Update: Richard Williams has decided to respond to this post on his blog. What I find interesting is that he has nothing to say about the content of the post. Instead he takes issue with one of my comments about my characterization of his understanding of the influence of Nat Turner’s Rebellion on race/slavery and religion in Virginia. Williams declares that many academics are “cynical” about attempts on the part of slaveholders to teach the gospel yet he provides not a single reference. It is unclear as to why this should matter to begin with. Their attitude is irrelevant. What matters is the interpretation. A quick perusal of the bibliography points to an over reliance on relatively few secondary sources, which is why I take issue with his analysis of religion in a slaveholding society. There simply isn’t much to work with. I will leave it to you to judge.
Jim Lewis and Jackson in “Gods and Generals”.
My recent essay on Confederate camp servants in The Civil War Monitor opens with a reference to an account in Edward Porter Alexander’s Fighting for the Confederacy. In it he discusses the purchase of a camp servant named Charley and a horse. Interestingly, Alexander refers to both as an “appendage”. That reference, I believe, tells us a great deal about race relations in the South as well as the value of enslaved blacks to the Confederate war effort and individual officers who utilized personal servants. Continue reading
Looks like students at South Pointe High School are bringing to life the diary of Lt. Samuel “Catawba” Lowry, who served in the 17th South Carolina Infantry. Lowry’s diary is well worth reading. He provides a great deal of detail about camp life, battle, as well as his experiences with his servants. His final diary entry comes just days before the battle of the Crater in which he was killed. Lowry’s servant, Henry Avery recovered the body and escorted it home to Yorkville for burial. On the one hand, I love projects like this. Unfortunately, it looks like both teacher and students might be taking a bit too much license with the diary.
It is a story about Lowry’s home and his family – a story about his beloved Southland. Most of all, is a story about relationships and bonds of brotherhood. It is also a story that some of the South Pointe cast members hope will challenge the stereotypes of the Civil War and slavery. Three of the essential voices in the play are Lowry family slaves: Horace, Jesse and Henry. They accompanied young Samuel to war. The diary never uses the word slave. Lowry refers to them as servants or boy. It was Henry who descended into the crater, recovering Lowry’s body. Henry then found Lowry’s possessions – including the diary – and then brought Lowry home to Yorkville for burial. South Pointe teacher James Chrismon and students such as junior Nicholas Arsenal turned the diary into a stage play. The play is not literal – some theatrical licenses were taken – but it stays true to Lowry’s beliefs and to his prose….
Anthony McCullough, one of two black students in the play, said the production “makes me realize that black people have come a long way.” Arsenal said he hopes the play changes some perspective on slavery. “It wasn’t right, but not everyone was treated so badly. “This play is about equality,” Arsenal continued. “Race doesn’t matter. Anyone can be your family,” he said.
Of course, it would be a mistake to blame students for characterizing the relationship between master and slave as one of equality. Responsibility for this falls squarely on their teacher. This might be a good time to recommend one of Gilder-Lehrman’s summer Teacher Seminars.
Today I am working on the final re-write for an article on Confederate camp servants that will be published in an upcoming issue of The Civil War Monitor. This involves reviewing changes made by the magazine’s editorial staff and responding to questions re: clarity, substance and interpretation. I am having some difficulty with one particular paragraph that I wrote about accounts of slaves on the battlefield. Here is what I wrote:
Camp servants who did not or could not escape were exposed to all the dangers of military life, from disease to the battlefield. Accounts of slaves marching into battle alongside masters, assisting them if they were wounded, or securing the body in the event of death, as well as tales of shooting at Yankee soldiers, remain the most contentious aspect of the memory of these men. Many of these accounts come from Confederate veterans’ postwar writings and rarely include the voice of the slave in question. As a result, they tell us much more about white southerners’ ideal version of their former slaves and not the often complex factors that motivated slaves during those moments of grave danger and uncertainty.
It goes without saying that I am not in any way concerned about whether these stories demonstrate that the men in question were soldiers. That, however, still leaves us with the accounts themselves. The editors responded with the following comment.
You don’t say whether you believe these accounts are accurate / reliable. I wonder if somehow you might, in a way to separate fact from fiction, as much as possible. And more detail would be nice in the way of quotes / evidence / examples.
The thing is, I do believe the general outlines of these stories. Camp servants were on the battlefields, they fired weapons at Yankee soldiers, and they rescued masters from the field and even escorted bodies home for burial. What I have trouble with is moving beyond the realm of personal memory to the question of historical veracity. None of the stories that I utilize include corroborating accounts between slave and Confederate officer and the vast majority that we do have were written after the war. Even the few accounts from former slaves leave me with more questions than answers.
The bigger challenge for me in interpreting battlefield accounts involving camp servants is that I struggle with how to reconcile the element of absolute authority that defined the master-slave relationship and the kinds of emotional bonds that were clearly present in certain cases. It’s a world that I simply do not have much of anything in terms of a frame of reference through which to interpret. It can hardly be denied that camp servants/slaves were present on battlefields and experienced all kinds of things. What that experience meant, at the time, for both slave and master as interpreted through postwar sources largely alludes me.
It’s always nice to hear from readers who take the time to share how much they enjoy your work. Though it’s a bit more painful to read, I also appreciate readers who point out my interpretive shortcomings and downright factual errors. That is just what happened in response to my essay about John Christopher Winsmith, which recently appeared in the NYT’s Disunion page. Last week I received an email from a gentleman in Spartanburg, SC, where Winsmith was raised. I should point out that this individual is currently researching Winsmith’s father and has uncovered a good amount of information. Earlier this year I shared the first year of Christopher’s wartime correspondence.
In the article I point out that Christopher was commissioned as a lieutenant in Company G of the Fifth South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. Later in the essay I noted that he was elected as captain of another unit in 1862. It gives the impression that he was an officer throughout this period. It turns out he was not. I don’t mind admitting that I was just a bit startled when it was pointed out that Winsmith resigned from his position in the Volunteer Infantry in June 1861 in hopes of getting a commission in a regular Confederate unit. That did not happen. It means that for a significant period in 1861 and 1862 Winsmith served as a private. He also kept his servant, Spencer, with him, which as many of you know is highly unusual. I had forgotten about this and to say that I am just a little embarrassed would be an understatement.
A few days ago I finally located my Winsmith files where I was surprised to find that I had jotted down just that transition in rank back in 2010. What it comes down to is that I had not refreshed myself sufficiently about Winsmith’s early wartime career when I went to write about a select number of letters concerning his relationship with Spencer for the NYTs piece. There is nothing factually wrong in the article (Winsmith was most likely appointed to the rank of captain rather than elected.) but it is misleading. My correspondent believes that the acknowledgement of Winsmith’s time as a private has and effect on how we interpret his relationship with Spencer. I am not so sure about that, but I will continue to think about it.
My original goal with the letters was to see them published in the University of Tennessee Press’s “Voices of the Civil War” series. It is an incredible collection of letters, but it’s been slow going. All of the letters are transcribed, but still need to be edited. The upside to all of this is that my correspondent and I are now talking about publishing the letters together. Stay tuned.
Like many of you I was sad to hear of the passing of historian Eugene Genovese earlier today. I was never formally introduced to the historiography of slavery in graduate school; rather, I relied on various friends and other contacts to point me in the direction of important studies as my interests both widened and deepened. Genovese’s name continued to appear and it was just a matter of time before I read Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. It took me a long time to read it and even longer to begin to understand it. I find myself continually going back to it to review sections and even individual sentences.
More recently, I’ve been reading and contemplating his most recent book, Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South, which explores the intellectual world of slaveholders during the antebellum period and through the war. The book briefly explores the slave enlistment debate and Genovese even offers a few thoughts specifically about camp servants, which is my current research topic. The following sentence is one that I’ve been struggling with for weeks. It beautifully captures the complexity of the slave – master relationship in the midst of war.
Body servants may have had as strong a desire for freedom as other slaves, but their fidelity to particular masters cannot be gainsaid. (p. 141)
Genovese forces us to acknowledge that freedom and fidelity were not mutually exclusive desires among this particular group of slaves. Both the modern day Lost Cause apologists and those who would deny any feelings of loyalty harbored by slaves cling to a one-dimensional view. The interesting question for me is how camp servant and master negotiated the dangers of camp life, march, and battle and how that resulted in a certain set of expectations between the two and a great deal of disappointment specifically for the slavemaster as the war progressed.
He will be missed.