Category Archives: Slavery

Did Impressed Slaves Serve the Confederacy?

jake3

I want to quickly follow up on the last post about the UDC’s recent induction of an African American woman, whose ancestor was brought into the Confederate army as a camp servant. In the post I referenced the UDC’s guidelines for membership and speculated as to whether they might be interested in welcoming the descendants of the thousands of impressed slaves who toiled for the Confederate government throughout the war. Thanks to UDC member, Betty Giragosian, for the following comment.

Kevin, my African American friend joined the UDC on the record of her great grandfather who helped build the earthworks in Gloucester, Virginia. This was giving material aid to the Confederacy. Maybe his service was not on the battlefield, but it was service, nevertheless. She told me that when she saw the earthworks for the first time she burst into tears. She is proud and happy to be a member of the UDC and we are proud to have her. She is an asset to our organization. We have never barred African Americans from membership. Someone wonders why there is a push to gain membership of African Americans. I do not think this is, that there is a push. This is a different time and place. Why not give us credit for changing for the better.

While I appreciate the comment I believe it reflects a flawed understanding of the relationship between slaves and the Confederate government. I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating. White southerners who either volunteered or were drafted into the Confederate army served as citizens of a nation. We understand citizenship as involving a reciprocal obligation between the individual and state. The government protects the rights of the individual and maintains order and in exchange it may be necessary at certain times for citizens to come to the aid of the state in the form of military service.  Continue reading

He Survived Slavery

I wasn’t going to say anything when this story first appeared. How many black Confederate induction ceremonies are necessary to share. This is the first one to appear in the news in some time. Last week the United Daughters of the Confederacy welcomed Georgia Benton into the fold based on her great-grandfather’s, presence in the army as the slave/body servant of Lt. Alex McQueen. Continue reading

Solomon Northup on “Humane Masters”

Solomon NorthupAt the end of chapter 4 in 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup offers a compelling explanation of how the institution of slavery shaped what he saw clearly as a culture of violence in the Bayou Boeuf region of Louisiana. Northup recalled an incident involving a “gentleman” from Natchez who while inquiring into the purchase of a neighboring plantation was murdered by the owner.

Such occurrences, which would bring upon the parties concerned in them merited and condign punishment in the Northern States, are frequent on the bayou, and pass without notice, and almost without comment. Every man carries his bowie knife, and when two fall out, they set to work hacking and thrusting at each other, more like savages than civilized and enlightened beings.

The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them, has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering—listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave—beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash—bitten and torn by dogs—dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin—it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life. It is true there are many kind-hearted and good men in the parish of Avoyelles—such men as William Ford—who can look with pity upon the sufferings of a slave, just as there are, over all the world, sensitive and sympathetic spirits, who cannot look with indifference upon the sufferings of any creature which the Almighty has endowed with life. It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.

There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhuman ones—there may be slaves well-clothed, well-fed, and happy, as there surely are those half-clad, half-starved and miserable; nevertheless, the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one. Men may write fictions portraying lowly life as it is, or as it is not—may expatiate with owlish gravity upon the bliss of ignorance—discourse flippantly from arm chairs of the pleasures of slave life; but let them toil with him in the field—sleep with him in the cabin—feed with him on husks; let them behold him scourged, hunted, trampled on, and they will come back with another story in their mouths. Let them know the heart of the poor slave—learn his secret thoughts—thoughts he dare not utter in the hearing of the white man; let them sit by him in the silent watches of the night—converse with him in trustful confidence, of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and they will find that ninety-nine out of every hundred are intelligent enough to understand their situation, and to cherish in their bosoms the love of freedom, as passionately as themselves. (pp. 134-36)

It is striking that after everything Northup went through that he was able to convey a certain amount of emotion for one of his former masters. William Ford may have attempted to alleviate some of the worst aspects of slavery, but in the end, he contributed as much to the violent nature of the “peculiar institution” as did Epps. This is an incredible passage that will likely make it into a collection of primary sources on antebellum slavery for an upcoming unit.

The Logic of Servants and Soldiers

F.R. Hoard Pension, black ConfederateEvery so often I like to browse a couple of Facebook pages devoted to the myth of the black Confederate soldier. People post all kinds of interesting things related to history and memory and once in a while an archival source appears.

This one caught my eye, though interestingly enough, it appeared without any commentary. At this point I still do not know the source. In 1920 F.R. Hoard of Churchill, Tennessee applied for a soldiers’ pension. As you can see he was denied. “It seems from your application that you were not a soldier, but the servant of a soldier, and therefore you are not pensionable.” In 1921 Tennessee offered former servants pensions. It is unknown at this point whether Churchill applied.

You may remember a similar document related to a North Carolina servant by the name of Wary Clyburn, which I posted back in 2009.

Solomon Northup: Farmer

I read Solomon Northrup’s personal account of slaverylong enough ago that I decided to pick it up again in light of having seen the movie. It’s hard not to be impressed with how close the movie actually follows the narrative, but specific choices made by director Steve McQueen stand out. Consider this passage from very early in the book:

With the return of spring, Anne and myself conceived the project of taking a farm in the neighborhood. I had been accustomed from earliest youth to agricultural labors, and it was an occupation congenial to my tastes. I accordingly entered into arrangements for a part of the old Alden farm, on which my father formerly resided. With one cow, one swine, a yoke of fine oxen I had lately purchased of Lewis Brown, in Hartford, and other personal property and effects, we proceeded to our new home in Kingsbury. That year I planted twenty-five acres of corn, sowed large fields of oats, and commenced farming upon as large a scale as my utmost means would permit. Anne was diligent about the house affairs, while I toiled laboriously in the field. (p. 9)

Those of you who’ve seen the movie already know that McQueen chose to begin his story with the Northrup family already established in Saratoga Springs, New York. Solomon is shown well dressed and walking in a park with an individual that he is unable to identify in his narrative, when he is approached by two strangers who were ultimately responsible for his kidnapping and enslavement. Northrup’s life prior to this is ignored entirely. Continue reading