Were Slaves Soldiers?

I have enjoyed following the debate over at Richard Williams’s blog re: my handling of Earl Ijames’s research.  Much of the give and take relates to my decision to publicly request Ijames’s presentation as well as my decision to Cc: the director at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.  I’m still not sure why the gang over there is making such a big deal of this given that there is nothing offensive about the letter.  It simply requests the materials in question and nothing more.  What I do find funny is that no one seems to have anything to say about Ijames’s response, which he decided to Cc. to that same director.  Anyway, I will leave this to the vultures to sort out.  I want to move on to something that I find much more interesting and that actually relates to history.

In a number of places Mr. Williams suggests that slaves in the Confederate army ought to be acknowledged as soldiers.  Here are a few quotes to consider:

And, as I’ve pointed out before, it is disingenuous to suggest that these men should not be honored for their service – as soldiers – simply because they may have been forced to serve – in whatever capacity. An analogy I’ve used before: During the Vietnam war, many who opposed it were drafted. Many no doubt would have fled to Canada or simply refused to go had it not been for the influence and pressure of family, society and the legal ramifications of refusing service. So they went with no emotional or intellectual support of their own for “the cause.” However, many of these same men, once on the field, bonded with their comrades and were exposed to the same dangers as those who volunteered. They served honorably. Should their service be discounted because they were drafted? I think the answer is clear.

I’ve not delved into Mr. Ijames’s specific research either. I do agree with Ijames’s contention, however, that blacks – whether slave or free – should have their service in the Confederate Army honored where appropriate and that there is nothing improper referring to these men as “soldiers.”

In the recent post about Nelson Winbush’s grandfather, I said, “Private Nelson was a slave.” I do not believe the term “soldier” and “slave” are mutually exclusive.

Mr. Williams arrives at this conclusion via analogy with soldiers in the Vietnam War.  The basic problem with his claim is to confuse two distinct meanings of “forced to serve.”  Americans who are drafted to go to war ought to be understood as a function of their legal standing as a citizen.  As citizens we are obligated to register for the draft and under certain circumstances may be forced to honor that obligation.  Again, the salient point is that draftees are citizens.  It is our status as free men which places us in this relationship to the government.  In contrast, slaves were not citizens of the United States or the Confederacy.  That this distinction even needs to be acknowledged is troubling.  In short, the analogy does not work.  Finally, it should be pointed out that USCTs were not citizens at the time of their service in the army, but it also must be remembered that they were not drafted either.  Many of them expressed the hope that their service would eventually lead to the rights of full citizenship.  That, of course, is another sad chapter in our history.

I am closer with Mr. Williams on the issue of honoring and commemorating those free and enslaved blacks who were present with the Confederate army.  If it can be demonstrated that a black man (regardless of status) enlisted or was drafted as a soldier than he should be honored as such.  I have never said otherwise.  That said, as historians distinctions should matter.  As I make my way through the letters of Capt. Winsmith from South Carolina (which I am editing for publication) I can’t help but be impressed with his commentary on his “servant” who accompanied him to camp.  Winsmith writes glowingly about this man as well as his various activities in camp and on the march.  This man actually procured a uniform by performing functions for other officers.  I have no doubt that this slave endured many of the same hardships along with the rest of the army and I have little doubt that he bonded with his master and others as well, even though I don’t have access to one word from this individual.  He eventually escaped to the Union navy off the coast of South Carolina in the summer of 1862.  That said, there is nothing that indicates that his owner or anyone else for that matter viewed this man as anything other than a slave.  Nothing about his relationship with his master or his experience changed his legal status.

These distinctions matter because as historians we are trying to better understand how the war affected the master-slave relationship and race relations generally.  As historians we should do our best, with the limited evidence available, to understand how the realities of war brought whites and blacks in the army closer together on occasion and further apart at other times.  However, in order to do so we must be sensitive to the distinction between soldier, slave, conscript and other designations.

It goes without saying that if we were to accept Mr. Williams’s analysis we would have a number of fundamental questions to grapple with.

  • What exactly was the Confederate government referring to when it explicitly denied slaves and free blacks the right to serve in the army?
  • How are we to understand the debate during the war over whether to arm slaves as soldiers?
  • What exactly was the Confederate government doing when it finally authorized the enlistment of a limited number of slaves as soldiers in the final weeks of the war in 1865?

In other words, how did the Confederate government as well as the rest of the white South define a soldier during the war?  How would they respond to Mr. Williams’s analysis?

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24 comments… add one
  • Thomas C. Feb 17, 2010 @ 17:54

    I believe that slaves were soldiers. They were not fighting for the south as some may say but they were fighting a different battle. They were fighting against their slavery and their oppression. Their fight was a costly one. Many died while being slaves and many died in the act of escaping. For those who made it up north won their battle,but the war on slavery was far from it and would take many more hard fought years to win their war.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2010 @ 18:05

      I think in the loose sense of the word they were soldiers, but that is a very different argument than the one that I am responding to. That said, it is unfortunate that this fight has been lost to our collective memory.

      • margaretdblough Feb 18, 2010 @ 2:08

        I wish that those who expend so much time and energy in trying to prove the existence of a significant number of blacks enslaved and free who willingly fought for the Confederacy would give even a small part of that in looking at the fight that Thomas C. describes. Such resistance took enormous courage.

  • JohnF Feb 17, 2010 @ 12:23

    I would be against “honoring” anyone for serving the Third Reich.

    That said, from a morally neutral POW this is not farfetched at all, and since I have a difficult day with my students (I am a teacher as well), I will take the bait. Ethnic identities in the former Austrian-Hungarian and Prussian parts of Germany and Europe were blurred and subject to frequent changes as the fortunes of nations rose and fell. Thousands of people who could just as easily have declared themselves as Polish opted for a German identity before WWI, after Versailles, in the interwar era and even during the war. Of these, most men in the relevant age groups fought in the Wehrmacht. The same applies to a lesser degree to the Czech lands, where a large part of the prewar population were “salamanders”, a word referring to people capable of switching between a Czech and German identity.

    As for Jews, Reinhard Heydrich aside, there are several proven examples of men hiding their partly Jewish ancestry good enough to avoid persecution and eventually being drafted.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2010 @ 12:30

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

      As interesting as all of this is I would ask that we stay on the topic at hand.

      • Harry Feb 17, 2010 @ 13:15

        Kevin, I really was trying to stay on topic. My comparison of slaves forced to serve in the Confederate army and various groups sent to labor camps in Europe (I wasn't talking about collaborators of course) speaks directly to those who would equate slaves in the army with conscripts. It doesn't make any sense, as neither were fulfilling obligations of citizenship. So, in answer to the question, no, slaves were not soldiers. Not in either case.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2010 @ 13:56

          I know, Harry. I just didn't want to see a long thread on the Third Reich. Thanks

  • Harry Feb 17, 2010 @ 0:44

    I think it's also time to honor all those Jews, Poles, Gypsies, etc, for their service to the Reich.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2010 @ 1:30

      As tempted as it looks, I am not going to bite. Thanks Harry.

      • Harry Feb 17, 2010 @ 4:06

        Sorry, Kevin. Your patience with some of these arguments far exceeds mine. I'm looking at more complex issues, like how in the hell George Lopez has his own talk show.

      • Peter Feb 17, 2010 @ 4:19

        It's also worth noting that “Reich” refers to a far greater swath of German history than the years the Nazi Party had power. I bring this up only because if one is pointing out that distinctions among designations matter, then credibility is damaged if sloppy designations are left uncorrected.

        • Harry Feb 17, 2010 @ 4:21

          Sorry Peter. Third Reich. Often referred as “The Reich” during it.

  • margaretdblough Feb 17, 2010 @ 0:20

    Kevin-Since Mr. Ijames rather freely uses the fact that he works for the North Carolina archives, apparently to establish his qualifications, I fail to see how it is improper to copy his superior in correspondence.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2010 @ 0:31

      There was absolutely nothing wrong with that. If I had to do it over again, I probably would not have sent it to his superior until I heard from Ijames, but given our exchanges in the past I decided to bypass that as an option.

  • margaretdblough Feb 17, 2010 @ 0:09

    >>And, as I’ve pointed out before, it is disingenuous to suggest that these men should not be honored for their service – as soldiers – simply because they may have been forced to serve – in whatever capacity. << Good lord, that's up there with the infamous sick one-liner “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

    David Rhoads and you make some excellents points. Furthermore, there is quite a bit in the OR on the impressment of slaves for service to the army/Confederacy and these were very separate and distinct acts from those drafting whites as soldiers. For instance <ar59_767> (BTW, note the language of the act “For the impressment of slaves and other personal property for military purposes.”


    >>Act of the Legislature of Mississippi.
    AN ACT to authorize the impressment of slaves and other personal property for military purposes.
    SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Legislature of the State of Mississippi, That to provide for the public safety by aiding the military forces of this State and of the Confederate States engaged in defending the same to repel invasion and repress insurrection, the Governor of this State be, and he is hereby, invested with full power to impress able-bodied male slaves between the ages of eighteen and fifty years, or so many thereof as he may deem necessary, or as may be required by the military necessities or exigencies of the State, or as may be called for or required by the military commander of the State or Confederate forces therein, with the use of tools and implements, wagons, teams, and harness which may be necessary to render the labor of the slaves impressed effective; also subsistence for the same.
    * * * * * * * * * *
    SEC. 2. Be it further enacted, That the owners of all slaves impressed into the military service under the foregoing section shall be entitled to the same pay, rations, clothing, or commutation therefor for each of them as privates in the military service of this State, the said pay to be made monthly in advance by warrant of the State treasury upon the requisition of the Governor to the auditor, founded upon the return by the party making the impressment; but if the owner or owners of such slaves as impressed shall refuse to receive such compensation, then the party making the impressment shall act as arbitrator in behalf of the State, and the owner shall select a disinterested party to act as arbitrator in his behalf, and they to select an umpire in case of disagreement, who shall proceed to assess the monthly value of the service of the slave or slaves so impressed, and the award shall be final.
    * * * * * * * * * *
    SEC. 11. Be it further enacted, That the Governor shall prescribe rules and regulations which shall be observed by all military commanders and other persons having charge of slaves hereby <ar128_297> impressed, for the employment of suitable overseers or managers for the same, and also for the necessary care, protection, health, medical treatment, and return of said slaves.
    SEC. 12. Be it further enacted, That if any slave impressed under this act shall die or become permanently disabled by reason of neglect or want of proper attention or care on the part of any of the agents or officers of the government of the State or the Confederate States, or shall be killed, disabled, or taken by the enemy, the owner of such slave shall be entitled to be paid all damages sustained thereby out of the State treasury, and it shall be the duty of the Governor, on application of the owner, agent, overseer, manager, or person having possession of such slave, to appoint one suitable person as arbitrator on behalf of the State, and such owner, agent, overseer, manager, or other person shall appoint an arbitrator on the part of such owner, who shall proceed under oath to ascertain the value of such slave or other damage sustained by such owner, with power to appoint an umpire in case of disagreement, and the award of the majority of them, made in writing, shall be filed in the auditor's office, and the auditor shall issue his warrant for the amount of such award whenever the Legislature shall have made an appropriation for that purpose.
    SEC. 13. Be it further enacted, That this act take effect and be in force from and after its passage, and continue in force for and during the continuance of the present war.
    Approved January 3, 1863.<<—–

  • David Rhoads Feb 16, 2010 @ 14:43

    For most of the war, the policy of the Confederate government did in fact hold that the terms “soldier” and “slave” were mutually exclusive.

    I would suggest that a simple, common-sense definition of “soldier” would resolve the issue, i.e., a soldier was someone who was enlisted in the army and was thereby recognized by the Confederate and/or state government as a member of the army. Such a definition also has the virtue of conforming with the way the post-war veterans pension acts were administered.

    I would also suggest that a little more precision with prepositions would go a long way toward resolving confusion over the roles of slaves who traveled with and served members of the Confederate armies. To describe these slaves as “serving in the army” implies erroneously that they were themselves members of the army rather than the property of members of the army. After all, we wouldn't claim that a horse or a musket that a soldier brought along with him served in the army. It would be much more accurate to say that the slaves “served with the army or one of its members” or “labored for the army or one of its members”.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 16, 2010 @ 15:10

      The Confederate government was consistent on that point throughout the war, which was just the point I was making at the end of the post. You are also correct in pointing out the lack of precision with prepositions. Describing a slave as “serving” is historically inaccurate if we are to assume our commonplace understanding of what these terms mean. Thanks.

      • Matt McKeon Feb 16, 2010 @ 19:33

        That's the point of using the word “serve” isn't it? To blur obvious distinctions?

        The argument about the draft and slavery is just disgusting. My father was a draftee in the Korean War. Was he a slave?

        In the magical world of the Confederate apologist, slaves become soldiers and soldiers slaves.

        • Matt McKeon Feb 16, 2010 @ 19:37

          I had jury duty last year. Since I was “forced” to serve, I was slave for the day, according to these guys.

          There is something, if not immoral, then in bad taste, about the black confederate myth. To dig up the bodies of the former slaves figuratively, the men who were worked, bought and sold like animals ,and extort one last service from beyond the grave: make their owners (and their descendents) not look so racist. It's like a horror movie.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 16, 2010 @ 21:33

          I assume that some veterans would find Williams's analogy to be just a bit offensive. I love the jury duty analogy. The comparison is ridiculous.

    • matttyrrell Feb 17, 2010 @ 16:29

      I absolutely agree with Mr. Rhoads and with the overall trend of responses here, one need only look to how confederates viewed their slaves; they essentially considered them animals. White men on both sides still got paid if they got drafted, and if northern armies paid their black troops markedly less than whites, black men laboring for the Confederacy surely were not themselves compensated. Margaretdblough's convenient posting shows us that “compensation” went to the masters and if a slave were to be injured or killed it was viewed upon as a destruction of property. A slave being killed in battle was something akin to a privately owned wagon being hit by a cannon ball and destroyed. In the wake of a slave's death in war, arbitration would take the place of memorial. It is particularly difficult imagining that in 1863, with Confederate armies planning and advancing north, that these black “confederates” would aid an army that was capturing border state blacks into bondage. Under these circumstances, it is reasonable to assume (and thats all I'm doing) that such a character in such a situation as this would not want these things honored. Let us not continue to pad our sensibilities about our ancestors and their views on race by deluding ourselves that slave and soldier can indeed refer to the same individual. of the responses.

      • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2010 @ 16:47


        While I agree with much of what you have to say I do think that we need to be careful that we are not oversimplifying the master-slave relationship. It seems to me that to suggest that slaveowners viewed their slaves simply as “animals” is to ignore the broad range of emotions that would have characterized their relationship as a result of the war. It's an incredibly difficult thing to get at since we must rely, in large part, on how white Southerners viewed things.

        • matttyrrell Feb 17, 2010 @ 17:03

          Absolutely true, it was not the most carefully worded statement ever, I meant more legally than anything else. I am not questioning that in instances of blacks laboring for (or perhaps serving with) Confederates, that the bond that comes with mutual danger faced was not forged into the master-slave relationship. In the whole paternalistic view of slavery that existed as a counter argument to free labor, I do not doubt that “kindness” and “appreciation” were some of the gentler emotions felt by both sides of this relationship, and that in battle these emotions would likely increase in intensity.

          • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2010 @ 17:22

            Looks like we are pretty much on the same page. I assume you are currently enrolled in Prof. Snell's Civil War class. I am looking forward to meeting all of you in March.

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