My goal in the first two chapters of Searching for Black Confederates was to try to understand the role of enslaved labor in the Confederate army, in camp, on the march, and on the battlefield. In doing so I offer a picture of how the challenges of military life shaped and on occasion stretched the master – slave relationship as well as how military life was experienced by the slaves themselves. One of the more fascinating aspects of this was learning that body servants or camp slaves organized themselves in a hierarchical fashion. Certain camp slaves enjoyed a great deal of respect within their community, which was recognized in a number of ways. For example, on the march individual camp slaves sometimes played the role of commanding officer.
Earlier today I received an advance copy of Larry Daniel’s brand new book, Conquered: Why the Army of Tennessee Failed, from UNC Press. I went straight to the chapter on General Patrick Cleburne’s enlistment proposal, which contained a brief analysis of camp slaves in the army and this wonderful account from Israel Gibbons:
A peculiar institution of our army here is the ‘colored wing’—the military Niggers—I mean the officers servants. They dress well, ride thousand dollar horses, smoke two-bit cigars, live on the fat of the land, get up five dollar dancing parties, put on airs over the country niggers, break the wretches’ heart, and lay over the army and mankind in general. So far as ease, comfort and pleasure go, they seem to be the finest general in the army. They observe keenly the distinction of rank. A General’s nigger won’t associate with the Colonel’s or Captain’s nigger if he can help it; and they look upon the white foot soldiers as the wretchedness of mankind. Very often a tired and dusty volunteer, trudging along the road with his gun and knapsack, hears a clatter behind him, steps aside, and a dandy nigger gallops by without turning his head, stiff and dignified as a Major General. (p. 268)
While Gibbons may have taken some license with the truth, this is certainly an account I wish I had come across during the course of my research and writing as it confirms what I have seen in the historical record.
Of course, the question of how to interpret this account is difficult. There will certainly be the temptation on the part of some today to interpret it through the lens of the Lost Cause and the tired trope of loyalty to master and the Confederacy.
Masters may indeed have interpreted their slaves’ behavior as a reflection of their loyalty. They certainly did with practically every other aspect of their slaves’ behavior during the war. These faux military practices may also have been interpreted narrowly as reflecting identification with the army and the broader cause. Camp slaves may have convinced their masters that they would not run away as a result of creating an imaginary space for themselves within the military hierarchy.
Camp slaves who took on a military rank and organized themselves into a military hierarchy may have understood it as a space where they could be seen and in which they treated one another as something other than property. In those moments slaves could imagine themselves as someone who gave orders (and everything it implied) rather than one who lived to follow orders.
The account raises additional questions about the impact that camp slaves had on enlisted men from outside the slaveholding class. To what extent did they resent slaveholders who benefited from the presence of body servants? Finally, the account also implies tension between slaves in the army and those serving in other capacities.
There is a lot more that can be said about this passage. What do you think?