The “Cornerstone” of the Army of Northern Virginia

Here is a little taste of my forthcoming book, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which was published last week at Smithsonian. I re-worked a few pages that focus on the role of camp slaves during the Gettysburg campaign.

All too often we try to draw a distinction between the importance that the Confederacy attached to slavery and the military. The preservation of slavery—so the argument goes—may have been the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy, but few enlisted men owned slaves, therefore it was of little concern. Certainly the common soldier was motivated by any number of factors, but this tired argument fails on a number of levels.

Most importantly, it fails to acknowledge the crucial role that enslaved men played in every aspect of the life of the Confederate army. The rank-and-file was reminded each and every day of the importance of slavery. They understood that the army could not camp, march or fight without enslaved men.

The Gettysburg campaign provides the ideal case study to highlight their role in the army. In short, the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy, including its military, was slavery.

Stay tuned for information about a special tour of the Gettysburg battlefield that I will be co-leading on September 28 with Peter Carmichael, James Broomall, and Chris Gwinn.

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.

13 comments… add one
  • Bill Underhill Jul 8, 2019 @ 15:31

    Kevin,
    I just read the excerpt from your book and I look forward to reading it. In almost most accounts of Civil War battles, little or nothing is said about the support of slavery in the Confederate armies. It seemed to be a white man’s war at least until the Union black regiments made their appearance, and still nothing about the slaves with the Rebel armies. I hope that your book is widely read and that it will set the record straight on the myth of black Confederates.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 8, 2019 @ 16:37

      Hi Bill,

      Thanks for the positive feedback.

  • Tim Decker Jul 9, 2019 @ 6:35

    This is just so interesting…. The logic that undergirds this sort of disconnect seems very much to be of a piece with the inability of many whites today to grasp systemic racism.

  • Eric A Jacobson Jul 10, 2019 @ 11:38

    Quick thought. They could have camped, marched, and fought without scores of enslaved people. They chose not to. 😛

    • Kevin Levin Jul 10, 2019 @ 12:05

      This is true. 🙂

  • msb Jul 11, 2019 @ 0:34

    Excellent article, whetting my appetite for the book still further. I knew about the Confederate armies’ dependence on slave labor, but the article makes it more real to me. When I imagine Confederate soldiers in future, I will see the enslaved camp servants in my mind’s eye, too. Thanks!

    • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2019 @ 1:09

      Mission Accomplished!

      Thanks for taking the time to read the article.

  • fundrums Jul 12, 2019 @ 6:27

    Excellent article Kevin. I myself took a similar approach in my eBook ‘The Long Roll’ on the drummer boy as being someone that the armies could not live without but who received little or no recognition. Camp slaves and drummer boys are still ignored in the annals of Civil War memory. Good to see you bringing attention to them.

    Michael Aubrecht

    • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2019 @ 6:30

      Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

  • London John Jul 13, 2019 @ 1:16

    “The preservation of slavery—so the argument goes—may have been the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy, but few enlisted men owned slaves, therefore it was of little concern. Certainly the common soldier was motivated by any number of factors, but this tired argument fails on a number of levels.” Obviously it fails. What is puzzling is that dead arguments like this won’t lie down – like nothing is ever settled in history. McPherson for one comprehensively refuted this argument back in the last millenium. But apologists for the “lost cause” will, I’m afraid, continue to bring it out as though it settled the question even after your book is published.
    Incidentally, even the statement that “few enlisted men owned slaves” is surely misleading: few enlisted men on either side owned much property, either human or of other categories. But what is significant is what their families owned and what they could expect to own later in life.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 13, 2019 @ 2:07

      You are absolutely right and it’s a point I have made in the past. Historian Joseph Glatthaar does a great job of exploring this in his book, General Lee’s Army.

  • Maryann Jul 17, 2019 @ 17:27

    Cool to see your piece in my local paper today! Sorry it seemed to bring out the trolls. So much for an educated readership in Washington DC.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 18, 2019 @ 1:50

      It’s par for the course. 🙂

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