Tag Archives: camp servant

Of All the Books To Read After the Antietam Campaign

William Dorsey PenderI am just about finished reading Brian Steel Wills’s new biography of William Dorsey Pender. It’s a solid biography, just what we’ve come to expect from Wills. Indeed, he has been very productive in recent years. Pender’s letters to his wife Fanny are front and center in this biography. One of the most interesting sections occurs early on in the book when Dorsey is chided by his wife for admitting to flirtatious behavior with women in Suffolk, Virginia, who he openly admitted, “will do anything for me.” That’s probably not what you want to write to your wife, who is struggling back in North Carolina to take care of two young children. Live and learn.

Even more interesting, however, is the revelation that shortly after the Antietam Campaign Pender chose to read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Continue reading

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

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.

The Esprit de Corps of Confederate Camp Servants

Glad to see that so many of you found this morning’s post to be of interest. There is so much to unpack in the Caffey book regarding the presence of camp servants with the Army of Northern Virginia.  This passage is of particular interest to me.

Did you ever remark our servants on a march? They make me laugh. Soon as the word ‘march’ is whispered abroad, these fellows bundle up their traps, and get them into the wagons, by some sort of sleight of hand, for I know that my baggage, with ‘little tricks’ added, far outweighs the authorized sixty pounds — a captain’s allowance. After safely stowing away all they can, the cooks shoulder some large bundle of curiosities of their own, and with a saucepan, skillet, or frying pan, all march some fifty yards in front of the band, whistling and singing, forming in regular or irregular files, commanded by some big black rogue who, with a stick and a loud voice, enforces discipline, among his heavy-heeled corps. And thus they proceed far ahead, monopolizing all attention as we pass through towns and villages, grinning and singing as they go, and frequently dressed up in the full regimentals of some unfortunate Yankee or other.

First, here is one example that potentially helps to explain why so many Union soldiers and other observers claimed to have sighted entire companies and even regiments of blacks in the Confederate army.  More interesting, however, is the question of why camp servants were allowed to march together in what appears to have all the trappings of a distinct unit in the Confederate army. This is pure speculation based on my extensive reading into the primary and secondary sources so feel free to disagree.

We know that individual camp servants functioned in small groups within companies.  They worked together to complete specific chores, especially washing and cooking so it’s not surprising to find these men bonding with one another.  Marching as a group not only deepened those ties with one another, but gave the men a sense that they were a distinct part of the army itself.  In other words, it encouraged a sense of belonging.  The passage above points to unofficial ranks, which suggests that these men may have been disciplined by one another.  Confederates likely understood that the uniforms and marching together would have tied their slaves more closely to the army and even encourage them to stay rather than run away.  This would have benefited the Army of Northern Virginia given its proximity to the Army of the Potomac through much of the war and especially when it was on march in Maryland in 1862 and Pennsylvania the following summer.

Caffey suggests that the discipline exerted by servants may have been more severe than that of their masters.

I know an instance of a boy who ran from the Eighteenth Mississippi, just before Manassas, July, 1861. He was recaptured during the engagement; for the Yankees putting him in the front, together with other runaways, made him very uneasy, so he slipped into our lines again, but was seized by two colored men, who observed the manoeuvre, and was handed over to his master. His owner refused to see him, and the general wish of our servants was, that he should be hung or shot for a traitor! He was given over to them, and met a death at their hands more violent than any white person’s anger could have suggested. Incidents of this kind, however, illustrative of the colored people’s loyalty to the South, are too numerous and tedious for enumeration.

What better than slaves disciplining themselves.  It goes without saying that at no point does Caffey shift from describing these men as slaves to soldiers.  In fact, Caffey, like others, was entertained by these men on march.  “They make me laugh.”  What the author illustrates is the extent to which the challenges of camp life, march, and even battle stretched the master – slave relationship. We can read into this account what we want.  There is plenty here to highlight the narrow and self serving interpretations found on hundreds of black Confederate websites.

In the end, what we can see, if we pay careful attention, is how the Army of Northern Virginia practiced slavery.

Slavery Traveled With the Army of Northern Virginia

jake3

Impressed Slaves Working on Confederate Earthworks

Included in Allen Guelzo’s new book, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, is a brief examination of the size of both armies.  In looking at the Army of Northern Virginia Guelzo includes a few sources that estimate the number of slaves, who performed various roles as personal servants and impressed workers.  One particular account by English-born Confederate artilleryman, Thomas Caffey, published in 1864 stood out in particular.  The source is available online and includes and incredibly detailed, but self serving picture of the role and motivation of slaves in the Confederate army.  Here are a few excerpts, but I encourage you to read the section in its entirety, which runs from pp. 278 to 285.

In our whole army there must be at least thirty thousand colored servants who do nothing but cook and wash—nine tenths of the ditching falls to our share—yet in all these thousands I have yet to hear of more than one hundred who have run away from their owners! This is true, although they are continually moving about with ‘passes’ at all hours, and ten times more frequently than masters: what greater opportunities could be presented for escape? They are roaming in and out of the lines at all times, tramping over every acre of country daily, and I have not heard of more than six instances of runaways in our whole brigade, which has a cooking and washing corps of negroes at least one hundred and fifty strong! ….

Did you ever remark our servants on a march? They make me laugh. Soon as the word ‘march’ is whispered abroad, these fellows bundle up their traps, and get them into the wagons, by some sort of sleight of hand, for I know that my baggage, with ‘little tricks’ added, far outweighs the authorized sixty pounds — a captain’s allowance. After safely stowing away all they can, the cooks shoulder some large bundle of curiosities of their own, and with a saucepan, skillet, or frying pan, all march some fifty yards in front of the band, whistling and singing, forming in regular or irregular files, commanded by some big black rogue who, with a stick and a loud voice, enforces discipline, among his heavy-heeled corps. And thus they proceed far ahead, monopolizing all attention as we pass through towns and villages, grinning and singing as they go, and frequently dressed up in the full regimentals of some unfortunate Yankee or other. They scour the country far and wide for chickens, milk, butter, eggs, and bread, for which they pay little or nothing; always stoutly swearing they have expended all ‘massa’gave them, and unblushingly asking for more….

There was a very old, gray-haired cook in an Alabama regiment,” Jenkins remarked, “who would follow his young master to the war, and had the reputation of a saint among the colored boys of the brigade; and as he could read the Bible, and was given to preaching, he invariably assembled the darkeys on Sunday afternoon, and held meetings in the woods. He used to lecture them unmercifully, but could not keep them from singing and dancing after ‘tattoo.’ Uncle Pompey, as he was called, was an excellent servant, and an admirable cook, and went on from day to day singing hymns among his pots round the camp-fire, until the battle of ‘Seven Pines’ opened, when the regiment moved up to the front, and was soon engaged.

Caffey wrote this before the Gettysburg campaign kicked off, but it is not a stretch to imagine such numbers accompanying the Army of Northern Virginia as it moved through the slave state of Maryland and into free Pennsylvania.  We know that as it did the state’s free and formerly enslaved blacks fled, some of who ended up trapped and sent south by invading Confederates.  The Army of Northern Virginia operated, in large part, around the work of slaves.  As an institution the army’s reliance on slave labor ought to be seen in line with the operations of southern railroads, industrial centers such as Tredegar and, of course, large plantations.  All of them relied on the forced labor of slaves.

And for a brief moment in the summer of 1863 this system of labor, that was so important to the pre-war South and by extension, the Confederacy, was introduced into free Pennsylvania by the Army of Northern Virginia.