“I Tore His Back and Legs All to Pieces”

I have a couple of accounts of the whipping of camp slaves during the war, but nothing that comes close to the brutality illustrated below. Masters punished their camp slaves for any number of reasons, but it almost always came back to trying to maintain a difficult balance between the assertion of authority and slave privilege in an environment that differed dramatically from home.

Thanks to Ken Noe for sharing this letter from Lieutenant John B. Evans of the 53rd Georgia, which was written to his wife on December 2, 1864.

Mollie I am just through whipping Joe, I give him about four hundred lashes.  I made him pull off all his clothes I tied his hands and feet.  I then made him lie down on his blanket.  I drove two stocks in my house and stretched him out full length, I think I give at least four hundred lashes, the reason I whipped him so was we caught him carrying off our meat to they [sic] soldiers.  Mollie you better believe I tore his back and legs all to pieces.  I was mad enough to kill him. — [John B. Evans Papers 1862-1865, Duke University Special Collections]

A couple things stand out once you get beyond the violent details. First, it was written in late 1864 at a time when many argue the presence of camp slaves had drastically declined. Even though I do not take a firm position on this in the book, I have my doubts that this was the case.

The reference to his “house” suggests that the punishment was carried out in isolation from the rest of the camp. I don’t want to make too many assumptions about the availability of meat in December 1864, but I suspect that Joe may have been punished for trying to make some money through its sale to the other soldiers. Camp slaves found a number of ways to make extra money in camp, some of which was with the approval of their owners and in other cases it was carried out in secret.

As to why he felt a need to share such detail with his wife? Evans may have owned one or two additional slaves. Perhaps he hoped to have this account shared with his other slaves as a means to maintain his authority at a time when tens of thousands had already run away or showed defiance through other means.

Final thought: We often hear that most enlisted men in the Confederate army didn’t own slaves and that therefore they had no interest in its perpetuation or defense. This and other accounts serves as an important reminder that these men interacted with slaves every day of the war. Confederate armies were slaveowning institutions and their continued function depended, in large part, on their presence.

The more you read about impressed slaves and camp slaves the more you begin to understand that the distinction between slaveowners and non-slaveowners makes little sense within the context of the army.

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8 comments… add one
  • Bryan Cheeseboro Nov 2, 2016 @ 11:02

    Horrible story. But I’m thinking the “400” number is an exaggeration.

    As far as the difference between whipping a slave and being flogged while in the military, there is a world of difference. First off, the military punishment is a little different if the man was a volunteer. Besides that, whipping a slave is based on White supremacy and Black bondage. Volunteered or drafted, sooner or later a man will be out of the Army. A slave is a slave for life.

  • Randy Watkins Nov 1, 2016 @ 10:55

    House was probably LT Evans winter quarters hut since Longstreet’s Corps was in winter quarters around Richmond in December 1864. The 53rd was in Longstreet’s Corps. As an officer he was very likely to have a slave in camp. His house wasn’t far removed from the enlisted men. His would have been in a row of officer’s huts.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 1, 2016 @ 12:20

      Hi Randy,

      Thanks for the additional information.

  • Forester Nov 1, 2016 @ 10:06

    How did this differ from the flogging inflicted on white soldiers for similar offenses (before they banned it)? Was the treatment harsher on slaves?

    I know in the Revolution, Congress raised the legal limit on whites from 39 to 100 lashes, which is a quarter of what this slave received.

    • Bob Huddleston Nov 1, 2016 @ 11:57

      The short answer is there is no difference between flogging a white soldier or sailor and a black slave. Indeed. The opposition to flogging was led by abolitionist like New Hampshire senator John Hale and Connecticut representative and US Senator Samuel Foot (Foot’s son, Andrew Hull Foote – spelled differently – was a career naval officer who started the ultimately successful fight to abolish grog in the navy and served as a rear admiral in the West during the Civil War, most notably against Forts Henry and Donelson and Island Number 10). They were aided by authors such as Richard Henry Dana in _Two Years Before the Mast_ and Herman Melville in _White Jacket_.

      The opposition came from the slave states, concerned if Congress could abolish whipping in the military they might do the same with slaves. Restricted by Army and Navy Regulations, whipping was finally abolished when the slave state senators and representatives left in 1860-61. Congress abolished whipping in the Army August 5, 1861 and in the Navy July 14, 1862, along with grog.

      The first mention of Robert E Lee in the national press concerned accusations he ordered the flogging of Arlington House slaves in 1859. His defenders deny he would have done such a thing but, as a career army officer who had witnessed and probably ordered flogging of soldiers, it is logical he would have had no qualms about whipping runaway slaves.

      An excellent online discussion of the abolishment of whipping in the navy is https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/b/brief-history-punishment-flogging-us-navy.html

      • Kevin Levin Nov 1, 2016 @ 12:03

        The short answer is there is no difference between flogging a white soldier or sailor and a black slave.

        Of course there is a difference. One is subject to military law and the other the absolute power of the master.

      • Msb Nov 2, 2016 @ 12:22

        And there’s a difference between 100 lashes and 400.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 2, 2016 @ 12:34

          The number is certainly relevant, but it is what those lashes represent in terms of the relationship between the two parties that is salient.

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