Slavery Traveled With the Army of Northern Virginia


Impressed Slaves Working on Confederate Earthworks

Included in Allen Guelzo’s new book, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, is a brief examination of the size of both armies.  In looking at the Army of Northern Virginia Guelzo includes a few sources that estimate the number of slaves, who performed various roles as personal servants and impressed workers.  One particular account by English-born Confederate artilleryman, Thomas Caffey, published in 1864 stood out in particular.  The source is available online and includes and incredibly detailed, but self serving picture of the role and motivation of slaves in the Confederate army.  Here are a few excerpts, but I encourage you to read the section in its entirety, which runs from pp. 278 to 285.

In our whole army there must be at least thirty thousand colored servants who do nothing but cook and wash—nine tenths of the ditching falls to our share—yet in all these thousands I have yet to hear of more than one hundred who have run away from their owners! This is true, although they are continually moving about with ‘passes’ at all hours, and ten times more frequently than masters: what greater opportunities could be presented for escape? They are roaming in and out of the lines at all times, tramping over every acre of country daily, and I have not heard of more than six instances of runaways in our whole brigade, which has a cooking and washing corps of negroes at least one hundred and fifty strong! ….

Did you ever remark our servants on a march? They make me laugh. Soon as the word ‘march’ is whispered abroad, these fellows bundle up their traps, and get them into the wagons, by some sort of sleight of hand, for I know that my baggage, with ‘little tricks’ added, far outweighs the authorized sixty pounds — a captain’s allowance. After safely stowing away all they can, the cooks shoulder some large bundle of curiosities of their own, and with a saucepan, skillet, or frying pan, all march some fifty yards in front of the band, whistling and singing, forming in regular or irregular files, commanded by some big black rogue who, with a stick and a loud voice, enforces discipline, among his heavy-heeled corps. And thus they proceed far ahead, monopolizing all attention as we pass through towns and villages, grinning and singing as they go, and frequently dressed up in the full regimentals of some unfortunate Yankee or other. They scour the country far and wide for chickens, milk, butter, eggs, and bread, for which they pay little or nothing; always stoutly swearing they have expended all ‘massa’gave them, and unblushingly asking for more….

There was a very old, gray-haired cook in an Alabama regiment,” Jenkins remarked, “who would follow his young master to the war, and had the reputation of a saint among the colored boys of the brigade; and as he could read the Bible, and was given to preaching, he invariably assembled the darkeys on Sunday afternoon, and held meetings in the woods. He used to lecture them unmercifully, but could not keep them from singing and dancing after ‘tattoo.’ Uncle Pompey, as he was called, was an excellent servant, and an admirable cook, and went on from day to day singing hymns among his pots round the camp-fire, until the battle of ‘Seven Pines’ opened, when the regiment moved up to the front, and was soon engaged.

Caffey wrote this before the Gettysburg campaign kicked off, but it is not a stretch to imagine such numbers accompanying the Army of Northern Virginia as it moved through the slave state of Maryland and into free Pennsylvania.  We know that as it did the state’s free and formerly enslaved blacks fled, some of who ended up trapped and sent south by invading Confederates.  The Army of Northern Virginia operated, in large part, around the work of slaves.  As an institution the army’s reliance on slave labor ought to be seen in line with the operations of southern railroads, industrial centers such as Tredegar and, of course, large plantations.  All of them relied on the forced labor of slaves.

And for a brief moment in the summer of 1863 this system of labor, that was so important to the pre-war South and by extension, the Confederacy, was introduced into free Pennsylvania by the Army of Northern Virginia.

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19 comments… add one
  • Hank Sep 30, 2017 @ 19:33

    I am surprised that there has been no discussion of the number of Confederates soldiers who were relieved of fatigue, teamster, foraging and other non-combat duties because slaves performed those tasks, and who therefore were available for combat, and how that is reflected in the “size of the armies” details that are such a significant factor in the Lost Cause historiography. I have always wondered how the Army of Northern Virginia was able to mount Pickett’s Charge and plan Ewell’s attack on the third day of GB, even while occupying exterior lines, against a supposedly numerically superior force, and how Harry Hays was able to launch his nearly successful attack on Cemetery Hill on the third day after Longstreet’s tremendous effort on the Confederate left.The presence of 30,000 non-combatant, but working, slaves goes a long way to explaining that.

  • Chris Kule Jul 5, 2017 @ 16:14

    Questions arise concerning Richmond’s Monument Avenue and its heroic Confederate statues. Indeed, how could these generals have been heroic if they relied heavily on human beings in servitude and failed to recognize their dependencies? Let the statues remain, I think, but let them be supplemented by representations of the multitudes who allowed them to campaign but who were never recognized. Let the same be done for the Confederate monuments at Gettysburg, especially that of Virginia. Let the depictions of the soldiers be augmented — some appropriate way — by depictions of the people upon whom they relied so heavily.

  • Bob Huddleston May 23, 2013 @ 16:20

    According to Busey and Martin, _Regimental Strengths and Losses at GB_, the ANV had 80,202 officers and men on June 30 and 71,699 engaged. Think about that: 30,000 slaves, servants, whatever – that meant that Lee’s quartermaster had to supply rations for 110,000 men, half again as many. That creates all sort of questions about the necessary food supply!
    And1/3 of the people with the ANV were black: odd that there is such a scarcity of sightings made both by Yankee civilians as well as AoP soldiers. One would think that would have been all the talk!

  • Forester May 22, 2013 @ 14:02

    My family has a supposed Black Confederate. My great-great grandfather allegedly took his slave with him (and the slave, allegedly, fought in battles). The other day, I recorded my grandfather (age 92), and asked him to tell me what he heard growing up about this slave/soldier.

    From my tape recordings, 5-20-2013:

    “The way it was then, the parents give ’em a baby of a black woman to be his. And so, when he was born, he got this — what we called him, Uncle Jeff to be his — his boy.”

    “But, anyway, they grew up together, and they went to the war together. In other words, he went with him like when he was a boy. And Daddy used to say, ‘Uncle Jeff, what’d you do when the fighting got bad?’ And he said, ‘I grabbed me a gun, and got in there with ’em!’ ” (laughs)

    “He went to the war with him, and he lived to be a HUNDRED-AND-SOMETHING, ol’ Jeff did. I never saw him, ’cause he was up in the hills of North Carolina where they were from. But anyway, [my sister] Louie went down there and looked him up when I was in high school and took a whole lot of pictures of him. I’ve got some pictures of him somewhere around here now, in some stuff I had that she took. The old guy was glad to see her. That was Uncle Jeff.”

    “Anyway, Uncle Jeff lived to be a hundred and something. And of course my Granddaddy lived to be 58 — so he damn near doubled him!”


    Applying the critical thinking I have learned from reading these blogs, the first thing I notice is that “Uncle Jeff” was in fact a SLAVE. Furthermore, Uncle Jeff is also regarded as a novelty. I also notice that he was prompted to give the entertaining answer that the white people wanted to hear.

    Personally, I believe that he DID fire a weapon in the war. But that doesn’t make him an official soldier. And if there had been thousands of Black Confederate soldiers, wouldn’t the “Uncle Jeff” story lose impact? So it seems to me that both sides are partially right. Some blacks fired weapons, but they weren’t part of the Confederate Army.

  • Boyd Harris May 22, 2013 @ 7:32

    Thanks for posting this, it is fascinating. I am currently working as a seasonal park ranger at Appomattox C.H. NHP for the third summer in a row. We often talk about the number of slaves in the A.N.V., particularly because 36 African Americans received parole passes. These men are listed in the parole roster as servants, free Blacks, musicians, cooks, teamsters, or blacksmiths. Visitors often remark about how odd that sounds, and we use that as a jumping off point to discuss the larger story of slave labor within the Confederate military and home front. One of the points I always make is about the large number of slaves taken along with the A.N.V on the Pennsylvania campaign. This primary source will be a great help in fleshing out the story for our visitors.

  • Rob Baker May 22, 2013 @ 7:27

    This adds context to the Confiscations Acts of 1861,62 and the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s apparent why the North sought to deprive the South of such a labor system.

  • Gerry May 22, 2013 @ 7:13

    I just read _Black Southerners in Confederate Armies_ and _The Confederate Negro_ yesterday. I don’t get the feeling any of these enlisted of their own free will. There is mention of conscription and of course it is not even that if the “Massa” just takes his body servant with him.

    • Kevin Levin May 22, 2013 @ 7:22

      The point is that they were not enlisted at all. The were either impressed slaves or accompanied their masters individually into the army.

  • Jonathan Dresner May 22, 2013 @ 6:23

    They scour the country far and wide for chickens, milk, butter, eggs, and bread, for which they pay little or nothing; always stoutly swearing they have expended all ‘massa’gave them, and unblushingly asking for more….

    The Army of Northern Virginia fed itself by forcing slaves to scam locals? That’s a form of forage I’d not considered before.

  • Christine M. Smith May 22, 2013 @ 5:47

    I believe I may have posted this before, but I do know that there are the names of many “servants” listed on the markers in the Confederate Plot at Crown Hill Cemetery here in Indianapolis, who died at Camp Morton, having gone there presumably with their masters. This is no indication that they served anything other than a servant’s role, but I will always be curious as to their stories, etc.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro May 22, 2013 @ 5:16

    “Thirty thousand colored servants who do nothing but cook and wash?” Good grief. Some soldiers those guys turned out to be.

    • Jimmy Dick May 22, 2013 @ 6:17

      Must be the infamous Cook’s Regiment we’re heard do much about.

      • Jimmy Dick May 22, 2013 @ 6:18

        “so much about.” I have got to stop posting while I’m working. It’s worse than trying to post on FB while I work.

  • Sam Vanderburg May 22, 2013 @ 5:15

    Amazing post! I never really considered this huge reliance of the Confederate army upon slavery. No doubt, they added to the success of the Army of Northern Virginia. But, what is incredible to me is the report of Caffey that few slaves fled once they were into free Pennsylvania as well as their organization upon march. Thank you for this historical insight from the writing of Caffey.

    Without disrespect for your writing, it does bring to bear the question, which no doubt is extremely difficult to answer due to the complexity of the research to find the answer, what happened to these particular slaves – who followed their owners so faithfully – after the war? Where or how is this answer sought?

    • Nathan Towne May 23, 2013 @ 11:04


      Confederate agents impressed tens of thousands of slaves into service over the course of the war, often against resistance from local or state authorities and usually over the objections of the property owner. Several governors, like Joseph Brown and John Gill Shorter openly defied Confederate authority over personal property within their states, but the Confederate government continued with a policy of impressment until the end of the war, continuously ramping up slave impressment as the situation became more and more desperate. By the summer of 1864, the Confederate government was impressing hundreds of slaves a week across the extent of the Confederacy.

      Allow me to give you an example that demonstrates the magnitude of impressment. Joseph Johnston’s chief of artillery, Francis Shoup approached Johnston just after the army had fallen back into the Kennesaw line about three miles north of Marietta (and soon wrapping around to the West of the town covering the approaches to the town via the Powder Springs road.) According to Francis Shoup’s account of the meeting in his article “Dalton Campaign-Works at the Chattahoochee River,” published in the Confederate Veteran in 1895 he inquired of Johnston whether or not the line being adopted was, as other previous lines had been, one that the army would eventually fall back from. According to Shoup, Johnston responded that it was “but a question of time and that a short time,” until the army would be forced to relinquish the position. In response, Shoup laid out a line he had mapped out, known to history as the Shoup fortifications, which ran originally three miles but later expanded to seven and a half miles from about a half mile north of the railroad crossing at Howell’s ferry to below Turner’s ferry. He postulated that the line could serve as a Fulcram, held by a small proportion of the army, perhaps between a single division and one of the army’s three corps, enabling Johnston to strike Sherman as he attempts to outflank the position and push for the Chattahoochee River. Johnston informed the government and authorized Shoup to oversee construction of the line. Over the next two weeks Shoup’s agents impressed well over a thousand slaves from across Central Georgia and transported them northward to the Chattahoochee River and they constructed the entire defense line, which was a series fortifications with interlocking fields of fire, connected by palisades over the course of just over a week.

      Just days later on July 1st, after the fighting along the Kennesaw line, while the Army still held the line, Johnston famously met with Georgia Senator Benjamin Hill, who according to his sworn testimony just 10 days latter in his meeting with the President, in his letters to the President and to Secretary of War James Seddon on the 11th and 12th and in his post-war writings he informed Johnston that the Atlanta fortifications (being constructed by private contractor Lemuel Grant, with the personal oversight of Jeremy Gilmer, Chief of the Confederate Engineer Bureau) only covered the immediate environs of Atlanta. Having not being previously in contact with Grant or Gilmer this came as a shock to Johnston (a bit of information that would be one of many bits of damning evidence that ultimately led to Johnston’s removal. Johnston quickly ordered Grant to expand the defenses East and West of Atlanta so as to cover the railroad connections. Later, after Johnston’s removal Hood would personally oversee a dramatic extension of and strengthening of the line. During this period Grant and Gilmer impressed several hundred more slaves across the region for the expansions, in combination with the slaves already constructing the fortifications.

      The magnitude of and neccessity to the Confederate war effort of slave labor is hard to overstate.

      Nathan Towne

      • Kevin Levin May 23, 2013 @ 11:11


        I recommend picking up Stephanie McCurry’s recent book, Confederate Reckoning, for an excellent overview of Confederate impressment policies and the response on the part of slaveholders. McCurry believes that the evident of slaveholding resistance to this policy constituted an important internal fissure in the Confederacy. This fall Jaime Martinez will publish Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South which will take a very different view of this policy. As Nathan pointed out impressment was crucial to the Confederate war effort.

      • Sam Vanderburg May 23, 2013 @ 18:58

        Thank you, Nathan. The study I had of the Civil War in high school 30 years ago never touched upon this – nor did American History in college! I am dismayed at this, but continue to look for understanding of the horrendous conflict. Coming from a Southern heritage, I have a hard time buying into the heritage group. That said, I do know of a group of folks in AR who have SCV affiliation but are very strong historians insistant upon solid scholastic work. I subscribe to their discussions and enjoy their historical presentations.

        Thanks again!

        • Nathan Towne May 24, 2013 @ 18:32


          Of course. I used that example just because it imparts a sense of the magnitude of slave impressment. As Kevin said, Stephanie McCurry’s book is fantastic, one of the more important books to be released in 2012, although she does make a few assertions that can be argued a bit.

          As for Heritage groups, some Heritage groups are better than others. Now I can’t speak for anyone else, but my serious problem with many modern heritage “advocates,” as they call themselves is two-fold. Firstly, modern politics have thoroughly infiltrated some of these organizations and the organizations have taken on more of a political, rather than historical nature. Without attacking any political positions, I think we can probably agree that although we are all influenced to a degree by personal bias, we all must approach history seriously, with as much objectivity as posssible and with immense care. Secondly and just as irritatingly, some of these groups seem to think that they have a monopoly on our understanding of Confederate history, even when the positions espoused are entirely inaccurate or only partially accurate. This is just not how history works.

          Nathan Towne

          • Nathan Towne Jun 5, 2013 @ 9:03

            To be released in 2010, excuse me.

            Nathan Towne

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