Today I completed a rough draft of an essay on John Christopher Winsmith and his servant Spencer for the NYTs Disunion column. Winsmith’s letters are incredibly rich and help to sketch a constantly evolving master – slave dynamic during the first sixteen months of the war. As a teaser consider the following reference to Spencer accompanying Winsmith on picket duty in northern Virginia in September 1861:
I took Spencer along to carry my knapsack [etc], and Ralph and I with him stopped at a house on the road, and drying ourselves thoroughly had a most delightful rest. Sunday just after daylight we left and joined to Regt. Then we proceeded to Upton’s Hill in sight of Munsin’s to do picket duty. The enemys lines are not so near the former as the latter place, and therefore our men got no shots at the Yankees. The view was fine, and just such as I have described in a former letter as having enjoyed from Munsin’s. Occasionally in the distance we could see the Yankees moving about, but no fight occurred during our stay.
This is the only time that Winsmith acknowledges this role in his letters, though I suspect it was quite common among officers at least during the early stages of the war. One wonders how many of these Yankee sightings of black men in Confederate ranks were of this nature.
Head on over to Andy Hall’s Dead Confederates site for an excellent post on the pensions that were handed out to former servants/slaves at the turn of the twentieth century. This is one of the most misunderstood aspects of this subject. It looks like the recent decision in Union County North Carolina to recognize former slaves as if they occupied a position akin to a soldier was premised on their having been granted pensions. Do yourself a favor and read Andy’s post.
Finally, today I got a call from Ken Wyatt, who is the director of Colored Confederates: Myth or Matter of Fact? I was interviewed as a talking head back in 2009. It’s been shown at a number of film festivals, but other than a preview I have yet to see it. Fortunately, it is being shown this weekend as part of the Roxbury International Film Festival here in Boston on Sunday at noon. I am looking forward to commentary by H.K. Edgerton that goes way off the deep end.