books include What They Fought For, 1861-1865 which does not include a p. 86. Then there is For Cause and Comrades which does not include this quote on p. 86.

      That’s beside the point. Why don’t you explain how you would like us to interpret this passage. Historians have written extensively about free black communities and their relationship to the Confederacy. Perhaps you can enlighten us with another perspective.

    • MARGARET D BLOUGH May 9, 2019 @ 6:11

      Blacks, especially those who were free/freed, were in increasingly vulnerable positions after the Civil War began. They were deeply distrusted and their very existence was seen by pro-slavery hardliners as a challenge to the claim that slavery created the best situation for both white and black. I’d think they’d do their utmost to assure whites that they were loyal and posed no danger

  • MARGARET D BLOUGH May 9, 2019 @ 6:04

    I think the apologists can’t accept that the rebel slave states used blacks, both enslaved and freed/free, during the war the same way as they had before the war: to do the hard, tedious manual work that was essential but considered beneath a white man’s dignity to perform. That was as true for the army as in civilian life (slaveholder protests against impressment of their slaves make interesting reading). I’ve never understood how the apologists can get past the responses to both the Cleburn proposal and the last-ditch proposal to allow blacks to fight. Even if they could find a Black person who was known to be that but still appeared on a regiment’s rolls as a soldier and fought as such, at most, they could find an exception that would prove the rule. You cannot get blunter that Howell Cobb’s January 8, 1865 letter to Secretary of War Seddon where he discusses the Davis proposal and says, “The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong but they won’t make soldiers. As a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier. Better by far to yield to the demands of England and France and abolish slavery, and thereby purchase their aid, than to resort to this policy, which leads as certainly to ruin and subjugation as it is adopted; you want more soldiers, and hence the proposition to take
    negroes into the Army.” If any such policy of allowing Blacks to serve as soldiers in Confederate armies existed, even informally, before Cobb’s letter, it’s impossible to believe that someone like Howell Cobb would not have known about it.

  • Andy Hall May 9, 2019 @ 6:13

    “But if we put aside the narrow question of whether Miller was a soldier we see a much more interesting story that deserves further study.”

    Exactly so. The men I’ve profiled over the years all had rather interesting lives, as full of conflict and occasional contradiction as our own, today. Simply pointing to them as another name to be checked off as a “Black Confederate” and then moving on to the next one does a real disservice to them and the very real lives they led.

  • Andrea Millet Odom Driver May 9, 2019 @ 9:01

    The beginning and the ending of the discussion about this gentlemen is this: he and others like him were IMPRESSED ie forced to serve by their white masters, just as they were impressed to do myriad other things in their role as an unfree, enslaved person who was not allowed the exercise of their free will in life. If you are not free to choose to serve or not, the fact that your name appears on lists with others who did have that choice means nothing. And yes, if I were him, knowing that I did serve even though at the time I had no choice, I would file to get the same pension and any other awards those who served were entitled to. My problem with this whole thing is examples like this are used to say that enslaved black people supported the goals of the Confederacy. When you are not free to choose, the whole paradigm becomes invalid.

    • Kevin Levin May 9, 2019 @ 9:33

      You are correct in emphasizing the importance of coercion in understanding the master-slave relationship, but servants like Miller were not “impressed.” Impressment was carried out by the Confederate government in gaining control over thousands of slaves after signing contracts with their masters. Servants simply followed their masters into the war as their body servants or camp slaves.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Rob Wick May 9, 2019 @ 15:00

    Kevin,

    I’m curious as to whether you or anyone else has studied the state legislature’s debates over the issuance of pensions to former slaves? It would seem to me that those who voted to do this would have made their reasons clear during whatever debate might have taken place. I can’t imagine any debate, if there was any real serious discussions, would have said they were doing it to belatedly recognize that they were indeed soldiers for the Confederacy.

    Best
    Rob

    • Kevin Levin May 9, 2019 @ 15:29

      I cover some of this in the chapter on pensions in Searching for Black Confederates. Most of the focus for me was support for pensions for former body servants among Confederate veterans.

  • lloyd1927 May 9, 2019 @ 18:29

    The Ellison family contributed more than a laborer or a fireman. On March 27, 1863, John Wilson Buckner enlisted as a private in the 1st South Carolina Artillery. He was wounded in action on July 12, 1863, at Battery Wagner. He remained in the army, according to his official Confederate military record, until October 19, 1864. Because his “furlough expired,” he officially became a deserter.66 However, his desertion was a technicality because years later he was praised by local whites—who were in a position to have known the truth—as a “faithful soldier.”67 For most free Negroes, even to attempt to join the army was dangerous. When three brothers who were “very dark skinned” and “at the Turpentine business” tried to enter the Camden militia in 1859, a white man objected, claiming “they were not white and had no right to muster.” In the fight that ensued, one man was shot.68 Buckner served in the companies of Capt. P. P. Galliard and Capt. A. H. Boykin, local white men who were acquaintances of Buckner and the other Ellisons.69

    Johnson, Michael P.. Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South (p. 307). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

    Buckner, John
    BATTLE UNIT NAME:
    1st Regiment, South Carolina Artillery
    SIDE:
    Confederacy
    COMPANY:
    I
    SOLDIER’S RANK IN:
    Private
    SOLDIER’S RANK OUT:
    Private
    ALTERNATE NAME:
    FILM NUMBER:
    M381 ROLL 5
    PLAQUE NUMBER:
    NOTES:

    • Kevin Levin May 10, 2019 @ 2:25

      I actually think that this is a very interesting story, but it’s not about the Confederacy. As Johnson makes clear both before and after the quoted passage, Buckner (regardless of his status) was an exception. This story tells us quite a bit about the influence of the Ellison family, but more importantly, we learn nothing about Buckner himself.

      Whatever Buckner’s motivation for enlisting–heartfelt loyalty, an itch for adventure, a desire to escape his stingy uncles, or a courageous assertion of manliness–he gave whites an unmistakable confirmation of Ellison’s political sympathies. (p. 307)

      • lloyd1927 May 10, 2019 @ 11:46

        Yes, Buckner’s situation was exceptional. We can’t divorce his service in the Confederate Army from his family’s status as wealthy free mulatto slaveholders and his own (no doubt) white looks. In order to create hordes of “black Confederates,” people have to play fast and loose with the definitions of “soldier” and/or “black.”

        • Kevin Levin May 10, 2019 @ 11:47

          I would like to see his service record if you have it handy.

  • fundrums May 10, 2019 @ 4:23

    I touch on Levi in my book on Confederates at the Crossroads although not near in depth as you have. You are correct about this dynamic relationship being a complicated one for sure. I look forward to reading how you tackled it.

    Michael Aubrecht

  • David Green Oct 6, 2019 @ 18:02

    Kevin, Kirk Von Daake recommended that I contact you. I am a professor at UVA. The McChesney and McBride families who owned Levi Miller also own my direct ancestors. In other words, my ancestors were slaves with and were in direct contact with Levi Miller. In particular, my 3rd great-grandmother is a woman named Rachel Fielding whose last name corresponds with a slave named Fielding at UVA who was owned by Professor Charles Bonnycastle. Thus, I would like to meet with you if/when you return to Charlottesville to discover and learn as much about the families who owned my relatives.

    Best,

    David Green

    • Kevin Levin Oct 7, 2019 @ 3:00

      Dear Professor Green,

      Nice to hear from you. I will be in Charlottesville on Sunday, December 14 to take part in a symposium at St. Anne’s – Belfield School, where I taught for 11 years. Perhaps we can meet to talk at that time.

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