Yesterday I shared a short excerpt from the John H. Claiborne letters, which are located in Special Collections at the University of Virginia. I was looking for one particular letter in which he discussed his camp servants. Unfortunately, no date was included in the description of the collection so I had to make my way through roughly 50 letters. I finally found it at the very end, but it was well worth the time spent. Claiborne briefly references a number of slaves that assisted him as chief surgeon in Petersburg, but not until the letter below did he reflect on their place in the army as well as the future of slavery.
Claiborne references the impressment policies of the Confederate government along with his own responsibilities as a slaveholder. There is a great deal of paternalism that courses throughout and an interesting passage in which he reaffirms the supposed loyalty of his slaves. In reading the letters you get a clear sense that Claiborne and his slaves endured great hardship in Petersburg during the final year of the war, but in the end his slaves never move beyond being acknowledged for their instrumental value.
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I am writing from the Special Collections Department at the University of Virginia, where I am going through some files related to body servants and impressed slaves. Here is a little nugget from the John H. Claiborne letters, which I’ve spent quite some time with over the past few years. This collection of letters and other materials really needs to be published. Claiborne was the chief surgeon in Petersburg during the final year of the war. Here is an excerpt from a letter to his wife, dated July 17, 1864:
Oh when will the day of retribution come? Can this conquer the South? Let the spoiled and bleeding and exiled and starving people of Virginia answer. Not a murmur – not a complaint not a craven cry for peace have I heard — but war — blood for blood — let us perish and our little ones — but let the fight go on — better to fill freemen’s graves than to live as yankee serfs. You see their undying spirit in the thin – compressed lip and fierce hungry eye. One of my Surgeons told me the other day that his wife who is in N.Va. wrote him that she was penniless — that she was soon to be confined and that she did not know what she should do. Another — a man for a long time was a captain in a Va. Regiment and a noble brave fellow and a good soldier until his health forced him into the Med. Dept. told me that he had a letter from his wife a day or two ago and that she was working in the cornfield day by day trying to make break for his little ones. These were people of affluence & refinement before the war. Both of the gentlemen were educated in Europe or partially educated there and accustomed to all the elegance & luxuries that wealth could supply. There is suffering but you see it only in the earnest face & compressed lip — and you hear it in the muttered denunciation of wrath against the yankees. No whining for peace or stop the war. It is said we Virginians are too proud of our State. It may be so — but none will deny we have cause to be proud of her. I envy no other & detract from no other but I thank God I am a Virginian. We may be blotted out of the book of nations but the name of Virginia & of her sons & her daughters can never perish.
Looks like the Associated Press has picked up another story about the myth of black Confederates out of North Carolina. It includes what has become the standard fair:
- Black man struggles to come to terms with what he believes is the military service of one of his ancestors: “Gregory Perry of Monroe, N.C., who learned recently that an ancestor was awarded pension for Confederate service, says it’s hard to reconcile that fact with what he knows firsthand about being a black man in the South. ‘I grew up in the era of Malcolm X and militancy, and would never have considered something like this possible,’ said Perry, 46, reflecting on the life of his great-great-grandfather, Aaron Perry. ‘I wonder: If Aaron Perry knew the Union Army was coming to free him, why did he join the other side?'”
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Among the writing projects that I need to complete over the course of the next 12 months is a 7,500 word historiographical survey of military affairs in Virginia in 1861. The essay will be included in A Companion to the U.S. Civil War edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean and published by Wiley-Blackwell. The completed book, which will be published in two volumes and encompass roughly sixty chapters, will provide scholars with a comprehensive survey of the historical literature on the Civil War. The goal of the Companion series is to summarize the historiography of a given field, the essays for the U.S. Civil War volume will focus on how historians have developed and modified their interpretations of the topic over time.
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Why settle for one fictional account of a black Confederate soldier when you can have two? The latest offering comes from Robert Broome, Jr. who recently self-published his book, My Confederate Cousin. Here is the jacket description:
My cousin, Basil Dawson, was a black Confederate soldier born in Poolesville, Maryland. As a soldier in the Confederate States Army, Basil killed Federal soldiers alongside his white father and half brother, who also fought for the CSA. Following the war, Basil returned home to relatives who were unhappy with him because he had fought for the South. Even today, the family remains divided because Basil served with the Confederacy.
Perhaps the author will be kind enough to send me a review copy. 🙂
There are two Civil War Sesquicentennial memes that get bandied about without any reflection at all. The first suggests that white Southerners are still fighting the Civil War or that they are holding onto a traditional narrative that is being threatened by various external forces. Even a cursory glance at recent commemorative events in South Carolina suggests that the story is much more complex. The second also plays up supposed strict regional differences that assumes a closer, more emotional need to remember the Civil War in the South than the North.
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