A few days ago, something on Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog caught my attention. And while I’m not going to speak for the South as a whole, I will address a few questions and refer to my research into western North Carolina. Kevin was referring to a interview by Noah A. Trudeau and brought out some interesting points. However, I think Kevin might suffer from too many viewings of Gone with the Wind. Kevin seems to have a problem with the idea that there were “bonds of intertwining trust” between master and slave formed during the war, much less that they might have existed before the war. Kevin writes: “I have no doubt that the war probably brought master and slave together in close contact and I have no doubt that certain bonds were formed. The problem for any historian researching this, however, is that there is almost nothing available to help fill in the blanks.” Here is my rub: while in some instances the war might have brought master and slave owner together to form bonds, in many instances, those bonds were formed many years prior to the war. I’m sure that for some masters, or maybe better put, the sons of slave masters, this closeness might not exist. For the vast majority of slave owners, there was no big house, with rows of slave cabins tucked neatly off in some field, not visible from the house. The slaves, usually just one or two, lived in the house with the master. I’ve encountered this on two or three occasions here in local research. At the McElroy House in Burnsville, the was never any evidence of slave housing, but passed-down stories of how the slaves lived in the house, in a room over the kitchen. Also, in the Bethel community in Watauga County, with the Farthing family, this was the same story. No slave housing. Their slaves lived with them. Since the vast majority of slave owners owned only a couple of slaves, and at times (or maybe full-time) they lived in the same house, adjusting to having slaves in the army would not have been nearly the ordeal that Kevin makes it out to be.
Kevin writes: “ The one topic that I am trying to wrap my head around is the way in which the war shaped race relations in camp. The war forced slaves and masters to confront one another in an environment that was unfamiliar to both.” What would be unfamiliar? I broke down the 1860 Watauga County Census. There were 104 slaves in Watauga County, owned by 30 men and one women (31 total). Of these, 20 owned 3 or fewer slaves. If we take out the one woman, that leaves 19. Of that 19, 10 served in the army. Seven were enlisted men, one was a colonel, and the other two were lieutenants. Plus, as folks have often said, slave ownership effected more than just a slave owner. Masters frequently rented out their slaves to help their neighbors at certain times of the year to help with different manual labor projects. Estimating this number is next to impossible, but, the idea of a small farm owner who has hired a slave for a day or week sitting on a horse watching others work (once again, a Gone with the Wind idea) is absurd. Like the small slave owner, these men would have been in the field working side by side. So, for an unknown percentage of men in camp, having slaves, or even freedmen serving alongside, or working alongside the men in the ranks, is not that hard of an idea to grasp. A certain percent of the population had lived with men and women of color, and had worked in the fields with men of color.
Just something to think about….