On a few occasions, I’ve blogged about African-Americans in the Confederate army. It is a subject that needs much more objective exploration. My current book project, “Feeding the Army of Northern Virginia,” will contribute some to that discussion, exploring the roles of both the enslaved and the free people of color who worked for the Confederate army. Lately, I’ve been researching and writing about the rolls of African-Americans in the Confederate hospital system in Virginia. I’m not really aware of anyone who has looked at just how many were employed by the hospital system overall, but it must have been in the thousands. Men, mostly, served as nurses, cooks, kitchen assistants, helpers for the baker, boatmen, carpenters, hospital farmers, laundry workers, and staff for the icehouses.
Hospital administrator James B. McCaw ran into some difficulty with the owners of the slaves laboring at Chimborazo in May 1862. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was within sight of the Confederate capital. McCaw wrote to Surgeon General Samuel Moore: “I have at this time only two hundred & fifty-six cooks & nurses in my Hospital, to take care of nearly four thousand sick soldiers and the owners of these slaves are threatening to remove them to the interior of the country to avoid losing them. I am confident a large number will be moved in a few days unless measures are taken to prevent it.”
Moore responded, telling McCaw “If these negroes are permitted to leave, the hospitals will be abandoned & the sick left destitute.” (47)
James Brewer, in his book, The Confederate Negro: Virginia’s Craftsmen and Military Laborers, 1861-1865, writes that the members of the Confederate Medical Corps readily trained both enslaved and free people of color to be nurses. (95) Besides duties in the farms, fields, and boats, the nurses were responsible for bathing all patients as they arrived, daily “sponge baths,” distribution of rations in the wards, changing the straw in the bed sacks monthly, scouring the wards, and the movement of patients who were not ambulatory.
As already mentioned, a small number were free people of color. Most of them, like their enslaved counterparts, are now just names. “Candis” was hired in 1862 to work as a cook in Division #2, Chimborazo Hospitals. She was paid $240 for the year, the same pay as the male cooks. Later, she became a nurse, and in 1864, her pay was raised to $300 a year. For her services, she was paid more than twice what the Confederate soldier in the ranks received.
There is a “paucity of facts [that] hampers the study” of African-Americans in the Confederate army, to paraphrase Brewer (103). Many of the Confederate medical records were destroyed on the night that Richmond burned. I, for one, would love to know more about the life of Candis. How old was she? Did she have a family? What did she do before or after the war? Wouldn’t it be awesome to have her story…