restricted access Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South by Jaime Amanda Martinez (review)
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Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South. By Jaime Amanda Martinez (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2013) 248 pp. $39.95

During the American Civil War, slaves accounted for nearly 40 percent of the Confederate population, but the new government’s efforts to compel their labor for military purposes has long been regarded by historians as a signal failure that touched off grave conflicts and contributed to Confederate defeat. Slave owners who had supported secession to protect their claims to human property protested any interference with it; slaves resisted by fleeing impressment officers and Confederate camps for Union lines. Where most historians see failure, however, Martinez finds success. Focusing on Virginia and North Carolina, Martinez argues that despite substantial obstacles, government officials successfully put thousands of slaves to work building fortifications, digging ditches, and performing other essential tasks for Confederate armies. Although that labor was not enough to save the slaveholding republic, it demonstrated the ability of state and national governments to cooperate in mobilizing for war.

Martinez briefly discusses the war’s first eighteen months, when Confederate commanders, unable to procure enough manual labor through voluntary requests to slave owners, resorted to the ad hoc impressment of slaves. Her narrative commences in earnest with the fall and winter of 1862/63, when Virginia, North Carolina, and five other states passed laws to regulate the process. Virginia’s law, for example, authorized the governor to call for as many as 10,000 male slaves at a time for no more than sixty days, requiring their masters to be paid $16 a month. Martinez draws on state and Confederate archives to detail the hard work and poor conditions that slaves endured and the frequent complaints of their masters. Those objections notwithstanding, she emphasizes, most slave owners complied. For their part, government officials strove to improve conditions for impressed laborers, to spread quotas equitably among slaveholders, and to minimize impressment’s impact on the home-front economy.

The Confederacy took its first step toward a more centralized system in March 1863, when Congress included slaves in a general law regulating the impressment of various forms of property. But state laws, where in force, continued to govern slave impressment until the Confederate War Department took charge a year later. Yet, the central government continued to rely on state officials, who in some cases favored national control to relieve themselves of impressment’s burdens. In November 1864, President Jefferson Davis called for the Confederacy to purchase 40,000 slaves outright for use in non-combat roles. That proposal broadened until Congress, in the war’s final weeks, approved the enlistment of slaves as soldiers.

Although Martinez does not adopt an explicitly interdisciplinary approach, her overall argument bears similarities to one of the classic [End Page 244] works of American political development, Richard F. Bensel’s Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859–1877 (New York, 1990). Bensel compared the United States’ market-based mobilization of resources to the Confederacy’s more centralized approach, citing the impressment of war matériel as one example (Bensel’s scant mention of slave impressment might account for the absence of his book from Martinez’s bibliography). Martinez agrees that states’ rights ideology did not hamstring Confederate authority, further emphasizing the Confederacy’s federalist structure and the continuing cooperation of state and national officials. Nonetheless, the tardy development and narrow scope of slave impressment limited its contribution to the Confederate war effort in ways that Martinez might have done more to acknowledge. The central government did not firmly take control of the process for three years—two years longer than it took to require the conscription of white soldiers—and set the maximum number of impressments at 20,000, a tiny fraction of the 3.5 million slaves in Confederate territory at the war’s beginning. Other historians may hesitate to follow Martinez in labeling those policies a success, but they will appreciate her book as the most extensive and detailed study of this important subject.

Stephen A. West
Catholic University of America