Category Archives: Slavery

Why Confederate Camp Servants

The most recent issue of The Civil War Monitor contains a letter-to-the-editor about a recent essay of mine on Confederate camp servants [Spring 2013]. From Mr. John H. Whitfield:

While the article was enlightening on the issue of enslaved Africans who were wartime “body servants,” it presented a rather narrow view of the panoply of roles in which the enslaved were critical to the Rebel war effort. For instance, the impressment of slaves, authorized throughout the Confederacy in 1862, sent countless men to construct earthworks at various strategic locations.

Mr. Whitfield is absolutely spot on regarding the place of enslaved blacks in the Confederate war effort. There are a number of excellent studies that examine these various roles, including books by Glenn David Brasher,Joseph Glatthaar, and Bruce Levine. Those of you with an interest in this topic will definitely want to check out Jaime Martinez’s forthcoming book, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South, which will be out with UNC Press in December. Continue reading

Kentucky Historical Society is Hitting the Road

This video will be featured in a traveling exhibition and shown throughout the state to middle and high school students. It offers a very brief overview of slavery’s centrality to Kentucky Civil War experience. Not sure what I think of the 3d motion graphics when there is such a rich body of photographs and other period illustrations to utilize. It’s also difficult to compress such a complex story in just over three minutes. What do you think?

Could This Be a Real Black Confederate Soldier?

Black Man in sack coatI was browsing some web pages and came across a very interesting link to a website that seems tailored (no pun intended) to Civil War reenactors/enthusiasts, with an interest in uniforms. This photograph of a young black man was taken in Richmond in April 1865. He is wearing what was called a sack coat. The description that accompanies the image offers a few interpretations.

Picture 10: A very distinct image taken in occupied Richmond, Virginia, April 1865, depicts a group of black freedman, some of them wearing Confederate uniforms. Those wearing the uniforms may have acquired them from government store houses at the fall of Richmond, or they may have been serving in Confederate Army in some capacity.  It is possible that may have been in the Confederate “Black Brigade,” formed in the last months of the war, that consisted of two or three battalions of infantry.  In any case, one of the freedmen wears a Confederate military sack coat and matching fabric pants.  The coat has four brass military buttons, but no exterior breast pocket.  It is similar to the Brooke coat in that the bottom edge extends almost down to the cuff.  The stand collar has no contrasting facing.  What is certain about this coat is that it represents the type used by the Army of Northern Virginia at the close of the war.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I would love for this to be a photograph of a soldier. The few black recruits that marched through the streets of Richmond at the tail end of the war are an incredibly elusive bunch, which I suspect will remain so. More than likely the uniform was acquired following the evacuation of Richmond. I am no expert, but that uniform looks to be in pretty good condition.

“Ask A Slave”

It’s a new web comedy series, but it’s not very funny.

Azie Dungey played a slave at Mount Vernon and is now sharing the colorful and not very thoughtful questions asked by visitors. I certainly appreciate the explanation and intent behind the project.

So, I wanted a way to present all of the most interesting, and somewhat infuriating encounters that I had, the feelings that they brought up, and the questions that they left unanswered. I do not think that Ask A Slave is a perfect way to do so, but I think that it is a fun, and a hopefully somewhat enriching start.

The problem is that Dungey’s own apparent frustrations are expressed through her slave character. There is no exploration as to why some of these questions are problematic. She merely pokes fun at the visitors’ questions. I suspect that there are any number of factors beyond mere intelligence that shapes the kinds of questions posed to reenactors at historic sites. I wonder what the staff at Mount Vernon thinks of this.

It’s still early in the production of the series, but as it stands Ask A Slave isn’t very entertaining and it doesn’t help us to understand the experiences of living history actors, especially those dealing with the tough questions of race.

A Forgotten Battle For the Second Amendment

Thomas NastOne of the most interesting sections of Carole Emberton’s new book, Beyond Redemption, is her analysis of the relationship between gun ownership among newly-freed slaves, voting, citizenship and violence in the postwar South. By 1860 service in the military had already expanded the suffrage to include a large percentage of white men. The right to vote, achieved through military service defined what it meant to lay claim to citizenship in the United States. The defense of home and nation not only opened the doors to voting for many white men, but the weapons used proved to be extremely useful in the often violent world of political campaigns and gatherings on election day.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the claims to citizenship and the vote by a formerly enslaved population rested directly on the right to bear arms. Former black Union soldiers often purchased their weapons upon leaving the army while many others purchased weapons with what little money they earned. They did so to protect themselves, but also as symbols of freedom and independence. The right to own a weapon constituted a tangible break with a past in which masters controlled the conditions in which their slaves could shoulder a gun. Most importantly, gun ownership was understood as a direct claim through the Second Amendment to the rights of citizenship and the vote. Continue reading