The “colored wing” of the Army of Tennessee

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.

Officers of Company H (Independent Volunteers) of the 57th Georgia Regiment, Army of Tennessee, 1863.

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?

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

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9 comments… add one
  • Bernie. Cyrus May 8, 2019 @ 5:53

    Im curious if all this new-confederate BS started in the 1970’s how do you explain the newspapers accounts by Frederick Douglass and others sipeicting armed black soldiers of the Confederacy? Not only at Bull Run but Forest’s Blacks in his cavalry? Or the Louisiana Freed Blacks I guess you could say many owned slaves too as according to Henry Louis Gates. Yes members of the Louisiana Native Guards disbanded only three co pansies of this group changed to Union after New Or and fell and the rest remained loyal to the South.

    • Kevin Levin May 8, 2019 @ 6:00

      Hi Bernie,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. You’ve made a number of claims. Let’s deal first with FD. Keep in mind that Douglass heard these accounts secondhand. He also had an interest in convincing the Lincoln administration from the beginning of the war to recruit black men into the Union army. These accounts he hoped would pressure the administration to move fast. You will find these reports of armed black men in numerous Northern newspapers. Many of them are second hand, but there is no doubt that some slaves were on the front lines doing the kinds of jobs that slaves and body servants typically did in support of the military. It is also likely that a few picked up a rifle at some point and shot at “Yankees.” What I would encourage you to find are the Confederate accounts substantiating these claims. In fact, what I found were numerous editorials from officers and government officials arguing that the Confederacy was not and had no plans to recruit slaves as soldiers.

      If the Confederacy was already utilizing slaves as soldiers at the beginning of the war, why did the government and the population at large engage in a very divisive debate about this very issue in 1864-65. No one has been able to explain this to me. In fact, no one during this debate – regardless of their position on the policy – ever argued that blacks were already serving as soldiers. Not one.

  • paineite May 5, 2019 @ 6:59

    I would imagine that there is some truth to it. At the same time, I believe that one should approach these accounts ((ex: Gibbon) with caution, as you rightly point out. My own reading in the documents of the time indicates a certain braggadocio and jocularity with respect to slaves and slave treatment. We musn’t forget that there was a motivation to promote its benefits, to de-stigmatize it, to de-emphasize its negative effects and to be rather jovial about one’s own slaves. “We love our niggers and they love us,” etc. According to Gibbons, the officer’s slaves were little different than uppity white men. I’m not aware when Gibbons was writing this account, but I believe it may have been very late and even after the end of the Civil War or after; I mention this because these kinds of tropes — as you accurately call them — and apologetics were VERY well-developed indeed by, say, 1860 and later. And after the debacle of the war, there was the ever-present nostalgia for the “good ole South” and its “lovely” life-style. I realize that I’m preaching to the choir in your case especially Mr. Levin and agree that this account ought to be approached with a great degree of caution. What are Gibbon’s movitivation? Who is his audience? Etc. Thanks for the GREAT material you continue to publish. I intend to obtain a copy of your latest book.

    • Kevin Levin May 5, 2019 @ 7:30

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I should have noted that the passage was published in the Mobile Advertiser & Register on April 19, 1863.

    • bharshaw May 5, 2019 @ 8:45

      I’m not sure where in my watching of British TV/Movies (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey), but I’ve the impression the house servants were organized in a strict hierarchy, and the servants of visiting dignitaries took on the status of their employers when mixing with the servants of the host mansion. (The valet to a duke would outrank the valet to a mere earl, etc.)

  • Bryan Register May 4, 2019 @ 16:34

    Is that “wretches”, not “wenches”?

    • Kevin Levin May 5, 2019 @ 2:39


  • EK May 4, 2019 @ 16:08

    John Russell Bartlett’s A Glossary of Words and Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States (1860), identifies the terms “white trash,” “mean whites,” and “poor white folks” as African American in origin (pg. 483, 718, 754). Regardless of origin, though, it makes sense that African Americans, enslaved and free, would recognize–at a granular level–power differences across race and class and gender. That’s what Gibbons is describing/mocking. To me it reflects the learned skill of being able to read the room and know where power was concentrated. What Gibbons writes may be hyperbole, but it suggests that the performances of degrading deference were not static; rather, they were specific to time, place, and person. I assume this would be similar in times of peace. How do you think the context of war changed this?

    • Kevin Levin May 5, 2019 @ 2:44

      What Gibbons writes may be hyperbole, but it suggests that the performances of degrading deference were not static; rather, they were specific to time, place, and person.

      That’s right. I think any analysis would have to look closely at a specific example of the master-slave relationship and how it evolved over the course of the war. That’s not easy given the fragmentary nature of the historical record. I see enslaved people challenging the authority of their masters (intentionally or unintentionally) in the quoted passage. In the book I provide a couple of examples where masters violently pushed back against this sort of behavior as a means to reassert their authority.

      I hope I responded to your question. Thanks, Evan.

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