Camp Servants and Confederate Exceptionalism

Over the past few weeks I’ve made steady progress on my new manuscript, which is now tentatively titled, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Enduring Myth. The first chapter on the history of Confederate camp servants serves as what I hope will be a solid foundation for the rest of the study. No historian has been more helpful to me in framing this chapter than Eugene Genovese, especially the short book, Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South, which he co-authored with his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese.

The book offers a concise overview of those elements of slaveholding paternalism that the Genoveses have explored over the course of their career up to the moment of secession. They close with a brief analysis of the war years and even references a few examples of camp servants. This is where my study enters.

My goal in the first chapter is to outline the role that camp servants played in propping up the intellectual world of a slaveholding society. There is no denying that the mobilization of this specific group took place for reasons of necessity. In that sense they can be included among that much larger group of impressed slaves that supported the war effort on the state and federal levels. The critical difference, however, is that camp servants, in contrast with impressed slaves, were not nameless. They lived and worked in close proximity to whites beginning with their masters and likely interacted at times with members of the broader community.

Camp servants embodied the intellectual assumptions that framed the master-slave relationship over the course of the antebellum period. They served as a constant reminder for slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike of the perceived virtues of slavery, but that did not mean that the exigencies of war did not at the same time test it. In short, the war tested whether the paternalistic relationship that had evolved by the time of the war was genuine or tied together by a thread.

The war offered Confederates plenty of room to maneuver in how they assessed that relationship. Acts of apparent fidelity toward one’s master such as bringing water and ammunition onto the battlefield or securing the body in case of death took on increased importance. On the other hand acts of disloyalty had the potential to shake the very foundation of the slaveholder’s intellectual and emotional world. This is the history that over the past few years I’ve struggled to understand.

It is striking to consider the vast gulf that divides individuals and organizations today, who are committed to remembering camp servants as soldiers, with their Confederate forebears. The vast majority of the stories told about black Confederate soldiers involve individuals who were camp servants. The transition from camp servant to soldier is a very recent shift in public memory and it tells us a great deal about how Confederate heritage groups and other individuals have chosen to remember in order to reconcile themselves to the larger shifts in our collective memory of the war and slavery.

Confederate soldiers never faced this dilemma. They never made the mistake of referring to camp servants/slaves as soldiers because they didn’t need to do so. Their slaves embodied all of the virtues that they believed would contribute to Confederate victory. It would be a victory delivered not by black and white Confederate soldiers, but by a slave society. Slaves and masters at war embodied what might be dubbed, Confederate Exceptionalism. This hope survived right up to the very end of the war when the Confederate government finally authorized the enlistment of soldiers from the slave population.

The more time you spend reading the wartime accounts from officers of the slaveholding class the more you understand that what eventually occupied a crucial place in the Lost Cause narrative was already firmly in place by the end of the war. Stories of loyal slaves in Confederate camps dominated postwar accounts while the debate over arming slaves was all but forgotten. It’s the loyal slaves/camp servants who were welcomed back to Confederate soldier reunions and it was the loyal slaves/camp servants who were awarded pensions by former Confederate states by the turn of the twentieth century.

These stories came to embody the collective memory of Confederate Exceptionalism.

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!

22 comments… add one
  • London John Jun 2, 2015 @ 4:09

    Are there recorded cases of Constitutional Unionist officers from Maryland, Kentucky or Missouri taking their slaves along as personal servants? And did Union officers who could afford it employ free personal servants while on active service?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2015 @ 4:16

      Most of my research has been confined to the Army of Northern Virginia. I suspect that they did, especially early in the war, until avenues of freedom became more prevalent.

      And did Union officers who could afford it employ free personal servants while on active service?


  • Leo Jun 1, 2015 @ 6:41

    I flirted with joining the SCV because I was interested in learning more about my great-great-grandfather’s life during the war, but I decided not to join because all the talk of Yankees and the antigovernment rhetoric nauseating. There is too much mythology in the SCV and not enough history. I also find the “heritage activism” misguided and counterproductive.

    What is this clause in their Constitution about non- racial discussion?

    • RUDOLPH YOUNG Jun 1, 2015 @ 11:07

      In convention it says it shall be strictly non-racial, non-political and non-sectarian. They did nothing but talk and fight about race, religion and politics . The SCV in 1896 saw this as a distraction from the mission of honoring the individual Confederate Soldier’s Good Name. I challenged their distorted views on race and politics. They took it as an attack on the organization.

      • Leo Jun 1, 2015 @ 19:29

        I wasn’t impressed by the members of the camp I considered joining. I dare say none have an education beyond high school and no real understanding of historical scholarship.

        It’s a real shame the radicals have taken over the SCV.

  • Annette Jackson Jun 1, 2015 @ 3:38

    Finally found my way back to the site! Among the ugliest discussions I have witnessed recently was on another CW Facebook site where the endless debate over slavery as the major cause of the war resulted in obscene comments that resulted in the thread being pulled. It may be settled for me but not for many who cling to the moonlight and magnolias theory of the war. The park visitors center where I volunteer has a few requests a month for books supporting the myth of the enslaved Confederate soldier. Looking forward to your book.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 1, 2015 @ 4:14

      I think it is important to place those FB pages in perspective. It’s easy to exaggerate the numbers involved in these discussions.

      • Annette Jackson Jun 1, 2015 @ 4:39

        I hope so!

  • mischling2nd May 31, 2015 @ 18:22

    Proverbs 21:2 Every way of a man is right in his own eyes.

    It’s not surprising that a people so proud of being “Christian” needed to believe that their slaves were happy with the “natural order.” How could a “Christian” civilization oppress, torture or degrade people? It was impossible, right?

  • Ted McKnight May 31, 2015 @ 17:40

    I’m looking forward to an interesting book. Am I to understand that the CW was only about slavery and “tariffs or some other nonsense” such as politics had no part? The causes seem to have changed somewhat over the past few decades.

    • Kevin Levin May 31, 2015 @ 17:46

      I am not sure what you are asking? Perhaps some clarification would help me to respond.

      • RUDOLPH YOUNG May 31, 2015 @ 20:02

        The great revisionists of today come from the SCV. They more than anybody else blur the line between camp servant/ impressed slaves and black Confederate soldiers. They would have us to believe that the CW was not about Slavery because slaves fought for the same reasons as white Confederates did. They ignore the fact that patriotism ,friendship other human relationships cannot exist in a slave-master relationship. Granted that a very few of these slave found their way into combat , but not enough to matter. I ,an African American , became a Camp Commander in the SCV under a slave called Caleb Lander. Caleb was donated to General Robert F, Hoke by Henry Lander of the Confederate Congress. Caleb was a cook in Hoke’s headquarters .At the Battle of Bentonville , Caleb was sent to the 71st Junior Reserves. He applied for a pension in North Carolina in 1926. He didn’t get it because he died. His widow was awarded a pension in 1927. I don’t believe that Caleb Lander was a soldier. Oh, yes , I was expelled from the SCV because I said that a clause in their Constitution about non- racial discussion was BS.

  • Ross Hetrick May 31, 2015 @ 8:22

    Sounds like a great book. I look forward to reading it. But wouldn’t the most enduring myth of the Civil War be that it wasn’t about slavery but about tariffs or some other nonsense?

    • Kevin Levin May 31, 2015 @ 9:13

      You are probably right, but I think the tariff’s days as a prime cause of the war are numbered. 🙂

      • M.D. Blough May 31, 2015 @ 18:28

        I think you’re right, Kevin, but what they’re doing remains unchanged as it has been since before the Civil War ended, as the calamitous extent of the secessionist misjudgment started becoming apparent. At the beginning of the war, not only was there was no attempt to hide the fact that the motive for the attempt to break up the Union was to protect the institution of slavery in the South from the hypothethical dangers to it allegedly posed by a President and Congress who had not yet taken office, that motivation was loudly and proudly proclaimed by secessionists. As Confederate defeat loomed, the effort began which persists to this day; the effort is to deny responsibility for a war that the secessionists deliberately risked and to portray the rebel states as the victim, not the perpetrator. The current model looks to deny the role of slavery by portraying the South as the friend and protector of black people in a way that people today would recognize and that requires making blacks of that era look as contented with the slave states as possible. The sad thing is that I think many who argue for that don’t realize that they aren’t really coming up with anything new. It’s simply the “happy slave” myth, beloved both before and after the war by apologists for slavery, dressed up in modern clothes.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 1, 2015 @ 2:47

          The current model looks to deny the role of slavery by portraying the South as the friend and protector of black people in a way that people today would recognize and that requires making blacks of that era look as contented with the slave states as possible.

          That is part of what is going on here, but I also want to make a further point. The loyal slave narrative today is framed as a response to the fact that slavery itself has been discredited. The shift from understanding camp servants as soldiers is the result of this fact, but that is exactly the problem. Their Confederate ancestors were not apologizing for slavery. The presence of slaves in the army served as a reminder of what they believed was exceptional about their way of life in contrast with the North. Stories of loyal camp servants providing physical and emotional support in camp and in battle represented a continuation of a narrative that was already well in place. The eventual debate over the arming of slaves constituted a significant break in this overarching view. By 1864 the mobilization of slaves was not enough to bring about victory. The bitter debate over this reflected the difficulty of acknowledging that it might take a slave’s freedom to bring about true loyalty.

          This is what the Confederate heritage community is incapable of acknowledging.

          • M.D. Blough Jun 1, 2015 @ 15:36

            I agree, Kevin. Thanks for developing the point I was trying to make further than I did. I can honestly understand the people who are dealing with it on a level of pure emotion, finding it hard to reconcile a view of their ancestor as a good, decent person with the concept that such a person could accept and even fight to defend something like slavery. However, it’s clear that there are people who clearly have the resources to know better but are deliberately misrepresenting things to manipulate people who are struggling with this dilemma. The fact is that any study of three key incidents, the Patrick Cleburne proposal, the Confederate reaction to the Union’s enlistment of blacks as combat soldiers, and the actual Confederate proposal to arm slaves towards the end of the war, make it clear that the idea of any significant number of Blacks as Confederate soldiers is a pure fantasy, especially the reaction to the proposal to actually arm slaves as Confederate soldiers. At this point, the writing was on the wall to all but the most deluded. There wasn’t some hidden, unsuspected store of military age white men to add to the ranks. Even with all of that, Confederates as important as Howell Cobb angrily and bitterly rejected the idea of blacks as soldiers and by the time Davis’s proposal, as restricted by the Confederate Congress, made it into law, it was far too late to even have the chance to see if it could help. You’re right.Some Confederate leaders, including Lee, recognized what Lincoln had recognized much earlier: that the freedom for themselves and their families and their enslaved brethren was the only thing for which would get any number of black men to enlist for either side. What the “heritage” crowd is incapable of acknowledging is that, far from their Rainbow fantasy, many whites in the Confederacy would choose defeat if it took freeing any slaves to attain victory.

  • Andy Hall May 31, 2015 @ 6:01

    Sounds like a solid foundational chapter for the rest of the work. Glad to see this project is rolling again.

    • Kevin Levin May 31, 2015 @ 7:25

      Hi Andy,

      Just impossible to bury it for good. I’ve put too much work into it and every new story that emerges in the media serves as a reminder that a book-length treatment would be welcome. My goal is to have the manuscript completed by the end of the year.

      • James F. Epperson Jun 1, 2015 @ 5:18

        I am also very glad to hear you are back on this project. Good luck!

      • Corktree Research Jun 4, 2015 @ 12:11

        I began work on something similar some years ago, but simply got overwhelmed by my day job and had to push it to a back, back burner. Delighted that you are once again on the case. I found it fascinating (and not a little depressing) how the various “heritage” groups were manipulating and mangling the past, yet relatively few (actual) historians were challenging them on their fantasies.

        As with many others, I definitely look forward to reading it when finished.

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