Peter Carmichael on Black Confederates and Confederate Slaves

It is with great pleasure that I welcome friend and fellow historian Peter Carmichael to Civil War Memory for a guest post on black Confederates and Confederate slaves.  Professor Carmichael is currently the Eberly Professor of Civil War Studies at West Virginia University and has published extensively over the past fifteen years. 

You can find Professor Carmichael’s publications in both popular magazines and scholarly journals and he is the author of two well-received books, including Lee’s Young Artillerist: William R.J. Pegram and, more recently, The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion. He is currently working on a volume for the Littlefield History of the Civil War as well as a study of how the war altered and challenged the master-slave relationship.  I have maintained in just about every post on the subject of black Confederates that we desperately need to move beyond an approach which takes the collection of anecdotal stories and an overly simplistic language of loyalty and service as a substitute for careful thinking that situates this issue within the broader context of the history of slavery and the antebellum South.  It is with this in mind that I share Professor Carmichael’s unpublished essay, which outlines what he takes to be the necessary interpretive approach needed on this subject.  Professor Carmichael will respond to comments and questions.

“We were the ‘men'”: The Ambiguous Place of Confederate Slaves in Southern Armies

On August 6, 1861, the Richmond Enquirer ran an extended article, entitled “Ebony Idols,” on a camp slave named Sam who refused to leave his master during the battle of First Manassas. Sam received public acclaim for his stalwart behavior under fire, and the Enquirer recounted a boastful speech that he delivered to a group of Richmond slaves. Sam promised his black audience that “I wasn’t scared. I am not one of those kinds.” The story of Sam was intended to assure white audiences that slaves, even when the Yankees were shooting at them, would remain forever faithful. This claim of slave fidelity largely rested upon the Enquirer’s denying Sam his manliness, and utilizing antebellum stereotypes to describe black men as effeminate sambos.

Sam comes off as a child intrigued by the pageantry and sounds of battle but unable to grasp the seriousness of killing and death.  His combat analogies, for instance, mainly consist of homespun references to life on the plantation. Sam describes bullets as “singing” around head “like mosquitoes in a big cypress swamp.” The paper even mocked the speech patterns of Sam to illustrate further his childlike state. “Ebony Idols” turns Sam’s performance into a veritable minstrel show for white entertainment.  Sam admits that while under Union fire that his kinky air was standing straight up, but that as soon as the Confederates fired it returned to its natural state. The comedic intent of the author does not diminish the powerful psychological and political value of Sam’s purported actions for white readers who were nervous about black fidelity. Sam only joins the fight when he sees abolitionists killing white men. He does so, not for himself, but out of an uncontrollable rage toward the very people who were trying to free him. Sam, before picking up a musket, admits that “I didn’t kere nuffin for myself, case dis chile ain’t wuf much, no how; but to dee de nice white gemmen shot down by dem abolitioners, wur too bad.”

“Ebony Idols” emasculated male slaves like Sam and thus it depoliticized them, but this created nearly insurmountable intellectual and political risks for Confederate writers who needed to show the world that slaves could be aggressive defenders of the South and devoted enemies of abolition. To claim that slaves would rather make war on the abolitionists and not on their masters, whites had no choice but to acknowledge, at least to some degree that slaves were also men. The end of “Ebony Idols,” reveals this critical and jarring contradiction that surfaced when Confederates at least partially conceded that slaves were also men. “Gentlemen,” continued Sam, “do any of you know why we call that place Men—asses Junction? Well I’ll tell you; the abolitionists met us there and we were the men and they were the asses.”

Confederates slaves, which I will use interchangeably with the specific historical term “camp servants,” served a number of practical, political, and psychological purposes for the men in the ranks (The use of Confederates slaves rather than black Confederates is a critical distinction that I make. The former accurately conveys the role of coercion in the master slave relationship, which was also present in the Confederate army, even among white and black men who were emotionally close and shared the dangers of battle. Black Confederates obliterates the status and social reality of enslaved men and racializes them beyond any recognition as to their true function in Southern society). This paper will focus on how slaves created intellectual and practical dilemmas for a slaveholding class that needed slaves to be both subordinate and politically assertive. There were camp servants who picked up a musket in battle or rescued a wounded white soldier, but these acts were not patriotic expressions of Confederate loyalty as wartime Southerners and Lost Cause advocates have claimed. Patriotism is a purely voluntary act. The presence of coercion in slavery, moreover, creates an insurmountable challenge for those who want to describe slaves as Confederate heroes. In reality, many Confederate slaves capitalized upon the masters’ need for black political action to demonstrate a sense of self-worth that they had long repressed. While Confederate slaves successfully challenged popular conceptions of what it meant to be a black man, these “victories” did not earn them the public recognition they sought, nor did it insulate them from the brutality of an institution that was even more unpredictable and volatile within the setting of a Southern rebel army than it was on the plantation.

In 1861 white Southerners initially expected their slaves to contribute only their physical labor to the cause. They could not imagine nor did they desire that their camp servants would act like independent men who functioned outside the master’s realm. Although Confederates envisioned a dependent role for their slaves, they unwittingly expanded slave autonomy by requiring their camp servants to serve as both caretakers and comrades. To be sure, cleaning and cooking were the primary duties of camp servants, but white families, before sending their boys off to war, asked male slaves to act as the guardians of their young masters. It was common for the family matriarch or patriarch to tell a slave that they were responsible for protecting their sons from the moral and physical dangers of army life. Visual evidence further demonstrates that Confederates desired more than labor from their slaves. They needed to believe that a shared purpose existed between black and white, and early war photographs reveal this expectation. Many images show black and white men sitting together as brothers in arms, even though the slaves rarely carried a weapon. They are often touching, arms locked together. Camp servants were also forced to wear Confederate gray uniforms for the photographer. These images downplay hierarchy and coercion, and show how Southern whites imagined their slaves as Confederate companions and not just as someone to do laundry and cook.

Once a slave entered a Confederate camp, however, he quickly discovered that chores took precedence over comradeship. Living conditions were harsh and the work unrelenting. Confederate General Dorsey Pender complained in 1861 that “I am horrified to see how white men calling themselves gentlemen neglect their poor helpless negroes in this camp. They have free boys in most cases forced from home—and in several cases when they get sick they are allowed to die without any care on the part of those who are responsible for their well being.” Pender’s concern for the welfare of camp servants was rare. In fact, it is striking how little Confederate soldiers mentioned their camp servants by name in their correspondence. When they were identified, it was usually in regards to a task. The work routines and living patterns of camp servants goes beyond the scope of this paper, but this subject deserves greater attention from historians. There is no question that Confederate soldiers of all classes considered cleaning and cooking women’s labor. A number of scholars have made such an observation, but it is worth repeating that a Confederate’s basic comfort level and his sense of being a man depended upon having a camp servant. Soldiers of the slaveholding class were especially vocal in their need to have a camp slave to prove that they were gentlemen. Some Southerners even attributed military prowess to units that possessed scores of camp servants. Virginian John Wise, for instance, judged the 3rd Alabama to be an imposing military unit because it was followed by a train of slaves.

On a deeper, personal level, a white owner saw the camp servant as an extension of himself. Scholars like Eugene Genovese and Bertram Wyatt-Brown have brilliantly explored the interconnectedness between white and black identities, especially how white self-esteem and honor drew heavily from slave behavior. Confederate soldiers felt personally humiliated when their slaves ran off to the Federals. Most blamed the Yankees for stealing their “faithful servants,” but it was not always possible to deny the reality of black autonomy.

The battlefield stands out as a unique arena of political contestation where racial boundaries were extraordinarily fluid and slaves could show themselves to be brave, aggressive, and violent, just like any other white man. All of the emotions, bottled up from years of servitude could be released in combat without fear of white reprisals. As one might expect, slave reactions to combat were extraordinary varied. Many African Americans employed popular racial ideas to avoid danger. When a group of Georgia soldiers asked a slave why he always ran away from the enemy, he replied: “’You are white and I am a negro and can’t stand the racket.’” Some were willing to play the comedic sambo in order to earn a free pass behind the lines. The slaves who preferred strategies of self-preservation performed a vital psychological need for their masters. Not only did their actions confirm white notions about black manliness, but they also provided Confederate with an outlet to project their own fears in battle. North Carolinian Samuel Walkup, for instance, rarely divulged how his slave Hall felt about anything except when it came to combat. Walkup wanted the white and black folks back home to know that Hall stood by his side during the battle, but he also disclosed that his slave admitted to being “badly frightened” by the shelling. Hall was probably frightened, and chances are that Walkup and his white comrades were scared too, but Walkup used his slave to highlight his own courage, to hide his fears of battle, and to remind white folks that African Americans were incapable of acting like men.

To acknowledge that some slaves shouldered a musket in battle and fought next to their masters is not to validate the neo-Confederate perspective of black fidelity. The number of slaves who saw combat is impossible to determine and a distraction to a more critical and important lines of historical inquiry. Muster rolls and Compiled Service Records simply fail to convey the terms and motivations of slave military service. Anyone who reaches conclusions about black fidelity through crunching numbers cares little for complexity. For those who play the numbers game to demonstrate that legions of slaves were faithful Confederates do so, I believe, because it allows them to overlook the social context of bondage and the vast primary and secondary literature on slavery. In other words, they can purport to make scientific claims though numbers without ruffling their ignorance.

I urge us to put aside the numbers game and focus on the experience of slaves and Confederates soldiers. A critical issue I believe is how Confederates tried to reconcile black valor in battle to antebellum assumptions that slaves were not and could never be real men. Confederates never overcame this challenge during the war, unable to find a consistent way to explain slave behavior in battle. In most cases they invented comedic episodes to construe slave bravery as an aberration that still conveyed the inherent loyalty of slaves. Camp servant “Uncle Freeman,” for instance, left his master and worked a number of odd jobs in Richmond before rejoining his Mississippi regiment. He was portrayed upon his return as the “dutiful slave,” bringing molasses, bread, and sausage for the men. A member of the unit was impressed that Uncle Freeman ventured to the picket line despite the warnings of the other soldiers. As soon as the enemy opened fire, the slave disappeared with all the food. When he returned to the army a second time, Uncle Freeman told everyone how “the Yankees had blowed him plumb to Richmond.” The soldiers did not interpret his departure as an act of disloyalty to either his master or the Confederacy. In fact, the story of Uncle Freeman was employed to highlight common assumptions about black manliness—-that blacks would always shirk from danger and that they were not trustworthy. Even when a slave performed like a veteran solder, his white comrades were quick to define him as an outsider. After slave Levi Miller fought with the Texas brigade at the battle of the Wilderness, the soldiers elected him to an honorary position. This position did not bring him advancement or authority, which would have been the case if Miller had been white. Instead, the honorary position essentially turned him into a beloved mascot, and he became a source of amusement and comfort to the Confederate rank-and-file. According to one Texan, Miller was a “pet with every man.” The ease with which Confederates classified their slaves as something less than men is hardly surprising. Simply calling a slave a boy or uncle after a bloody battle could effectively blunt a camp servant’s claim to real male power.

On a day-to-day level, it was relatively easy for Confederates to deny camp servants like Levi Miller status as men. Public representations of slave valor, however, proved more difficult to finesse, especially after the North’s successful employment of black troops. Confederates could not afford to ignore slave participation in battle. To do so would be squandering an opportunity to show that African Americans were willing to die for their masters as well as a Southern nation. A Richmond newspaper editor in 1864 succinctly captured the challenge to the Confederacy: “What troops of the enemy have advanced more determinedly upon our breastworks and fought more gallantly than their colored? Will they not fight for their masters and mistresses, for their homes and firesides, better than for their worst enemies—the Northern minions?” Camp servants had raised the troubling question of arming the slaves long before this Richmond editor or Patrick Cleburne’s 1864 circular calling for the Confederate enlistment of African American soldiers. This paper will not address the 1864 and 1865 controversies regarding the arming of the slaves, but early war explanations of camp servant bravery helped form the intellectual foundation of the pro-slave enlistment argument.

The issue of slave behavior in battle pushed Confederates to think more deeply about the “fixed nature” of African Americans, and this inquiry was inextricably tied to questions of white manliness and its compatibility with army life. Early in the war many Confederate writers wondered if Southern men could surrender their independence for the collective exertions demanded by the cause. Obedience seemed to be lacking among white soldiers who fiercely resisted the restrictions of a new military regime. Battle-tested camp servants were juxtaposed to white soldiers who seemed irretrievably undisciplined. A few Confederate writers immediately recognized that slaves exhibited disciplined bravery in battle. The idea of disciplined bravery enabled Confederates to acknowledge the fighting potential of black men while reaffirming slave subordination. Savagery, a trait long associated with male slaves, was also a valued characteristic of any fighting man, but such a quality was ridiculously dangerous when connected to gun-toting African Americans. Rather than applaud the raw aggression of camp servants in battle and run the risk of either alienating proud white soldiers or scaring naïve civilians, Confederate writers articulated a neutered expression of black manliness that was firmly rooted within the racial and class boundaries of human bondage. A writer for the Richmond Enquirer captured this perspective: “With the negro, his has been a life of discipline; this portion of a soldier’s duty will consequently fall naturally to him, and will prevent all insubordination which might otherwise be expected to arise.”

The complex and contradictory ideas that Confederates held toward slaves in combat created opportunities for camp servants to expand their physical autonomy, to enhance their reputation in the quarters, and to exercise male power. In the army white men were forced to serve a higher authority, and military duty constrained the master’s ability to rule over his slaves. The lack of constant white supervision freed camp servants to do a number of things, including to sell their labor to other Confederates. One Confederate general Dorsey Pender was amused and irritated by the entrepreneurial success of his camp servant. “The rascal seems to have plenty of money, but I have ordered him to allow me to be his treasurer. He has managed to dress himself in a nice gray uniform, French bosom linen shirt—for which he paid $4—has two pairs [of] new shoes.” The slave’s fine clothing signified to Pender that he was losing control, and that his slave was challenging the established order, for plantation slaves were always issued the coarsest dress. The sight of a slave wearing French shirts constituted an insubordinate act to Pender.

The fluidity of slave life in the army, although vexing to Confederate soldiers, actually served whites well once furloughs became scarce. Camp servants ironically had the freedom to serve as the vital link between the home front and the military. Many slaves essentially became surrogate patriarchs as they, not white soldiers, could move between camp and plantation with minimal restrictions on their movements. On the farm, slaves executed their masters’ demands, surveyed operations, and returned to camp to report on conditions back home. African Americans in the Confederate ranks were quick to exploit their newfound power. They reminded their masters that they were the only men who could observe life on the farm and represent the interests of the absent white patriarch. Within the realities of slavery, camp servants received privileges and freedoms that gave them an undisputed leadership role in the slave community. Their elevated status inflated the self worth of many camp servants and created distance from those other slaves whom they considered inferior.

The preferential treatment that many camp servants received was not lost on the nonslaveholder in the Confederate army. Anger and frustration led some white soldiers to humiliate and physically abuse camp servants. But racism did not dictate a uniform set of reactions among Southern soldiers. One non-slaveholder in the ranks, for instance, asked the War Department to give every soldier a slave to be “his servant in camp & in battle to be a soldier by his masters side.” Although not a privileged officer, this white man still wanted the services of a slave and was willing to stand in the ranks next to an African American. The varied responses of white soldiers to Confederate slaves remind us how racism as a universal explanatory device prevents us from appreciating the diversity of attitudes and actions among Confederate soldiers.

Lost Cause writers and neo-Confederates today have emphasized companionship between white and black as proof of slaveholder benevolence and slave fidelity. While professional historians have successfully demolished this ridiculous interpretation, scholars have not fully explored the intimate relationships between Confederate soldiers and their slaves. Intimacy does not deny the role of coercion, violence, and humiliation. If we are to unmask the inner-thoughts of slaves and uncover the complex reasons why some risked their lives in battle, then we need to explore the emotional ties that existed between white and black men. Take for instance, the story of Georgia slave Neptune King, who ran a gauntlet of Union fire to recover the body of his owner, Henry King. The night before the fighting, King confided to Neptune his fears of the coming battle, of not returning to family in Georgia, and of his desire for a more spiritual life. Neptune was essentially King’s confessor, a fatherly role that Neptune had played since King’s youth. In fact, Neptune referred to King as “my young master.” The emotional ties of a lifetime elevated Neptune from a position of abject subservience to a place where he enjoyed the confidence of his owner. To be sure, this was not a partnership of equality, but a relationship of subordination that created voluntary and involuntary ties of dependence. Long after the war, Neptune still felt the emotional intensity of losing his owner. To a gathering of Confederate veterans, he recalled that the gunfire intensified when he found King’s body. Rather than go behind the lines, Neptune told the audience that he stood his ground, holding his owner’s lifeless body in his arms while shrapnel and bullets rattled around him. Neptune wanted his audience to know that he was never “afraid.”

We will never know all the reasons why Neptune remained with the Confederate army and ultimately risked his life for his dead owner. Fearing punishment for failing to bring home his master might have motivated Neptune. Maybe he had hoped for extra privileges for his black family back on the plantation or special recognition for such valorous behavior. It is possible that he accepted his position as a means of survival. What is clear, however, is that Neptune felt an emotional attachment to King, a bond that did not translate into a grand political act on behalf of the Confederacy as Southerners at the time insisted or some are deluded into believing today. Nor did Neptune take to the battlefield to demand rights and privileges reserved for white men. Rather, Neptune found the battlefield to be a racially neutral setting where he could show the world that he too was a man without risking a reprisal from Southern whites who saw him not as a comrade but as someone who was owned by another human being. Neptune’s proclamation of male power—that he felt no fear in battle—is fundamentally an assertion of self-worth and dignity in the face of a cruel system that either demeaned or demonized black men.

Unfortunately, Neptune’s story has been either co-opted by the neo-Confederate crowd as proof of black loyalty or quickly dismissed by some academics as white propaganda. Both groups need to stop sparring and start acting like historians. I am not hopeful that this will happen, as the political agendas of both sides will not allow either party to disengage. But for those who can put politics aside, who do not need to invent a mythical Confederate army of black and white brothers, and who do not need to demonize the white South for slavery, Neptune’s account might bring an end to this tiresome morality play. The combatants over this issue today, I might add, love to perform this play because it keeps the focus on them and not on the historical actors. If we put the spotlight on Neptune, however, his story reveals how little we know about the many and varied moments of emotional and physical intimacy that existed between males slave and their male owners. We must explore these complex encounters, which promise to reveal new insights into the master-slave relationship, African American manliness, and class divisions within the slave community as well as Confederate society as a whole.

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

60 comments… add one
  • J.K.Obatala Jul 31, 2013 @ 18:23

    Greetings from Africa. I grew up in Georgia–and emigrated to Nigeria 31 years ago. This is now my home. But I’m still a Southerner at heart. I am flattered, and honoured, that my Smithsonian article has received so much attention, since its publication in 1979. Please permit me to pay homage to the late Edwards Park, the Smithsonian Editor who had the foresight and the intellectual integrity to publish the article. His role is all the more noteworthy, since only once has any subsequent editor even bothered to answer a query from me–much less offer a commission. By contrast, Park actually published me twice. I submitted the Black Confederates story on commission. But Park had previously publiished a commissioned piece on “Black Students”. Best wishes to everyone. J.K. Obatala, author of “The Unlikely Story Of Blacks Who Were Loyal To Dixie”. August 1, 2013.

    • J.K. Obatala Aug 1, 2013 @ 16:18

      Greetings from Africa, again. Correction, please: I sent “The Unlikely Story Of Blacks Who Were Loyal To Dixie” to The Smithsonian Magazine on speculation–after Edwards Park had earlier published a commissioned article. Thank you. J.K. Obatala, Nigeria, August 1, 2013.

  • Gregg Jones Aug 26, 2009 @ 15:14

    Were there Confederates that were Jewish, Hispanic, Redmen, or Irish? Yes, there were minorities that fought for the South. Some books hold that there were Asians in the Tigers at Manassas. So how could there have been no Black Confederates? Frederick Douglass once said, “If a slave has a cruel master, then he will wish for a kind master. If a slave as a kind master, then he will wish for his freedom.” So even Douglass knew there were some kind masters and he did lament how so many Blacks would not desert their masters. If we have “kind” bosses, parents, or even masters, then some of us will feel loyalty to the leader of my tribe, family etc. It was enviable that some Blacks loved their homes in the South and accepted their home despite all the faults and hypocrisies.

    Simon Schama, a historian from our time, tells us “that history should never be confused with nostalgia. It is not to glorify the dead but to teach and inspire the living to new and better things. It is our cultural bloodstream. It is the secret ingredient that defines who we are and what we are capable of. It tells us let go of the past even as we honor it. We should lament what is lamentable and celebrate what should be celebrated. And if history reveals itself as a patriot, so be it.”

    So we know that there was Neptune. At a moment that was not planed he ended up as a hero. No body wanted him to be a hero. The North did not want him because the whole business of freeing oppressed people gets to look a little sheepish. In fact the North does not want any Black Confederates! The South has a way of life that holds all Blacks to be evolutionary sub to the White race; they don’t want Neptune either. I think that some people today have this same sad logic. Poor Neptune could have been as brave as Jove himself but no one will ever give that distinction to Neptune. In fact Neptune is an embarrassment for both the North and the South. I suspect they would prefer him dead. I say if history reveals any Black Confederate as a patriot, so be it.

    Gregg Jones

    • Kevin Levin Aug 26, 2009 @ 15:20


      Thanks but this comment has absolutely nothing to do with the content of Carmichael’s essay. I have no problem at all with 100,000 black Confederate heroes. Just get the primary documentation (wartime) and I will be satisfied. In the meantime let’s just try to figure out what it is we are talking about when analyzing the roles that slaves played in Confederate ranks.

  • Adam Aug 26, 2009 @ 9:01

    Excellent, fascinating article. I am interested no so much by the historical issue of proving how many black soldiers served the Confederacy, but by the complexity of human emotion, motivation and psychology (for both black and white Southerners) that you’ve presented here.

  • Gregg Jones Aug 23, 2009 @ 11:26

    I find it hard not to believe that there weren’t any Black Confederates. We have no problem is American Indians with the Confederates even though they were a minority. We know there were Free Black men who owned slaves. We have such an amount of information from Yankee sources that it was an important issue in their mail home and their newspapers. We have Yankees howling at the idea and how it was illogical for Blacks fighting for the Confederacy. Ever since the 1979 Smithsonian Magazine article by J.K. Obatala’s classic, “The unlikely story of blacks who were loyal to Dixie” which appeared in the March 1979 the issue of Black Confederates have gotten hotter. I suspect it will get hotter by 2011. If we had only rebel sources I would have doubts but such a topic got front page attention in the Yankee media (not just once but over and over) so it must have been an realization and it had more scope than what we would like to believe. I hope there is more dialog and I hope they are honored. Sometime I wonder if the issue is not the quantity of Black Confederates over the quality of Black Confederates?

    It is a great topic that has my interest.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2009 @ 11:31


      Before we talk about numbers we have to be clear about what exactly we are talking about. That is why Carmichael’s essay is instructive because it takes us beyond the ridiculous notion that large numbers served as official soldiers. Rather, we are talking about blacks who were present as slaves. No doubt, a few were able to serve openly or were able to hide their racial identities, but it looks like they were the exception to the rule. I recommend that you read Bruce Levine’s _Confederate Emancipation_ as a place to start on this subject. Thanks for the comment.

  • Brett Schulte Jul 26, 2008 @ 11:36

    Pete and Kevin,

    Thankd for the explanation ans suggestion for further reading. I have a better grasp on how slaves were (more accurately were not) counted on Confederat muster rolls. I’ll have to go check out the article as well.


  • Robert Moore Jul 26, 2008 @ 11:28


    I think you misunderstand me and my reasons behind commenting here and I encourage you to read an earlier comment I made about Charles Brown (not to mention the bulk of my posts on my own blog). As I stated, had there not been a 1920s newspaper clipping (that I ran across a few years ago) that gave a brief biographical sketch of one Charles Brown, I would have never thought to mesh that with the enlistment of one Charles Brown in the Combined Service Records of Co. K, of the 10th Virginia Infantry on June 5, 1864. I didn’t make this up, it’s there in the actual records and I’m quite sure I’m capable of sifting through data and interpreting Civil War service records.

    Yet, there is nothing else in the CSR to show anything about his service, and more importantly anything to show that he was black or a slave. Whether enlistments of slaves were illegal or not, the bottom line is that there is a record of this man enlisting (and, incidentally, neither the newspaper clipping or the enlistment record shows whether he was dark skinned or mulatto). Now, for what it’s worth, from the date of enlistment there is no evidence that he remained in the ranks, and for all I know, the enlistment may have either been symbolic appreciation for his “service” as a body servant up to that point, or shot down after the fact as not acceptable. I do know that there is no record of a pension for Brown.

    Then too, I recently posted on my own blog about a free black who was forced into the service of the Confederacy, but for a specific period of time for a specific purpose. The point of my posting was to show that his service, even as a driver of a wagon for the Confederacy, was anything but voluntary and that he lived under what appears to be regular threats against his life if he did not cooperate and serve the Confederacy. The Southern Loyalists claim that he filed reveals a part of the foundation upon which I draw my belief that free blacks in the ranks seems less likely (and I mentioned this earlier).

    Whether or not you “give a fig” about honoring service, if a person decides to honor service, that is up to them (and is the mission of groups like the SCV and SUVCW; the SUVCW being a rare entity in that it was Congressionally chartered – yes, you read that right – with the thought that rendering honors to Union soldiers is part of their responsibility). It can ONLY BE OUR HOPE that ANY honors rendered are done so with a good base understanding of the facts and not based on a blanket perception (“misperception” is probably more accurate) that just because somebody served, that he (or, dare I say… “she”) was necessarily “gung-ho” for the “Cause,” whatever that cause may have been. Sadly, misperceptions of spirit and motivation are rampant in rendering honors, whether that be for white Confederate, black Confederates, white Union soldiers and sailors or black Union soldiers or sailors. While all of this can be difficult to swallow, it is painfully obvious that performing watchdog duties over the facts in the discussion of Black Confederates is necessary these days.

  • Richard Williams Jul 26, 2008 @ 11:16


    (I’ve put your initials after the comments I’m responding to in order to make it easier for readers to follow.)

    You’re welcome. Yes, you could certainly define nationalism more broadly, but I was using that narrow definition to try to explain the Southern slaves’ “patriotism.” Perhaps I should have just left it at this: Many of the slaves loved their “country”, i.e. the land, the people. They did not love the government (US before secession, CS after.) They were patriotic in that sense.

    A modern analogy would be Americans who love their country—our founding principles, the land, its people, etc., but aren’t real enamored with the current administration(s). Present day neo-cons (as well as many liberals) would be a good example of nationalists, IMHO, who do love their government.

    “I assume you mean because the government specifically cited the preservation of slavery in its constitution.” – KM

    Possibly, but I doubt many slaves read the CSA constitution, but, generally, the slaves perceived the Union’s “cause” was to “set them free” and the CSA (government) opposed the Union (government).

    “Is country to be understood as bigger than nationalism/government or even more local where communities differed in terms of the way slaves and whites interacted with one another?” – KM

    Yes. Bigger in the sense that it’s more important on a personal level. “Government”—especially national government—is a huge, faceless, impersonal, cold, and often cruel entity. That, of course, still holds true today, which is why the Jeffersonian wing of the founders wanted to keep it small and “controllable.”

    Perhaps growing up in the South and in what was/is still agrarian and more “community oriented” in many pockets, makes this distinction easier for me & harder for those from different parts of the country to fully understand. (No disrespect meant.)

    “I agree that his bravery, etc. should not be diminished because he was a slave.” KM

    Exactly. Using another less than perfect analogy, we do not distinguish between Vietnam war vet’s bravery who were drafted and those who volunteered. Many of those soldiers (draftees) were against the war in a political sense, but also would have—and did—die fighting for and with their commanding officers who may have had opposite views regarding the political aspects of the conflict. They were brave and they were heroes, despite the fact they may have been against the political reasons for the war and may even have “hated” their government, but not their “country.”

    Again, though not a perfect analogy, I think similar principles and feelings applied to some of the black Confederates, as well as the Confederate slaves. Thus, they too deserve honor and recognition for their deeds and their service.

    “In fact, you acknowledge that only after the war was their participation acknowledged and honored. It suggests to me that their status as slaves, along with their racial assumptions about blacks, prevented them from doing so.” KM

    Not exactly. Let me clarify. This is where the country vs. government, and whole patriotic theme comes back into play. Ervin Jordan notes that only in the soldier’s diaries, journals, letters, etc. did these black Confederates get any “appreciation.” These common soldiers were in the best position to note that service—they were their “countrymen” in that narrow sense—“community” despite the racial divide and their prejudices. The official or “government” reports failed to duly mention (though I do believe there are a few exceptions to that as well) the service and sacrifice of these men. Of course, this attitude began to change near the end of the war, partly out of desperation, but also perhaps due to a growing recognition that these men could and would provide valuable service to the South’s cause. But, yes, as I already stated most did not get the official recognition they should have until after the war.

    “Finally, I agree that most people would want to see acts of bravery honored, but I do have a problem when it is done by the SCV.” KM

    Why? I think we are in agreement that is what should have been done in the first place. The descendants are simply correcting the neglect of their ancestors. If these men served in the Confederate Army, the SCV is the only officially (501c3) recognized organization set up to honor those who served in the Confederate military.

    “I understand the function of the SCV as an organization whose expressed purpose is to honor the service and memory of their Confederate ancestors.” KM

    The SCV mission is broader than that.

    “These are the same ancestors who, regardless of whether they owned slaves or not, or even approved or disapproved of the institution, fought for a government whose expressed purpose was the preservation of slavery.” and “It would be one thing if we could demonstrate that the individual in question volunteered without any coercion. . .” KM

    Go back to my Vietnam analogy. Being drafted is certainly coercion. Admittedly Kevin, it is a complicated relationship and the issue is probably one in which we will simply have to agree to disagree. I think your problem is that you and others perceive the SCV as “using” these men in a political sense. I am a realist and, doubtless, some of that goes on. But that goes back to making assumptions. It goes on with today’s soldiers as well. Some of that is unavoidable. But for many others (I honestly believe most), it is truly a sincere expression of doing what is the right thing to do. And that is my position.

    “However, given that you have already admitted that the majority of cases involve Confederate slaves, [does that surprise you?] I would like to see their bravery and heroism acknowledged as that of a slave. In short, I want their identity as a slave emphasized because that renders their actions that much more remarkable from my perspective.” KM

    I have no problem acknowledging that a black Confederate was a slave. But depending on what you mean by “emphasizing”—that could also be used to exploit these men politically. This delicate balance goes back to what Pete mentioned in the last paragraph of his original post. Would you not agree?

    As I stated before, I also think that makes their bravery (especially for those who fought or performed an act like Neptune) all the more exceptional as well as intriguing. Irony is always an important and integral part of an interesting story. Which is one of the reasons we love history, right?

  • Marc Ferguson Jul 26, 2008 @ 10:14

    This is a follow-up to my previous comment, since I probably came across as churlish. One of my biggest problems with the “black Confederate” question is the use of language to describe the circumstances of blacks who accompanied the armies. As I wrote before, I think that saying blacks served with or in Confederate armies does violence to the realities of their situation. I have to say that I personally don’t give a fig about “honoring” anybody’s service, but if we really want to give due honor to the experience of those slaves and free blacks who labored for the Confederacy, we should honor them for enduring, not for some imagined, or occasionally genuine, act of “loyalty” or “bravery” on the battlefield when in the fog of war they may have picked up a gun or dragged someone, for any number of reasons, from a battlefield. To bring all of this back to Weary Clyburn, the stories he later told his family, in the 1920s it must be remembered, or something that was written down in a letter requesting a pension, can tell us much about the social and cultural realities, and fantasies, of Jim Crow and of how people accommodated that world and came to terms with their pasts and identities, but they most certainly cannot be taken at face value for their historical accuracy.


  • Marc Ferguson Jul 26, 2008 @ 9:45

    You wrote: “I would think that the number of slaves exceeded the number of free blacks in the ranks of the Confederate army. Granted, I’ve only found one black from Page County in the Confederate army, but he was a slave.”

    On the basis of what besides speculation do you arrive at this conclusion? You claim to have found the record of one slave who enlisted, but my understanding is that no individuals recognized as “colored” could legally enlist, and furthermore on what basis could a slave, someone only recognized as property and with no agency of his own, enlist? Considering everything else we know, whatever this discovery of yours represents, and we can’t really be sure, the best we can say it seems to me is that this is some kind of anomaly/curiosity that we don’t know enough about the particular circumstances to explain. As for the number of slaves in the ranks of the Confederate army, I return us to the question of why no one seems to have known they were there, including General Cleburne, General Lee, or Jefferson Davis? Why did the question have to be so hotly debated? Why, in all the records, speeches, and letters of the time did no one point out that slaves had already enlisted and were serving honorably in the ranks? As Kevin pointed out, we know that a few free “blacks,” invariably “mulattoes,” did enlist, but we also know that they almost certainly did so by “passing” for white. Generally when discovered, they were discharged. This, in my opinion, does not provide evidence of blacks serving, but that anyone of mixed racial ancestry was considered black, and so this is better seen as evidence of the social and racial reality that one was better off identifying oneself as white. In other words, it was an opportunity for racial assimilation. Finally, I just think it does violence to the historical realities to talk about slaves “serving” in the army.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 26, 2008 @ 9:37

    Robert, — I guess my comment wasn’t clear, but I too believe that the number of slaves far exceeded the number of free blacks.

  • Robert Moore Jul 26, 2008 @ 9:09


    Actually, I would think that the number of slaves exceeded the number of free blacks in the ranks of the Confederate army. Granted, I’ve only found one black from Page County in the Confederate army, but he was a slave. In my experience, free blacks. for the most, appeared to threaten the social structure, while slaves were more effectively “managed” by being under the system of slavery. Just the other day, I posted about a free black in Page County who was forced into the service of the Confederacy (as a laborer), but the point is that he was “forced.” He was no volunteer for the service of the Confederacy.

    While the effort to find Black Confederates continues, I think you are absolutely correct about blacks “voting with their feet.” Clearly, the number in the U.S.C.T., the Navy, and in other capacities, not to mention those that just went North, outweighs any number that can be presented as soldiers in the Confederate army. Then too, what they encountered in any of those roles was not necessarily an “oasis.”

    On another note, I want to clarify that the Act of 1924 (Virginia) was not limited to pensions for body servants. It also included other categories of workers and thereby was not limited to being of service to blacks, free or slave, at the time of the war. The work has yet to be done, but I think that those who benefited from this pension will prove dominantly white.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 26, 2008 @ 8:28

    Robert, — Thanks for the comment and for following up on some of my points. It’s the bigger picture that the SCV and others are trying to lay out which troubles me and I think this is where the numbers game and the kinds of distinctions that Pete is making are relevant. As I’ve said on many occasions, I have no doubt that a small number of black southerners (and I want to qualify this by saying free black southerners) fought gallantly in Confederate armies. If the SCV wants to honor their service so be it; all I ask is that sufficient research be carried out along with steering clear of those who were present as slaves – regardless of their experiences while present.

    The bigger picture clearly points to the fact that black southerners overwhelmingly voted with their feet on this issue by running away as fugitives. This is not to suggest that the North or even the Union army represented an oasis, but it is to suggest that they did not identify with the Confederacy. In short, it warps the historical picture beyond any reasonable extent. What possible reason could the SCV have to acknowledge the presence of Confederate slaves when by the turn of the 20th century most African American had been divested of their civil rights and subjected to Jim Crow laws. Perhaps we could view recent commemorations of black Confederates as a form of apology given the way the supposed thousands of black Confederate veterans were treated after the war, but I don’t believe that is what the SCV intends.

  • Robert Moore Jul 25, 2008 @ 22:44

    I’d like to add to/take another angle on Kevin’s comment about the SCV and what appears to be the SCV’s use/exploitation of black Confederates to promote the ideals of white Confederate ancestry.

    Honoring blacks who served in the ranks of the army is a challenging thing. If it can be proved (and I think I’ve found proof that one African-American from my home county actually did, at least enlist, in the Confederate army), conclusively, that a black served in the ranks of the Confederate army and did so honorably, sure, this falls within the mission of the SCV. However, as Kevin points out, this does seem a bit awkward considering the very nature of the Confederate government.

    I will also add that finding conclusive proof of honorable service is a difficult thing as Confederate military records pose a huge problem to researchers. The information on paper cannot be taken at face value. There is a need to look between the lines (in the case of white soldiers, I challenge many to look at the enlistment dates of soldiers and create a timeline, comparing dates of enlistment with the enforcement of the three – though I would argue that there was also an unwritten “fourth” – Confederate Conscription Acts… it makes one ponder why those men enlisted only at that time). After transcribing the records of twenty-seven Virginia artillery companies from the late 1980s through 2001, even I did not realize the need to read between the lines until the last few years (something, I think, that would have made me more critical of the way that I wrote the unit histories).

    Furthermore, as many who have plowed through the Combined Service Records know, in 1864, most records end leaving a major question as to what happened to the soldier. Enlistment records are also vague, often not clarifying if an enlistment was actually a conscription (I’ve come upon this situation more frequently in the last couple of years where military records do not list conscription, yet the statements of other veterans make it clear that some soldiers were conscripts… and sometimes very unwilling at that).

    All of this said, it concerns me a great deal that there are a number of people in the SCV who like to, as Pete mentions, play a “numbers game” and throw out large numbers, “guesstemations,” if you will, about the number of blacks in the ranks of the Confederate army. To me, this is an effort being made to justify the nature of the white Confederates’ reasons for fighting and de-vilify the darker side of the multi-tiered symbolism of the Confederate flag. After all, how could Confederate soldiers possibly be for slavery if the slave is fighting side by side with the white soldier? Furthermore, if blacks fought in the ranks of the Confederate army, how could it be that the Confederate flag would be found offensive to blacks? It’s all a part of the “make everybody feel-good effort about the Confederate flag” being made by the SCV. So, to me, the effort to find “thousands” of Black Confederates purely in the name of honoring those African-Americans is anything but pure… the motivation becomes more clear each time unverifiable numbers are thrown on the table by the speculators.

    I think this is a sorry way to make a positive point about the nature of the Confederate soldier and the Confederate flag, especially when the spirit and quality of the soldiers can stand on their own merit. Though the effort to find the black Confederates is an interesting addition to discussion about the complexities of the Civil War/WBTS, the gross speculation deteriorates both intelligent discussion of the topic and does nothing for the new-era Confederate remembrance effort (except those who make themselves feel good/justified by touting numbers).

    Bottom line, if blacks served in the Confederate army and did so honorably, and the white Confederates found that service so honorable, why wasn’t there are stronger effort made by those white Confederates (they were in many cases, after all, the “best of friends”) to support “thousands” of pensions for those Black Confederate soldiers and servants. Why wasn’t the effort made when the Confederates themselves were lobbying their state government officials to make the veteran pensions possible in the first place?

    Lastly, Rick, no disrespect intended, but as for the Virginia Servants’ Pension Act of 1924, how many black servants have you actually found on the rolls of that pension? This is a sincere question as my own research, though limited to one county (so far), turned up nothing but white pensioners. There wasn’t an African-American among the number.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 25, 2008 @ 16:54

    Richard, — First, thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response to Peter’s essay. Your comment alone made this little experiment worthwhile. For now I just want to respond to a couple of point you made in your response and leave it to Peter to address your points re: the content of his essay.

    I was intrigued by your distinction between country and nation, though I am not quite sure if I follow. You define nationalism as a love of government (I would define it more broadly, but that can wait.) and make the point that this is not what the slave would have loved. I assume you mean because the government specifically cited the preservation of slavery in its constitution. Perhaps I am wrong, but that makes sense to me. You then go on to suggest that you have “no doubt many loved their country and, yes, in many cases its white inhabitants.” This is where you lose me, as I am not sure of the distinction you are getting at. Is country to be understood as bigger than nationalism/government or even more local where communities differed in terms of the way slaves and whites interacted with one another? Perhaps my problem is that love as a descriptive term to describe the relationship between slave and master is too vague or even too narrow. This is one of the reasons why I appreciate Pete’s piece. He may not have the specific interpretation right, but he has given us a much broader palate to work with in terms of understanding the emotional and psychological complexity of the slave-master relationship during war. You admit that the distinction is blurry so I will leave it to you to clarify if you so choose. Before moving on I agree that slavery did lead, under certain circumstances, to mutual affection between master and slave, but that is not necessarily interesting in and of itself since we see the same thing in prison camps and we can even acknowledge it in the Concentration Camps of WWII. I am not suggesting that we equate slavery with these other examples, but to show that systems of oppression can lead to all kinds of human interaction.

    Your points about acknowledging slaves as heroes and commemoration also struck me as interesting. I have to admit that when I read the section on Neptune I also thought that he displayed characteristics that we associate with battlefield heroes. Further, I agree that his bravery, etc. should not be diminished because he was a slave. These are indeed the hallmarks of manliness during battle, but one of the things that Peter’s essay pointed to is that Confederates did not always acknowledge their behavior as such. In fact, you acknowledge that only after the war was their participation acknowledged and honored. It suggests to me that their status as slaves, along with their racial assumptions about blacks, prevented them from doing so. To acknowledge bravery on the battlefield by blacks implied their worth as individuals, which would have constituted a threat to the racial assumptions justifying slavery itself. No doubt there is some tension here. I should point out that the same thing can be seen in Northern units. In my study of the Crater I am finishing up a section on how white Union soldiers perceived their fellow black comrades after the battle. The overwhelming number of wartime accounts clearly reveals that black soldiers were blamed for the defeat; very few white soldiers were able to acknowledge any display of manliness and bravery on the battlefield owing to their racism.

    Finally, I agree that most people would want to see acts of bravery honored, but I do have a problem when it is done by the SCV. I understand the function of the SCV as an organization whose expressed purpose is to honor the service and memory of their Confederate ancestors. These are the same ancestors who, regardless of whether they owned slaves or not, or even approved or disapproved of the institution, fought for a government whose expressed purpose was the preservation of slavery. The army must be understood as an extension of that constitution. It would be one thing if we could demonstrate that the individual in question volunteered without any coercion for Confederate service and somehow managed to go unnoticed as a black man. In that case a commemoration by men who represent the men who fought in the Confederate would perhaps be appropriate. I say this because there are plenty of examples where black men were forced out of the service once their racial identity was known. However, given that you have already admitted that the majority of cases involve Confederate slaves, I would like to see their bravery and heroism acknowledged as that of a slave. In short, I want their identity as a slave emphasized because that renders their actions that much more remarkable from my perspective. As far as I can tell from the available evidence provided in news clips Weary Clyburn was a slave and not a Confederate soldier.

    Just to close I wanted to say that I agree entirely with you re: the blogger/author in question, which you reference at the beginning of your comment. I know exactly who you are talking about and I find him to be careless in his accusations and even sloppy in his analysis. I also think that interviewing descendants of black Confederates/Confederate slaves would be very interesting. My guess is that no one has carried out a such a project. Last summer I interviewed a couple of black reenactors with the 54th Massachusetts and they emphasized how little they knew about the Civil War growing up and into their adult years. It might be interesting to canvass a much larger group.

    I’m sure I will think of some other things to say, but that’s it for now. Thanks again for giving my readers much to think about and please don’t hesitate to clarify your own points or question mine. We all benefit from it.

  • Dan McCown Jul 25, 2008 @ 11:49

    Anyone interested in the importance of slavery to the South should read Dr. Randolph Campbell’s book “A Southern Community in Crisis.” This is a history of Harrison county Texas during the period from 1850 through reconstruction. Harrison county came into existence in the late 1830s by people settling there from the deep South states. Virtually over night a plantation society and culture was created based on slave labor. By 1860 the county had the largest number of slaves in the state of Texas, was the first to have the telegraph and saw the railroad come to the county seat, Marshall, (the same Marshall, Texas as in the movie the “Great Debaters”). Dr. Campbell does an excellent job of showing how slavery created this culture, economy and society based slaves brought from deep south states.

  • Peter Carmichael Jul 25, 2008 @ 10:28

    Dear Richard:

    I really appreciate your thoughtful comments and the civility in which you expressed them. I am a little jammed today so I probably won’t respond your comments until this weekend. If I don’t take my three-year old twin girls to the pool, they will rise up and divide my househld in an ugly rebellion. They say they are being political! I tell them that they are just throwing fits


    • Richard Williams Jun 16, 2012 @ 17:52

      I know this is a very old post, and perhaps no one cares any more, but I still do. Pete never clarified what appears to me to be contradictions regarding his comment: “the overwhelming historical evidence of mutual closeness between blacks and whites within the Slave South” vs. his comment in this post: “Lost Cause writers and neo-Confederates today have emphasized companionship between white and black as proof of slaveholder benevolence and slave fidelity. While professional historians have successfully demolished this ridiculous interpretation . . .”

      In one comment he affirms this relationship, and then he does a 180 – which is it?

      • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2012 @ 1:55


        Obviously, I can’t speak for Pete, but for what it’s worth here is my take. I just finished writing a short piece for the NYTs Disunion column about Captain John Christopher Winsmith and his slave Spencer. The two spent the first sixteen months of the war together and in his letters there is plenty of evidence of a shared experience. Both men experienced the hardships of camp life and battle as well as the pain of being away from loved ones. They even took care of one another when dealing with various health issues. Of course, any assumption we make about their mutual feelings for one another comes without any evidence from Spencer himself. Even if we assume a certain closeness we should not overlook the fact that this relationship was defined by force. As a slave Spencer had no choice but to go with Winsmith to war. Lost Cause writers take the evidence of mutual closeness and use it to define the nature of the relationship itself. It was not. It also ignores the physical and psychological pain that slaves suffered.

        In July 1862 Spencer disappeared which left Winsmith wondering why. He always assumed he was a benevolent master and never considered the possibility that Spencer may have wanted to be free.

        • Richard Williams Jun 18, 2012 @ 6:45

          Thanks Kevin – all valid points. I still see quite a bit of contradiction in Pete’s two comments, without his clarification. But your explanation could be his position as well. I maintain that often, both views make a lot of assumptions about the specific thoughts of both the slave and master.

  • Richard Williams Jul 25, 2008 @ 10:02

    First, full disclosure: I am here by invitation of Messrs Carmichael and Levin. I sincerely appreciate their courtesy in asking for my comments and thoughts on Professor Carmichael’s post regarding African-Americans who served in the Confederate Army. I must admit, however, that I feel like a lamb who’s been invited over for supper at the local lion’s den. I want to point out that my comments are only in response to what Pete originally wrote (with one exception), and not to the various comments that have since followed that post. None of my comments, though at times pointed, are intended to be insulting or disrespectful in any way to either Pete or Kevin.

    The invitation to comment came, in part, due to a rather testy post on my blog in which I took certain Civil War historians and academics to task for their attitude toward non-academics (like me) who also study and write about the (May I be so bold?), War Between the States, a.k.a. the Civil War.

    It is both Pete’s and Kevin’s stated desire to open a dialogue, as Kevin noted, “between various camps within the Civil War community.” Though I am in no way an expert on African-Americans who served in the Confederate Army and while I am less than optimistic about the outcome of any exchange, I am willing to try to bring something constructive to the discussion at hand. If nothing else, perhaps my comments will allow some of my academic friends to release some long pent up endorphins.

    Regarding your piece Pete, I found some in it with which I agreed and some with which I did not agree, or did not completely understand the point you were trying to make. It was certainly well written and raises some valid questions. But some of the things you stated are so obvious I’m not quite sure why you wrote them. I think many academics feel the need to constantly remind Southerners and Civil War “buffs” that slavery was evil and that 19th century Americans held prejudiced views on race. Moreover, I believe many academics (not necessarily you) often assume that just because someone belongs to the SCV, or writes admiringly of Lee or Jackson, or reenacts, or points out that African-Americans did serve in the Confederate Army—in various capacities and for various reasons—that they believe slavery really wasn’t “all that bad” or that “slavery had nothing to do with the war” or that they are a “neo-Confederate” (codespeak for slavery apologist). I actually read one blogger who has accused everyone from George Bush, to Bill Clinton, to the Boy Scouts of being “neo-Confederates.” Of course, you could also throw in Dr. Walter Williams, who recently served as chair of the economics department at George Mason University, as well as Virginia Democratic Senator James Webb; who have both written positive comments regarding the Confederacy, Confederate soldiers, and the Confederate Battle flag. Quite an eclectic group, would you not agree?

    That particular line of discussion is based on false assumptions and stereotypes and leads to much of the disconnect and mistrust among the various “camps.” I, too, would like to move beyond that if we can. I don’t need convincing that slavery was evil. I don’t need convincing that 19th century Americans, North as well as South, held views that by 21st century standards were racist. (At the same time, let’s remember that 19th century Americans were just that, 19th century Americans.)

    And one more item before I get into the meat of some of your comments Pete; in one of your follow up posts, you mention “they” and then follow with a comment that the “psychological” perspectives of “they” (in regards to the subject at hand) need to be looked into. That is “s-o-o-o academia” (if not condescending) and sounds like something that would come from Dr. Phil. You probably lost a lot of folks with that one comment. I’m sure it makes those to whom you are referring feel like you believe they have some type of mental disorder and that you want to psychoanalyze their every syllable. I should warn you: if you start probing into the minds of Southern Civil War enthusiasts you will most assuredly find some nuts—if that’s what you’re looking for—but you will also most assuredly end up one yourself. I can promise you that. I would suggest historians leave that line of work to the psychiatric professionals who have less to risk.

    I will not attempt to address every single point of your original post, but I’ll try to hit the highlights. First, I do believe that there were both Confederate slaves and black Confederates. I am certainly one who agrees there were far more of the former than the latter, but there were both. Those who have wildly exaggerated the numbers of black Confederates have done nothing but call into question the whole notion. But I do not accept the premise of your blanket definition of “black Confederates.” This is complicated and while some would fit your definition, others would not. Regarding your comment about patriotism and the slaves, I believe that, too, needs to be explored a little more. I, as well as many Americans, would define patriotism as a love of a country and its people. Nationalism would be a love for the government, in this case, the Confederate government and what it stood for in the minds of the slaves. The slaves certainly did not love “their” government, but I have no doubt many loved their country and, yes, in many cases its white inhabitants. In that sense, they were patriotic. I think it is important to make a distinction between the two and acknowledge that they were patriotic in that context. Admittedly, the lines become blurred and further complicate the issue.

    I would also strongly disagree with your conclusion that, “The presence of coercion in slavery, moreover, creates an insurmountable challenge for those who want to describe slaves as Confederate heroes.” A hero is defined, simply, as “a man distinguished by exceptional courage, nobility, and strength.” Neptune certainly fits that description. His heroism should not be diminished simply because he was a slave and his heroic deed (putting his life at great risk) involved retrieving the body of his dead, white master. If anything, in my mind, that makes his heroism all the more “exceptional.” He is but one example. I do not see that as an “insurmountable challenge.”

    Furthermore I think your suggestion that, “Fearing punishment for failing to bring home his master might have motivated Neptune”, defies logic. Certainly Neptune would not have preferred being shot to being “punished”—even if that punishment involved physical abuse.

    I agree with the anecdotal evidence you present regarding the “Ebony Idols” article and that it reveals that many of the white Confederates viewed the blacks within their ranks as “pets” and that the intent of the article was mocking, demeaning, and meant to keep these men “in their place.” I could, of course, present anecdotal evidence of my own regarding the bravery and honorable service of black Confederates (or Confederate slaves) that garnered the admiration and respect of the white Confederate soldiers with whom they served. Neptune serves as one of those examples, as does Stonewall Jackson’s body servant, Jim Lewis, who I’ve written about. There are others.

    In reference to Sam describing “bullets as ‘singing’ around [his] head ‘like mosquitoes in a big cypress swamp’” I don’t find anything of relevance there. Many white soldiers made very similar analogies when describing battlefield experiences. I don’t think that advances your argument in any way. Perhaps I’m missing something?

    You write: “While Confederate slaves successfully challenged popular conceptions of what it meant to be a black man, these ‘victories’ did not earn them the public recognition they sought…” I wholeheartedly agree. As Ervin Jordan has noted: “Only in the reminiscences of ex-Confederates are body servants given any sort of appreciation.” Virginia did not even pass legislation awarding pensions to blacks who had served in the Confederate Army until 1924. Which is a good reason, I believe, to honor them now in ways that does not demean their service, i.e. placing a simple headstone where they are buried noting that service, writing of their bravery and service in honest terms for the fact that many of these men faced the dangers of battle and risked death. Regardless of all the reasons they were there, I find it difficult to believe most would not want some recognition of their service.

    While it is an inadequate analogy, the African-Americans who served during WWII were subjected to segregation, racism, and prejudices by the very country they were fighting for, yet they deserved and eventually got the recognition they earned, though some only very recently.

    You wrote in referring to the slave who was able to purchase fine clothes that, “The slave’s fine clothing signified to Pender that he was losing control, and that his slave was challenging the established order, for plantation slaves were always issued the coarsest dress. The sight of a slave wearing French shirts constituted an insubordinate act to Pender.” There must be more to that story than what you write. If not, I think it’s quite a leap to the conclusion you draw. At best, conjecture.

    You wrote: “Lost Cause writers and neo-Confederates today have emphasized companionship between white and black as proof of slaveholder benevolence and slave fidelity. While professional historians have successfully demolished this ridiculous interpretation . . .”

    I’m really confused on that point. Are you disavowing what you wrote in your review of “Within the Plantation Household” by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese which appeared in the October 2007 edition of Civil War Times when you noted:

    “No one can ignore the overwhelming historical evidence of mutual closeness between blacks and whites within the Slave South . . .” You continue that sentence with the fact that Ms. Fox-Genovese “reminds us that such feelings were expressed in a system that bought and sold African-Americans.” I understand that, but the closeness did, despite the evils of slavery, exist. You seem to be denying this in the quote from your post, after affirming it in the CWT piece.

    You have further laudatory remarks about her book which seem to contradict what you wrote in the blog post: “Contextualizing these expressions of animosity as well as love and respect are essential if we want to understand the broader patterns of thought and action in the old South. [I agree.] Fox-Genovese provides a rich analysis of these fascinating confrontations between slave and master without losing her critical eye or her amazing capacity for empathy. Like no other historian before or since, she has explained how white and black Southerners could retain their own sense of humanity while living in the inhumane world of chattel slavery.”

    Again, these comments appear to me to affirm what you dismiss in the post. What have I missed here or have you now come to a different conclusion? This is an honest question.

    And then some final thoughts on your last paragraph:

    “But for those who can put politics aside, who do not need to invent a mythical Confederate army of black and white brothers, and who do not need to demonize the white South for slavery, Neptune’s account might bring an end to this tiresome morality play. The combatants over this issue today, I might add, love to perform this play because it keeps the focus on them and not on the historical actors. If we put the spotlight on Neptune, however, his story reveals how little we know about the many and varied moments of emotional and physical intimacy that existed between males slave and their male owners. We must explore these complex encounters, which promise to reveal new insights into the master-slave relationship, African American manliness, and class divisions within the slave community as well as Confederate society as a whole.”

    I could not agree with you more here, though the reference to “insights” into “manliness and class divisions” sounds too much like trendy fads in historiography which bore me to death (more Dr. Phil). Your main points in this paragraph are, nonetheless, right on; especially your remarks about the two extreme points of view and the need to keep the focus on the “historical actors.”

    One final question to those interested in this topic. Have any of you actually had any contact or conversations with any descendants of African-Americans who served in the Confederacy and who believe their ancestors served honorably and deserve recognition?

    Thanks again for the opportunity to comment. Normal programming will now resume. 🙂

  • Chris Meekins Jul 24, 2008 @ 22:33

    Thumbing through the Confederate Veteran Magazine looking for something else (of course) I encountered any number of stories directed at “Black Confederates.” Far from being new in the argument, these stories date at least to the 1910’s. The one I remember most vividly was a veteran refuting any such service of slaves under arms. And as a good editor would do, on the same page they ran a smaller story of someone who claimed to have seen slaves under arms.
    This uncertainty, veterans disagreeing amongst themselves, from almost 100 years ago does little to add or subtract from current investigations but it does dispel, perhaps, the idea of this being a new discussion.
    Might be that a thorough going through the CV magazine would give insight to the larger question, then again it might not.

  • Robert Moore Jul 24, 2008 @ 20:48


    Actually, I do remember something other than the story about Charles Brown. In researching the history of the Charlottesville Artillery, I found an account of the sergeant major who mentioned an incident involving two body servants (Thornton and Jim) who were accompanying the unit enroute to Gettysburg. If you have a copy of the book, the reference is on page 28 (sixth paragraph). If not, I can transcribe it for you.


  • Robert Moore Jul 24, 2008 @ 20:36

    Hi Pete,

    As I mentioned, the only significant find that I had for Page County was about Charles Brown of Co. K, 10th Virginia Infantry. The newspaper article is from the 1920s, so I can’t say just how reliable the info really is. Little about interaction with the Confederates he served, but you might find it of some use. See below for the transcription. Also, did you have any luck with the Virginia Servants’ Pensions at the Lib. of Va.?

    Best, Robert

    Article from 1920 in the Page News & Courier (Luray, Va)

    “Cooked for Page Confeds”

    “Charles Brown, colored, of Pennsylvania, a native of this county, is a specimen of his race with a record for push and progressiveness. Way back in the year 1846, Brown was born near Rileyville and was the property of Miss Sophia Wood, falling to her by the distribution of slaves during the division of her father’s effects. Brown, who is in Luray on a visit after an absence of twenty-five years, was born on the river west of Rileyville, at the place once owned by the late Minor Conn, who was the grandson of Joshua Wood, at one time a leading land owner of the northern part of Page County. The venerable specimen of his race recalls many of the stirring things that were co-temperaneous with his boyhood days in the Rileyville section, telling how often at the midnight hour he had crossed the Shenandoah river in a frail craft in search of the most popular ‘medicine’ that was known in those days and which he says was a panacea for all ills. This, the old man says, always brought the patient around alright and he says it did not have its modern successor – a ‘bursting’ headache. Brown says along about the year ’62, when this country was in strife Captain David C. Grayson, of Washington; Dr. T.H. Lauck, of Texas, and the late Lee Bell, of Lynchburg, learning of his goodly cooking qualities, sought his services as a cook in the Confederate army. Through a part of the war Brown went with these men looking after their welfare on this line. He was with them at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, assisting in the burial of Confederate dead. The old man, crippled by his 74 years, says that the only difference he has been able to see between slavery days and the present were the restrictions that were thrown around him going where he wanted though this he believes was offset by the plentitude of all things good to eat in those times. Brown claims his part in the awakening of Luray thirty and forty years ago, for he says he was the first man that ever struck a pick for the excavation for the famous Luray Inn and the passenger station at this place, declaring also he took part in building the stations between Charles Town. W.Va. and Luray, later going to Roanoke where he did similar work while in the employ of the late Julius C. Holmes, of Charles Town, who it is known had this work in hand. After working in Roanoke for a while, Brown was stricken with ‘Pennsylvania fever,’ going to Washington, in that State, where he has ever since resided as a janitor of a number of public buildings and to which he will return as soon as he has looked over he scenes that brought happiness to him in the days when he was a Page pickaninny.”

    Pete, also, he is in the 10th Va. Inf. book as having enlisted 6/5/64, but no indication of race or further service beyond enlisting.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 24, 2008 @ 19:11

    Richard, — Peter may not agree, but I would recommend starting with his biography of William Pegram. [You can find a link to the book in the introduction to this post.] It is well written and introduces many of the themes that Pete develops in his more recent study of young slaveholding Virginians.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 24, 2008 @ 19:07

    Jimmy, — I think you’ve asked some very good questions. Fortunately, there is a very rich literature that addresses many of those questions. No doubt, they are difficult questions and the best we can do is gather the available evidence and work to interpret it. Historians have offered a spectrum of answers to your questions which leaves us with a great deal to think about.

    Regarding your second point I find it difficult to follow you when you suggest that the idea of slaves being intimidated into the army is a distraction. It seems to me that it is central given that they were slaves and by definition did not have the freedom to make a decision. In what sense were they considered to belong to a country? They were not citizens in any sense; in fact, in 1857 the Supreme Court spoke out quite clearly in that regard. I don’t think Peter is marginalizing these men. What he is doing is trying to make sense of the spectrum of experiences within the master-slave framework. They were enslaved after all. Finally, it seems unusual to describe their owners as “bosses”, but perhaps you are applying a different meaning. When I think of a boss I think of someone that I am in a contractual relationship with. That is not the case within the master-slave relationship.

  • Richard Phillips Jul 24, 2008 @ 19:06

    Just when I think history is nothing but a bunch of BS written by self serving people I read something like this and get pulled back to reality. Mr. Carmichaels article is what I consider professional history. Much of what I see seems to show historical figures as one dimensional and a true historian works in 3D. Primary sources are useless without understanding the motivations behind them.

    Looks like I will be looking for a Peter Carmichael book this weekend.

  • Jimmy L. Shirley Jr. Jul 24, 2008 @ 18:53

    OK. Interperative is one thing. Facts are another. Interpreting facts is another thing altogether.
    To interpret why men decided to kill their brothers, which may have been especially true on the border states, nevertheless exposes one to ridicule or counter-interpretation. And the wheel in the sky keeps on turning!
    Why did men join the armies in the first place? For God and country!!? For the monetary bounties? To impress their girlfriend/wife/mother? For it is well known that the women-folk had a huge influence upon the men of the South. Did the lady-folk of the north exhibit a similar inflence? Did the Black lady-folk also have such an influence, in the north and South?
    It seems to me that to suppose the Black men of the South were intimidated into Southern service is merely a distraction. I am not among those who believe that all the Southern slave owners treated their slaves as children of God intrusted unto their care. BUT, I do believe that many if not most, (most being 51 % or more)did in fact treat their slaves as if God was watching and would hold them unto account.
    Therefore, most slave-owners did instill into their slaves a sense of country, a sense of belonging, a sense of family. Therefore, most Black slaves did indeed give a manly account of themselves. To diminish or marginalise these men is to say that these men, in risking their lives for their owners, is to say that they would not be heroic today, to protect and defend the lives of their bosses who hired them, to this day.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 24, 2008 @ 18:08

    I think it is quite telling that our anonymous friend has yet to respond to Peter’s comment. This is after he insulted both of us and claims to be a serious researcher on this topic. Perhaps he will surprise us and claim ownership of his comment, but I wouldn’t hold my breadth. So much for this guy’s credibility.

  • Robert Moore Jul 24, 2008 @ 12:04


    If we consider “Black Confederates” as a cornerstone upon which the newest (really within the last decade) neo-Confederate argument is based (and yes, I hate to use that term as well, but…), when dismantling even a portion of the Black Confederates argument used as justification for some to say, “see, my Confederate ancestor wasn’t fighting for slavery… the slave was even fighting next to my ancestor”, aren’t we forced, inevitably, to address the anger/lack of civility issues as a part of the discussion of history? (forgive the lengthy sentence)

    I don’t think that you intend your posting to be about who is right and who is wrong, but I think that to concede that you are correct, in any form, begins to threaten this cornerstone that is being used as a part of sustaining what some would say is the 1) honorability (if you will) of the Confederate flag, 2) the honor of the Confederate soldier, and the argument that the war was “not about slavery.”

  • Peter Carmichael Jul 24, 2008 @ 10:30


    Pender took over his slave’s finances. I did not imagine this, as Pender stated explicitly that he did it because his slave was spending money on fancy clothes. I don’t understand why you are troubled by my analysis. Your point about stereotype is confusing. Please elaborate and maybe we can understand why we disagree.

    Keep in mind I am not condemning Pender for what he did. Why would one expect anything different in the master slave relationship. I am not trying to create a morality play, but simply try to recover how Confederate slaves and their masters acted and perceived each other in a world (the army) that was largely alien to both parties.

  • Peter Carmichael Jul 24, 2008 @ 10:23

    Hi Robert:

    Yuu were so generous in assisting me in researching my volume for the Va regimental series. I apprecite your comments. With your deep research into va sources, have you come across any good wartime accounts tha describe the exchanges between officer and camp servant. I have done a great deal of digging but not finding much.

  • Peter Carmichael Jul 24, 2008 @ 10:19

    Mr Shirley:

    I am not sure what you mean by an official history or a Northern or Southern perspectve (Confederate slaves, for instance were Southern). I consider myself a historian of the South and of the Confederacy but I don’t feel like I try to represent a particular region or cause. I think you might see analysis as a form of criticism and condemnaion of white Southerners. Explaining the nature of the master slave in relationship in Confederate armies should not lead one to conclude that I am suggesting that Northerners were saints and that Southerners were sinners.

    If you have the time, I would be interested in knowing what you mean by the official history of the war and how my pieice contributes to it. Please feel free to take specific examples from my article so that I can respond properly to your concerns.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 24, 2008 @ 10:16

    Thanks for the comment Border. I’m sure Pete will have a response for you, but for now let me ask what you believe to be lacking in the analysis. In other words, based on your understanding what did that complexity involve?

    I would also like to refer you to a very interesting report by Carl Schurz which came out of his time spent, I believe, in Charleston where he was reporting on the progress of Reconstruction for Grant. In it he emphasizes the aggressive stance on the part of white women against black women owing to the latter’s dress. Apparently, they were offended by the sophistication of their dress as it seemed to them to be out of place for a black women and former slave. I reference this just to point out that dress is often interpreted as a political or social statement.

  • Peter Carmichael Jul 24, 2008 @ 10:13

    I would like to respond to the anonymous post regarding the bullshit alarm. I won’t speak to the author’s lack of civility as that would divert our attention from the important issues that he/she raises.

    Pender makes it clear that he was more than irritated. He took over the funds of his slave when the slave started dressing better than most Confederate soldiers, an act that Pender would have never considered if the offending soldier had been white. The point of the example is to make clear that camp servants, although given a fair amount of autonomy in comparison to most slaves, were still subjected to the confines of the master slave relationship.

    Your point about Walkup is a good one and I agree that I am reading deepl into the sources regarding Walkup’s motivation. I respect the fact that you are comfortable with a more literal reading of the source. However, my reading of Walkup’s letters and diaries revealed an interesting pattern that I tought deserved deeper exploration. He consistently juxtaposed his slave’s behavior in battle to his own perfornace under fire. don’t think this was by accident and I think Walkup was trying to make a statement about white courage an slave manliness. You are correct to point out that my I am being suggestive in the case of Walkup.

    I would have you reconsider your handling of sources. If one were to take away a historian’s ability to interpret documents, leaving us with the source itself as the only reflecton of reality, we would have an impoverished view of history. For insance, this is an excerpt from a speech by Charles Sumner:

    “I am an American citizen,”may not be sent forth in vain against outrage of every kind. In just regard for free labor in that Territory, which it is sought to blast by unwelcome association with slave labor; in Christian sympathy with the slave, whom it is proposed to task and sell there; in stern condemnation of the crime which has been consummated on that beautiful soil; in rescue of fellow-citizens now subjugated to a Tyrannical Usurpation; in dutiful respect for the early fathers, whose aspirations are now ignobly thwarted; in the name of the Constitution, which has been outraged of the laws trampled down of Justice banished of Humanity degraded of Peace destroyed of Freedom crushed to earth; and, in the name of the Heavenly Father, whose service is perfect Freedom, I make this last appeal.”

    If we follow your approach, we should simply accept Sumner’s word that his outrage against slavery animated from pure concens for the slave and moral outrage for the system as a whole. But I would not agree with such an assessment. This was a public docment, that had political purposes, and to explain it as a product of high ideas (as I assume you would since you refuse to interpret) would be missig the complexties of Sumner and the social and political context of the time.

    Even though we might not resolve our interpretive differences about Confederate slaves (which is a good thing), I think it is useful to try to understand why we disagree and it appears that we have different conceptions how historians should handle sources. I also suspect that you are more comfortable with history that creates a grand narrative of factual history while I am more inclined to read and write intepretive history. Each approach has value as well as limitations.

    I might add that I would welcome your kids to my classroom, and if they or any other student disagrees with my interpretations, I can promise you that I would never tell them that their opinions have registered on my bullshit meter.

    I apologize for the typos but my keyboard is not functioning well for some reason.

  • border Jul 24, 2008 @ 9:51

    “The lack of constant white supervision freed camp servants to do a number of things, including to sell their labor to other Confederates. One Confederate general Dorsey Pender was amused and irritated by the entrepreneurial success of his camp servant. ‘The rascal seems to have plenty of money, but I have ordered him to allow me to be his treasurer. He has managed to dress himself in a nice gray uniform, French bosom linen shirt—for which he paid $4—has two pairs [of] new shoes.’ The slave’s fine clothing signified to Pender that he was losing control, and that his slave was challenging the established order, for plantation slaves were always issued the coarsest dress. The sight of a slave wearing French shirts constituted an insubordinate act to Pender.”


    “Amused and irritated” probably…

    “Challenging the established order” and “constituted and insubordinate act” is a great stretch…

    …unless you can read the minds of dead men

    I believe Mr. Pender was a more complex character than the stereotype you offer.

  • Robert Moore Jul 24, 2008 @ 9:05

    So, I wonder if “anonymous'” “interpretation” of things is that all Southerners loved the Confederacy and that all Confederate soldiers enlisted voluntarily… Indeed, the very nature of “interpretation” is up for discussion in ALL circles when it comes to the war, and no less so among the “moonlight and magnolias” theorists.

  • Robert Moore Jul 24, 2008 @ 8:55

    Ha! Ken, good post! I’m directly descended from horsemen as well – out of my eight direct ancestors, three were in the 7th Va. Cav. and two in the 62nd Mtd. Va. Inf. Oh, and my Union relative, a distant uncle, was in Cole’s Cavalry… and I’m allergic to horse hair!

  • Anonymous Jul 24, 2008 @ 8:41

    Note to Reader: This comment was received privately, but I have decided to post it to give Pete a chance to respond. The author is welcome to claim ownership if he chooses in a follow-up comment.]

    Hey Kevin

    I won’t bother to post on your “blog” – my last two posts apparently never made it so I won’t wear my fingers out typing. Suffice it to say that you appear to have found yet another “interpreter” friend for your “memory studies” (Peter Carmichael) and are quite pleased with yourself.

    Hall was “probably” frightened? Is that what you call
    “interpretation”? Walkup used his slave to highlight his own courage? Where does it say that? Oh! I forgot, you and your pals “interpreted” it…. I see.

    Pender was “irritated” because a black man got himself some new clothes? Where does it say that? Whoops! I forgot…it’s what y’all call “interpreting”…..

    Pardon my forthrightness. I have spent the better part of my life walking through bullshit and my bullshit boots are just about worn out. When I see bullshit it set off my “bullshit alarm” and Carmichael’s “intepretation”, and yours, are pure bullshit.

    Be thankful that I don’t have kids in your school. If I did you’d be getting frequent visits from me and you sure as hell wouldn’t like those visits.

  • ken Noe Jul 24, 2008 @ 8:40

    All five of my Civil War ancestors fought in the Confederate army, four in the 16th Virginia Cavalry, and one in the 9th Virginia Cavalry. Ironically, I’ve never enjoyed riding.

  • Robert Moore Jul 24, 2008 @ 8:19

    Mr. Shirley, Take a look at the Foreward in the book Apostles of Disunion. Charles B. Dew was born and raise a Southerner, but there was a breaking point and it troubled him a great deal to go against everything he was raised on. Personally, I love this introduction to the book and think that I encountered something very similar to what he did in the course of my research. I was a SCV member for over 20 years, but in the last three, I saw something that left me very unsettled, both as a historian and as an American. So, what may be talked-up as a North vs. South issue is misleading. Like Kevin points out, many of those who have brought forward flaws in the Lost Cause mythology are, in fact, Southerners. They aren’t necessarily “attacks,” but the information they have brought to light is perceived as such, by some.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 24, 2008 @ 6:26

    Ken, — Sorry, but I had to take that image down owing to the size of the file. Those of you interested can find it here:

    Mr. Shirley, — Thanks for the comment. There is indeed a great deal of hostility over how to properly interpret and remember the Civil War. That said, I don’t know if it is accurate to simply interpret this as a North v. South issue where the former is seen as some kind of culprit. If you are referencing historians who write about the war than your distinction breaks down immediately since many of the things you would probably agree are northern attacks are written by historians who were born and raised in the South.

  • Jimmy L. Shirley Jr. Jul 23, 2008 @ 23:31

    I do not understand the sense of irrational ferver in which hostility has come to exist between northerners and Southerners with regard to the history of the conflict and the character of the contesting armies. Yet, the north seems to feel that they must swat down any sort of claims by the South which may contradict the “official” history of the conflict. Why is this?

  • Ken Noe Jul 23, 2008 @ 22:11

    Hi Pete:

    I don’t have much additional to contribute here, but I will repeat part of what I mentioned to you in Philadelphia last month for the sake of others. I mailed my manuscript off last week, and in it is a brief discussion of “black Confederates.” Having been misquoted before on this subject, I paid particular attention to the topic in my research, as well as looking at the bigger relationship between motivation and slavery. After examining the letters and diaries of 317 Confederates who enlisted after 1861, I didn’t find accounts of any who weren’t specifically referred to as–and treated like–slaves. Even J. Wallace Comer, who appears in one of the most reprinted photos of a white soldier with African-American body servant (both in uniform) made it clear that the man in the photograph was a family slave. I found many accounts of slaves in camp, slaves escaping, slaves being beaten and even occasionally lynched. I also found two second-hand accounts of slaves fighting for their masters. But those thousands of loyal black Confederate soldiers remain where Kevin’s reprinted cartoon below placed them, largely in the Letters to the Editor section of North & South.


  • Robert Moore Jul 23, 2008 @ 18:57

    I should add… this black Confederate in the 10th Va. Infantry wasn’t even identified in the rosters by race. He was Charles Brown. So, like I said, if it wasn’t for the small newspaper article (really a snippit), one would have never known that he was black. Now, I can see where some might want to take this, but it really is some light data and not detailed enough for one to draw blanket-type conclusuions about blacks in the Confederate army.

  • Robert Moore Jul 23, 2008 @ 18:40

    Excellent article Peter!

    By the way, congratulations on the post at WVU – it’s been a long road from our Virginia Regimental Histories days…

    Nonetheless, I enjoy looking over the rosters that we made, and am busy these days reading between the lines. On that same line and in tune with this article, only by a fluke (a brief newspaper article from the early 1900s) was I able to identify a black Confederate from among Page County’s Confederates. He started off as a mess cook for some officers in the Page Volunteers of the 10th Va. Inf., hired at some undisclosed rate (and I have no clue of he retained all of that money or sent some to his master back in Page). However, after the disaster at Spotyslvania, he actually enlisted in the 10th (June 1864), but that’s as far as the records take him. I have no clue what came of him after that point or even if he carried a musket.

    Incidentally, ever take a look in the “Virginia Servants’ Pension Records” (the exact name of the group fails me right now, but close enough)? I took a look at the records group for Page County and found not one black – all were white workers with the furnace systems operating in Page during the war. I was just curious if any blacks are actually represented in the records.

    Anyway, you are dead-on regarding the numbers game. This topic is far more complex than too many would care to admit.

  • Peter Carmichael Jul 23, 2008 @ 7:28


    The Compiled Service Record only lists those men who were receiving pay for their military service in Confederate armies. There are gaps in the CSR, but they are the foundational records for determining official service in Confederate armies. Those interested in numbers need to find slaves (not freed blacks) who have official records of their military service in the CSR. And I would be shocked to find any slave who was receiving a check from Uncle Jeff. I have only seen one black man listed on the rolls, and he was a free black. He served in the Letcher Artillery and was from North Africa. There are hundreds of microfilm CSR rolls at the National Archives, and it is possible that one could find a few slaves. Any claim of Confederate slave service must be based on a canvas of the CSR.
    Pension records are a different animal and whites and blacks of questionable service made claims after the war. The politics of pension seekers, both black and white, would be an interesting study and it would help us understand not just individual motivation but the context in which white Confederate veterans worked with former slaves so the latter could get compensation and status for wearing the gray. I have only looked at pension records for white Confederates and as a source they contain the problems one would expect with postwar documents.

    My skepticism of the numbers game stems from the records themselves. A slave who is listed on either a wartime or postwar source as performing a military function is still a slave. Even if a slave served as an aide or picked up a musket in battle and received both recognition and compensation for the act, I don’t see how that makes that man any less a slave or implies that blacks and whites were loyal to each other. I appreciate your acknowledgment of our need to focus on the historical experience of Confederate slaves, which has been lost in all the political turmoil.

    I am struck by white officers and how little they reveal about the exchanges between themselves and their camps servants. They have this invisible presence in the army, except for poorer soldiers who saw this as one of many inequities between officers and enlisted men.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 23, 2008 @ 7:16

    Brett, — I will leave Pete to respond to your question about the muster rolls, but you (and others) may be interested in this article by James Hollandsworth on black Confederate pension applications in Mississippi. As you well know pensions are regularly trotted out to demonstrate some of the more far-fetched conclusions about numbers.

  • Brett Schulte Jul 22, 2008 @ 22:32


    Excellent points all the way through. In looking over the slavery debates on the various Civil War forums I frequent, I am always surprised by the tendency of some forum posters to deny the very clear link of slavery with secession.

    I will welcome your book looking at the subject of “Black Confederates” in detail. With so much acrimonious debate occurring among various groups, I’m very surprised a book such as the one you are writing hasn’t been published yet. Surely a nuanced look at the subject will at the very least begin to give us some very good ideas about how Blacks felt about their service in the Confederate armies and exactly what the true nature of that service was.

    I have several questions on one point you brought up early on. You mentioned that counting numbers of slaves on Confederate muster rolls is a distraction from the more important points. I would tend to agree. However, allow me if I may to ask how one would even determine if a person listed on a Confederate muster roll was even black. I’ve only seen Union consolidated morning reports, so I’m curious as to how the ANV, for instance, might have reported slaves and free Blacks who accompanied the army as servants. Were Blacks listed as “slave” or “servant” on the rolls? I guess I’m wondering how those who claim some large army of “Black Confederates” can even back up that claim.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful post and I look forward to your reply.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 22, 2008 @ 17:55

    You’ve had plenty of comments allowed through, but I have made the decision to delete a few. I only ask that you respond to the content of my posts. At times you share very little that is constructive. All I ask is that you take the time to lay out a coherent and well-articulated response and your comments will be allowed through. In fact, I am much more interested in hearing from people who disagree with me than I am with those who disagree. I mean no disrespect to you, but I would recommend that next time you have a problem with something I’ve said that you refrain from commenting immediately. Sketch out some ideas and take the time to be helpful by carefully showing me where I’ve gone wrong. That’s all I ask.

  • border Jul 22, 2008 @ 17:43

    “I am surprised that we haven’t had a single post challenging my analysis or conclusions.”

    They aren’t allowed…

  • Peter Carmichael Jul 22, 2008 @ 9:47

    I agree that we shouldn’t create a us vs. them mentality in discussing the subject of Confederate slaves, but I wonder if my piece, as a scholarly presentation, can open debate among people of various backgrounds and perspectives. I fear that my paper contains the stylistic and methodological barriers that divide the public from the academy. I suggest this because I am surprised that we haven’t had a single post challenging my analysis or conclusions. It was my intent to create a forum where all sides could divorce this subject from the nasty politics of today, and that both parties could do a little soul searching about the language and tactics that they have employed. A little self-criticism would be refreshing in this contentious debate.

    The so called-neo-Confederate crowd (a term that I hate but unfortunately employed when I delivered this paper) feels compelled to divorce black and white relationships from the social reality of slavery. Have we ever asked ourselves why they feel compelled to do this? What psychological and political purposes does it serve? Racism as an answer tells us virtually nothing about the time and place specific issues that confront these Southern romantics. They clearly feel under attack and understanding why they perceive the world from the perspective of being persecuted demands our serious attention. Unfortunately, the opposition’s energies have been devoted to telling those who believe in Confederate slave fidelity that they are irretrievably stupid for making such historical claims. Even worse is the tendency to mock “sacred” gestures to the Confederate past as acts of buffoonery. A little civility might steer the debate back to history.

    I think we can raise the questions above without surrendering any intellectual ground that slavery defined life in the Old South, that the master-slave relationship was grounded in violence, and that any attemt to diminish the importance of human bondage to the Confedercy’s existence is a denial of history.

  • Marc Ferguson Jul 21, 2008 @ 22:25

    Peter, this is an excellent article! I think your points concerning the complexity of the relationship between slaves and their masters in Confederate army camps, and how these relationships impacted their social and individual identities, are so important for getting beyond the stereotypes. You also make important points about the difficulty getting at the motivation of camp slaves through the available sources. I’ve read it through twice relatively quickly, but plan to read it carefully in order to take in and think about all of your insights.

    Kevin, I wrote to Cliff Harrington, who wrote the article in the Charlotte Observer that claimed documents showed Clyburn to have been a “special aide” to Lee, asking what the documents were and what they actually said. He responded: “It was a letter that was attached to his pension application written by the Clyburns. It said he was a ‘special aide’.” I wrote back pointing out that this did not constitute evidence documenting the claim, to which he replied: “This was the letter that was used to confirm that mr. clyburn would receive a pension and it was accepted as proof by the state of n.c.” While it was very kind of Mr. Harrington to respond to my inquiry, it would appear that he hasn’t exercised the critical skills of a journalist in this instance, and if Mr. Ijames is satisfied that such a piece of evidence proves that Clyburn was in fact an aide to General Lee then it is a travesty to refer to him as an “expert” on any subject of historical interpretation.


  • Billy Yank Jul 21, 2008 @ 17:42

    True…well said!

  • Kevin Levin Jul 21, 2008 @ 17:07

    I agree that this is a very interesting post, but let’s not make the mistake of framing this in terms of us v. them. My guess is that most people outside of the so-called “neo-Confederate” circles have not pondered many of the analytical points raised in this essay. In short, we all would do well to read it carefully.

  • Billy Yank Jul 21, 2008 @ 14:41

    Excellent post. My neo-confederate friend NEED to read this and ponder the history at hand.


  • Peter Carmichael Jul 21, 2008 @ 11:04

    I am not sure that Confederates made distinctions between camp servants who ran away to the Federals and other slaves who sought freedom. Winsmith’s inability to acknowledge that Spencer acted upon his own initiative was the way that Southern whites perceived the run-away “problem.” For our purposes, Winsmith’s letters reveal how the master slave relationship prevented real intimacy between black and white (He shared similar material conditions in the army with Spencer but I doubt that the exchanges between the two men ever left that realm). That chasm is where the interpretive opportunity presents itself regading Confederate slaves, but I fear that the sources will not let us susain the inquiry. How do we capture the slave perspecive from Confederate documents poses practical and methodological challenges. I would be interested in knowing how your readers deal with this issue.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 21, 2008 @ 9:30

    Peter, — Thanks for such a thought-provoking post. I appreciate your emphasis on focusing on the spectrum of experiences between master and slave rather than the tired generalizations that have traditionally passed for analysis. Your analysis specifically of Neptune towards the end of the essay emphasizes this point in terms of looking hard at how slaves perceived camp life and the battlefield.

    The one theme that you did not touch on is how Confederates perceived the tens of thousands of fugitive slaves who swarmed into Union camps by the summer of 1862. It seems reasonable to suggest that camp servants would have been chosen because of the relationship forged before the war. So, I guess I am wondering how Confederates made the distinction between the motivations of fugitive slaves and those camp servant who ran away. To that point I want to share some excerpts from Capt. John C. Winsmith who served in the 5th South Carolina Infantry. Winsmith wrote quite a bit about his camp servant in his letters home to Spartanburg, South Carolina. Letters convey messages from Spencer and regularly inquire into the health of individual slaves. In the summer of 1862 Spencer ran off while stationed in Charleston and Winsmith struggles to explain the cause.

    October 3, 1861 from Fairfax Court House

    Spencer is well, and is invaluable to me. I do not believe there is a better servant in the Army than he is, and I do not have any fears of his being deceived by the Yankees.

    July 28, 1862

    Well I have learned very little additional in regard to Spencer. He went out on Sunday morning the 20th in company with another boy from the Regt, having obtained a permit from Lt. Nesbitt to go for potatoes near River’s house, which is not more than _ mile from the Stono River, in which there were some Boats. They did not return, and their absence being reported to Maj. Duncan, he sent out several companies to scour the surrounding words [etc], but nothing could be seen of them, nor of any trace where the Yankees had been. It seems to be a doubtful point whether they went off to the Yankees of their own accord, or were captured. Most of the men in the Co think Spencer was captured, as he took nothing away with him and went off in his shirt sleeves, and from his conduct nothing had occurred to make them suspect that he meditated on escape. The watch which he wished to take was a galvanized one. I hear, that he had bought in town, and wanted to dispose of it as I had told him he would go home soon. He brought all my things over right when our Regt moved, and I have missed nothing. If he was captured he will very probably make his escape at the first opportunity. But negroes are very uncertain and tricky creatures so it is difficult to tell what is the real truth in this case.

    August 4, 1862

    In regard to Spencer I have nothing more to write except that the boy who went off with him was a free boy from the city who was hired as a cook by one of the Cos. here. He carried off nothing with him and had not collected the money owing to him in the Regt. It may be that this negro persuaded him off after they left camp. The reason I asked you for Josh was that I could very easily train him here as a servant, and I only expected him to assist who-ever we hired as a cook. If you think he will not do me any good, and that I cannot train him in camp, then he had better not come. If the boy Fuller does not come, (and we will know in a few days) then you will please engage the free boy you spoke of (as a cook for Capt Sheldon) and we will pay him $15 per month or even $20. If we can’t get him, and you can spare Frank, then we will give him that amt. per month. But do whatever you think is best, which will be satisfactory to me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *