Why Confederate Camp Servants

The most recent issue of The Civil War Monitor contains a letter-to-the-editor about a recent essay of mine on Confederate camp servants [Spring 2013]. From Mr. John H. Whitfield:

While the article was enlightening on the issue of enslaved Africans who were wartime “body servants,” it presented a rather narrow view of the panoply of roles in which the enslaved were critical to the Rebel war effort. For instance, the impressment of slaves, authorized throughout the Confederacy in 1862, sent countless men to construct earthworks at various strategic locations.

Mr. Whitfield is absolutely spot on regarding the place of enslaved blacks in the Confederate war effort. There are a number of excellent studies that examine these various roles, including books by Glenn David Brasher,Joseph Glatthaar, and Bruce Levine. Those of you with an interest in this topic will definitely want to check out Jaime Martinez’s forthcoming book, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South, which will be out with UNC Press in December.

My article focused specifically on body servants because they occupy a unique place not only in our understanding of the Confederate war effort, but more importantly, in our understanding of the end of slavery. While difficult to get at, accounts left by Confederate officers of their servants at war opens a window into the end of slavery. We literally see it unwind. The stories contained in this article hopefully shed light on the extent to which the master-slave relationship was stretched owing to the exigencies of war and ultimately severed permanently in the accounts of missing slaves.

In contrast with the thousands of nameless impressed slaves we know a great deal about the experiences of body servants even if we must rely heavily on accounts penned by their masters. These men left their mark during the war and these were the men who were remembered during the postwar period by their former masters. They came to occupy a central place in the myth of the Lost Cause as opposed to the thousands of impressed slaves, who have all but been forgotten. Finally, it is the body servants who in more recent years are now being remembered not simply as loyal slaves, but as brave black Confederate soldiers. In short, the story of body servants occupies an important place in our collective memory of the Civil War.

Hope that answers your concern, Mr. Whitfield. The essay is a shortened version of the first chapter in a book project devoted entirely to the history and memory of Confederate camp servants. Thanks for taking the time to read the article.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

24 comments… add one
  • London John Sep 15, 2013 @ 23:45

    I gather it worked like this: the states conscripted free men (whites-only in some, all in others) into the militia. Militia units were then mustered into the Continental Army. In some states a man conscripted could send a slave to serve in his place – a “substitute”. The slave was supposed to become free at the end of his service, but sometimes didn’t. Question: why was there no substitute system in the Confederate army? Was it ever considered?

  • London John Sep 15, 2013 @ 7:22

    Did the Union army provide officers with soldiers as body servants? In the British army the soldier who performs this service for an officer is known as his “batman”, and is an enlisted soldier who could be assigned to other duties. Did that exist in the Union army? And what about Confederate officers who didn’t bring slaves with them – what did they do for servants?

  • Andy Hall Sep 14, 2013 @ 16:30

    That’s a great response. A majority of the men celebrated today as “black Confederates” are known because they participated in the decades after the war in unit reunions, or were written about by white veterans in newspapers or the Confederate Veteran magazine — “accounts penned by their masters,” as you say, or someone else who knew and remembered them closely during the war. That necessarily excludes the thousands and thousands of African American men who worked, separate from individual Confederate field units, in laboring crews. Those men were generally anonymous to most Confederate soldiers then, and as a result, remain so today.

    Another reason that camp servants — personal servants and cooks, mostly — figure so prominently in today’s discussion is that those men are almost the only African Americans awarded pensions in the early 20th century. Most states legislated pensions explicitly for those roles, not to include laborers who built trenching fortifications, and did general hauling work. I think I’ve only seen maybe two Confederate pensions for men who weren’t personal servants of some kind, whose wartime activities were not tied to a specific white soldier, event though common, gang laborers must have been far more numerous. One of those men had to track down his former overseer’s son (!) to sign an affidavit to submit with his application.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 14, 2013 @ 16:38

      That necessarily excludes the thousands and thousands of African American men who worked, separate from individual Confederate field units, in laboring crews. Those men were generally anonymous to most Confederate soldiers then, and as a result, remain so today.

      Exactly and what needs to be emphasized is that impressed blacks and body servants all had one thing in common: they were owned.

      I’ve seen the same thing in my search through pension records.

      • Michael C. Lucas Sep 15, 2013 @ 7:33

        Kevin what about all the thousands of free blacks who served the Confederacy and were enrolled in the Confederate Army, who were paid, often more than white soldiers for their trade. I have the documentation to prove it so get off your high horse and research better.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2013 @ 7:54


          For someone who has never demonstrated any substantial knowledge of any aspect of the Civil War you certainly speak with confidence. How about you provide a single wartime account from a Confederate soldier who acknowledged serving next to a black man (free or enslaved). Until then, go away.

          • Jimmy Dick Sep 15, 2013 @ 8:05

            This just keeps coming up. Michael says there were thousands of free blacks serving the Confederacy. How many free blacks were in the Confederacy? Just exactly how did they serve the Confederacy? Was it willingly or forced?

            Then he says he has the documentation to prove it. Okay, prove it. Whip that documentation out and show us all those free blacks who served the Confederacy. I have yet to see any documentation proving it. I’ve seen a lot that proves exactly what Kevin and other historians say about the subject. I’ve seen documentation advanced by people championing Black Confederates that failed to prove their claim and instead reinforced the fact that there were practically none.

            I’m from Missouri and you have to SHOW ME!

            • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2013 @ 8:15

              There is no evidence that this guy has done anything along the lines of serious research. It’s as if simply barking is sufficient in his world to indicate an alternative interpretation or anything worth taking seriously. Honestly, I don’t even believe that Mr. Lucas has a grasp of what serious research looks like. In the end, show don’t tell.

            • Rob Baker Sep 15, 2013 @ 11:19

              Don’t hold your breath. The last time I demanded the documentation for Michael’s unfounded claims, he demanded compensation.

              • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2013 @ 11:21

                I just love people who hurl insults with such confidence without ever writing anything of substance.

          • Michael C. Lucas Sep 15, 2013 @ 9:05

            “Never” is a pretty broad term for you considering your abounding narrow minded bigotry, yet alone ignorance of me. You know as well as I do in order to receive a pension African Americans had to have a corroborating white soldier witness and state they had served with the recipient in order for them to receive a pension for their Confederate service. We can also review the remaining Confederate muster rolls which quite often do not state persons of color, but none the less show the name of an African American who served within a unit. If you want a specific name of a Confederate officer Captain Richmond L. Christian of the 1st Virginia Artillery, kept meticulous records of the 40 or so free men and slaves who served in his command, including pay records for the freemen and slaves who served as Forage Masters, Blacksmiths, Teamsters, Carpenters, etc… Records indicate Free men received pay in full and though its questionable if slave owners received pay in full or shared the compensation with their slaves, none the less documented as serving as well.

            • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2013 @ 9:30

              The pensions you ate referring to we’re given to former slaves. This is history 101. You really should do your homework before spouting off. You look silly.

              Please take your charges of bigotry elsewhere. You are done here.

            • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2013 @ 11:12

              No one has ever denied that blacks (impressed and enslaved) functioned in various capacities in the Confederate army. We’ve been over this time and time again.

              • Jimmy Dick Sep 15, 2013 @ 11:21

                It’s the same thing over and over again. The so called documentation only proves and reinforces that these men were not soldiers. Furthermore there is a difference between freemen and slaves. How many of each were there and what did they do? Slaves were property. The records does not seem to show if they got paid or their owner got paid? What is this? A way to cast uncertainty on the situation? They were slaves!

                Go to the records. Look at the laws passed requiring unpaid service from blacks whether slave or freeman and for what purpose. Note that this service was specifically not as a soldier. This was not willing service, but forced unwilling service. It illustrates the division between free and not free.

                There is no documentation for black Confederate soldiers, certainly not on a large scale as claimed by those desperate to manufacture them. The records prove beyond a shadow of a doubt what the black men were doing in service of the Confederacy and how they were made to serve.

                • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2013 @ 13:00

                  The very documents that Michael puts forward are evidence that these men were not considered soldiers. I have to question whether he has ever examined these pensions or bothered to read anything on the subject: http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/289/black-confederate-pensioners-after-the-civil-war

                  • Jimmy Dick Sep 15, 2013 @ 13:59

                    I don’t think he and the others of the Lost Cause mentality understand how much we would love to have an actual black Confederate soldier to research and write about. It wouldn’t change the fact that the war was about slavery or that racism was a major factor for everything in that era. it would just be a really fascinating part of the war.

                    However, what Michael and the Causers want is a bunch of black Confederates to validate their interpretation of the conflict. It is a case of writing history to reflect how they want history have been. It doesn’t work that way. The historical record proves beyond a doubt what happened and they just don’t like what the facts are telling them.

        • Corey Meyer Sep 15, 2013 @ 8:40

          Michael, if you have this documentation please share with the world. It would be selfish to keep this material to yourself…

          Not holding my breath…

          • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2013 @ 8:47

            It’s not simply about sharing this information in list form in some king if gotcha game. Michael needs to spend time crafting a full blown interpretation. I will eve post it at CWM.

          • Jimmy Dick Sep 15, 2013 @ 14:09

            If Michael and the Causers are so eager to believe and champion black men who fought in war, why don’t they study all the black men who fought on behalf of the Continental Army during the War of American Independence? There were plenty of them. French officers wrote about how 25% of Washington’s troops at Yorktown were black. The facts are there. Yet, they don’t seem to have much interest in why black men fought in that war. Why?

            Was it because those men fought for freedom? Or was it because after the war those men found themselves marginalized and ignored like so many other soldiers by people with other interests? If anything, the memory of black soldiers in that war was deliberately suppressed just like the memory of the black soldiers who fought in the Civil War. This was just another manifestation of racism in America.

            The truth shall set you free. Until the Causers embrace the truth they’re always going to be limited by their own inability to produce factual based evidence. Embracing a lie shackles them to a past that fails to hold up to scrutiny and inhibits their ability to mentally move forward in a higher level of thinking. They’re stuck in one gear.

            • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2013 @ 14:10

              We’ve been over this time and time again. I will leave it at that. Thanks for the comment.

  • Christopher Coleman Sep 14, 2013 @ 15:03

    The role of African Americans within the Confederate War effort remains enigmatic and I think not subject to the stereotypes of both the Lost Cause adherents or their opposite numbers who dismiss them summarily as either a falsehood or an anomaly to be ignored. Still, whenever I find a primary reference to an African American as a Rebel soldier it always takes me aback somewhat as it seems so unusual. I need to read your original article to get a better handle on what this piece. On my to do list.

    In the meantime, let me add my two cents about the involuntary impressment of Blacks to construct fortifications. While it was indeed widespread by the Confederates, let it not be forgotten that the Federals did exactly the same thing. The Annals of the Army of the Cumberland, published in 1863 is fairly explicit about Nashville’s Blacks being forcibly impressed to construct defenses for the Union, to the point of surrounding an African American church and hauling the church goers away while still dressed in formal church clothes. While they were provided with food, the Blacks were not paid by Federals, which puts them de facto as slave labor, whatever their precise legal status. Takeaway: neither side was blameless in this regard, even if it was more widespread on the Confederate side.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 14, 2013 @ 15:12

      Thanks for the comment. I think enough has been published in recent years to suggest that the role of African Americans in the Confederate war effort is anything buy “enigmatic.” Lost Cause adherents tended to ignore impressed slaves in their postwar accounts and instead focused on body servants, who could much more easily be turned into faithful servants.

      You are right to point out Federal policies and this has also been the subject of a great deal of recent scholarship. Let me be very clear that my interest in the Confederate side of the story has nothing to do with “blame”. I am interested in this particular aspect of the master – slave relationship and how it was remembered after the war and up to the present day.

Leave a Reply

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