Sunday, January 30, 2011

Slaves in Camp

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….


Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the thoughtful post. You are correct that I did recently view GWTW in my class, but I don't see it at work in this particular post. You are absolutely right to point out the differences concerning slave life in various parts of the South. As you rightly point out slaves in the Upper South were more than likely to work on a small farm and often side by side with their owners.

What I meant to suggest is that the experience of camp life and the dangers that accompany war would have constituted new terrain for master and slave. It's that experience that seems to me to constitute new terrain, even though I agree that a spectrum of bonds would have been established. One of the factors, however, that was clearly not present before the war was the real possibility of freedom. The biggest challenge for slaveowners, who chose to bring a servant into camp, was the likelihood that their slave would embrace the opportunity to run away. Stephanie McCurry's new book (Confederate Reckoning) goes into this in great detail. This was also true for the thousands of slaves who were impressed by the state and federal government. Slaveowners protested at every step, not only because their own sovereign control was challenged, but because they understood that the war meant freedom for their chattel.

Thanks again for the link and I hope this helps to clarify my thinking.

Kevin at Civil War Memory

B.J. Welborn said...

As the Civil War anniversary unfolds, I have no doubt that slaves and slavery will dominate many discussions. My research into my Confederate ancestors has turned up surprising information for me. My North Carolina family did own slaves, a small number. Yet, my ancestors were divided; some were anti-secessionists. An inner civil war raged in their part of the state, the Randolph County area.

Does anyone have more information on this inner civil war in N.C.?

I have authentic war-era letters from my ancestors that shed light on this aspect of the war. Follow my findings at I'd be interested in comments.

Michael Hardy said...

Kevin – thanks for the comments. I think for me, what is surprising, is the number of slaves who chose not to run off, even when on Northern soil or when the opportunity presented itself. There are numerous stories that could illustrate this – I’ll give just one. This account is from the Fayetteville Observer, September 3, 1863. Col. Collett Leventhorpe was grievously wounded at the battle of Gettysburg, and captured, along with his slave, George, during the Confederate retreat. According to the newspaper account, George slipped through the Union lives and made his way back to Rutherford County, North Carolina, to await Leventhorpe’s return.

Something I’ve not frequently found, at least in my study of North Carolina, is mention of slaves who were in camp and who did run off. Most of the information in letters about slaves seeking their freedom comes from letters back home.

Thanks again for the note.

Michael Hardy said...

B. J. – thanks for the note. It often seems that people try and draw a simplistic line in this way: Southern slave owners supported the Confederacy, while all Northerners supported the abolition of slaves. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was Southern slavery that was driving much of the industrial revolution occurring in the North. While at the same time, there were slave owners in the South who remained staunchly committed to the Union. In 1860 Watauga County, the Banner family was one of the area’s largest slave owners, but sent sons to fight in the Northern armies. The largest slave owner in Wilkes County, a Gywn (I think), was also staunchly pro-Union.

As far as more information, goes, have you checked out this article: William T. Auman “Neighbor against Neighbor: The Inner Civil War in the Randolph County area of Confederate North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review 61 (January 1984): 59-92?

Anonymous said...

"Confederate Reckoning," already mentioned, and "Bitterly Divided" by David Williams both have lots of material on Randolph County's intestine war (if I'm using that term correctly). -- Lew Powell