What Black 'Confederates' Really Did During the War

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Some portray them as devoted manservants who rescued the wounded and remained lifelong friends with their masters. The true picture is far less romantic.

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Virginia African American teamsters pose near a Confederate signal tower (Library of Congress)

One of the things that jumps out at you when you look closely at the profile of the African Americans celebrated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans as "black Confederate soldiers" is that they were all body servants. The best examples include Aaron Perry, Weary Clyburn, and Silas Chandler.

  • They "followed" their masters to war
  • Identified closely with the Confederate cause
  • Rescued their master on the battlefield (dead or wounded) and brought body home
  • Were awarded pensions for their "service"
  • Remained life long friends with their former owners

I've suggested before that this narrative owes its popularity to its close connection to the mythology surrounding the loyal slave that took hold even before the war. What is interesting, however, is that body servants were not representative of how the Confederacy utilized slave labor during the war. In fact, we know that the number of slaves brought into the army with their masters as servants dropped by the middle of the war for a number of reasons.

More representative of the experience of "Confederate slaves" were those impressed by individual states and the Confederate government for various war-related projects such as the building of fortifications and roads. In fact, as the number of body servants dropped, the number of impressed slaves continued to rise as a result of legislation on the state and federal levels. Yet, the SCV/UDC have little to say about these men. 

Of course, it is not difficult to surmise as to why. The first problem is that most people are not even aware that tens of thousands of slaves were impressed during the war. It's a measure of where we are in terms of our popular understanding of how African Americans experienced the war. What is important to keep in mind, however, is that there is no difference between the legal status of body servants and those who were impressed. They were all legally owned.

Impressed slaves were not attached to individual Confederate officers. Their experiences during the war did not conform to that of a body servant and the specific narrative sketched above. And that is the crux of the problem: It is much more difficult to blur the distinction between a slave and soldier in the case of an impressed slave than that of a body servant. 

Acknowledging impressed slaves also raises a host of other problems that modern day champions of black Confederates are likely to want to resist. For one, we know that slave owners resisted the attempts on the part of the state and Confederate government to impress their slaves as a violation of their property rights. This brings into sharp focus just how important it is for black Confederate advocates to steer clear of the coercive nature of the master-slave relationship.

I suspect that this is why the body servant will continue to serve as the hallmark of the SCV's understanding of the role that African Americans played in the Confederate war.

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Kevin M. Levin is a Civil War historian based in Boston.  He is the author of the book Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder and can be found online at Civil War Memory.

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