I Think the Days of Slavery Are Numbered

Yesterday I shared a short excerpt from the John H. Claiborne letters, which are located in Special Collections at the University of Virginia.  I was looking for one particular letter in which he discussed his camp servants.  Unfortunately, no date was included in the description of the collection so I had to make my way through roughly 50 letters.  I finally found it at the very end, but it was well worth the time spent.  Claiborne briefly references a number of slaves that assisted him as chief surgeon in Petersburg, but not until the letter below did he reflect on their place in the army as well as the future of slavery.

Claiborne references the impressment policies of the Confederate government along with his own responsibilities as a slaveholder.  There is a great deal of paternalism that courses throughout and an interesting passage in which he reaffirms the supposed loyalty of his slaves.  In reading the letters you get a clear sense that Claiborne and his slaves endured great hardship in Petersburg during the final year of the war, but in the end his slaves never move beyond being acknowledged for their instrumental value.

December 21, 1864,

I do not know whether I shall send any of the negro men.  They will hire at heavy prices to the Government here – and it will assume the responsibility of their safe keeping and pay for them if lost.  If disposed to run away they can as readily go from N.C. as from this place –- as is proven in the case of Mr. Thomas’ boy and of others who have been sent there.  And moreover, if I hire them to private individuals, the Government in its regular impressments will probably get some or all of them during the year – and work them I cannot tell where.  For these reasons I have pretty much concluded to keep them near here; but I cannot say positively yet what I shall do.  I can probably get from 40 to 80 dolrs. per month for the boys and have them fed – with privileges of buying clothes at Gov. prices – and seeing to them myself if sick or in trouble.  Joe & Isaac were ordered out on the Weldon R. Road the other day with a number of others (carpenters to repair the Bridge); but Isaac soon came to me to intercede for them & get them off.  He said he was afraid the yankee cavalry would get them.   I told him I hardly thought the enemy would get him unless he went to them.  He said “they would never get him then – that he had no idea of leaving me.”  I think they are as loyal as any.  Indeed I do not know any one else here who owns as many as I do who has not lost some.  The Gov. will take a great many another year and I would not be surprised at their being purchased & eventually freed.  I think the days of slavery are numbered in this State if not in the Confederacy – and that is another reason why I would not take more trouble to keep mine than is required by duty – duty to them as well as myself.  I am sure mine are better off with me as master than they would be free, and as Providence has placed them in my hands – of course I must act for the, as in all things else, as “one that must give account”.  As an investment – to a man in my situation in life – they are unprofitable and exceedingly troublesome – and I have often wished I was happily rid of them all.  Even as domestic servants – they are the most troublesome and expensive system of “help” in the world.  It is a humane & benevolent system though to the slave – and as an heir loom and inheritance to all true Southern men – I have prized it and sought to nourish and defend it – and should even now part from it with a feeling as if I were breaking up old & cherished aspirations.  God help the poor creatures that shall fall into the hand of their yankee friends.  Having no conception of any of the feelings that we cherish for the negro and knowing in their wise economy the waste & expense of slave labour the poor creatures will soon be numbered with the unhappy Indians and colonized under the earth.

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9 comments… add one
  • Bob Huddleston Jun 18, 2011 @ 5:49

    for those of us old enough to remember the Second Reconstruction, that of the 1950s and 60s, the same arguments was used against the poor deluded Colored People being agitated by Yankees when the former should wait and not get upset — sometime they will be the equal of the whites.

  • TF Smith Jun 17, 2011 @ 7:44

    Fascinating example of “mastery” in play; whether Claiborne’s economic complaints are taken at face value or not, the importance of his self-identification as a slaveholder is obvious.

    Glover’s “Southern Sons” explores these issues pretty convincingly.


  • Andy Hall Jun 17, 2011 @ 6:26

    Claiborne sounds very much like Lee in his famous pre-war letter — slavery is problematic and probably more trouble to slaveholders than it’s worth,but it’s also an institution established by God, for the betterment of the enslaved, the long-term benefits of which to the slaves themselves are simply not understood by the Yankees.

    • Margaret D. Blough Jun 17, 2011 @ 18:35

      Andy-And it’s noteworthy that while Lee and others of his ilk are sure that God will someday end slavery, they are equally sure that He will do so in his own time which will, assuredly, be far, far away, long beyond the lifespan of the Lee, etc. It also strikes me how common it is for the slave owner to see himself as the victim in all of this.

      • Andy Hall Jun 18, 2011 @ 3:56

        “. . . they are equally sure that He will do so in his own time which will, assuredly, be far, far away.”

        Yep. Lee says so explicitly, asserting that “we must leave the progress as well as the result in His hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day.” Perhaps not victim so much, as being utterly helpless to do anything about it.

  • David Rhoads Jun 17, 2011 @ 4:46

    In addition to the paternalism, the letter provides an explicit statement that the value of slavery to Southerners was much more than simply economic. Even though Claiborne concedes that his own experience of slavery has been “unprofitable and exceedingly troublesome” as an investment, he nevertheless declares even at this late date that slavery as an institution is an “heir loom and inheritance to all true Southern men – I have prized it and sought to nourish and defend it – and should even now part from it with a feeling as if I were breaking up old & cherished aspirations.”

    Reading between the lines, you can also get a sense of the craftiness of Claiborne’s slave Isaac, who plays on his master’s fears by telling Claiborne “he was afraid the yankee cavalry would get him” as an excuse to avoid being detailed out to do railroad work. Presumably having achieved his goal, Isaac then follows up by reassuring his master that “he had no idea of leaving”. Though apparently suspicious, Claiborne seems to accept Isaac’s statements at face value and concludes that his slaves “are as loyal as any.” It would be interesting to find out what ultimately happened to Isaac and whether he left any record of his own thoughts about being enslaved to Claiborne.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2011 @ 4:53

      You are absolutely right, David. Claiborne takes us way beyond slavery as simply an economic necessity or even as a means to maintain white supremacy. It’s a birthright and linchpin in the construction of their identity as southern men.

  • James F. Epperson Jun 17, 2011 @ 3:09

    *Very* interesting letter. Thanks for posting it.

  • Marc Ferguson Jun 17, 2011 @ 2:27

    The paternalist’s attitude of enslavement of blacks as a “positive good” and the best possible circumstances for all to the very end!

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