- Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South by Jaime Amanda Martinez
At the start of the Civil War, Confederate strategists believed that slavery would provide the margin of victory in their bid for independence. Enslaved laborers constituted the key agricultural workforce, and in most cities they also played an important part in transportation, manufacturing, and the trades. Thanks to that labor, white men could concentrate on fighting the Yankees. Over time, internal and external forces destabilized this model, but not before southerners found a new way for slaves to support the war, namely, as military laborers. Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South concentrates on Virginia and North Carolina. For various geographic, demographic, and strategic reasons, the experiences of the two states differed. Yet, taken together, they demonstrate the role of slave impressment in Confederate state formation, particularly in the evolving relationship between the central government and the various state governments. Though not perfect, the resulting cooperation contributed to the general success of impressment.
During the first weeks of the war, military officials in Virginia understood the need to fortify the lower Peninsula between the York and the James Rivers to thwart Federal operations against Richmond from that quarter. By impressing free and enslaved black laborers, they created a “competition over labor resources” that prompted political leaders to establish “statewide impressment quotas” (23). Slaveholders everywhere feared exposing their men to the Yankees, but that was not the only danger. The work was exhausting, often hazardous and unhealthy, too. Masters sought assurances of good treatment, prompt payment, and an equitable distribution of calls for laborers. Their “most significant objection” arose when labor requisitions came during planting or harvesting (28).
In the interest of coordinating competing interests and demands, slaveholders and their elected representatives sought the cooperation of [End Page 174] Confederate authorities. A multitiered sharing of responsibilities developed among slave owners, government officials at state and national levels, and military authorities. As early as the fall of 1863, Virginia’s voters elected to the Confederate Congress a number of former Whigs who supported “measures that strengthened the central government” (121). Over time, Richmond assumed greater control over impressment, but voters elected to local and state offices men who would keep the central authorities from overreaching.
State-level authorities in North Carolina faced similar challenges in mobilizing enslaved laborers to safeguard key points, particularly Wilmington, the Atlantic port whose international trade continued despite the U.S. naval blockade. Like their counterparts in Virginia, they aimed to appease their constituencies while also realizing that coordination with Richmond would improve overall efficiency. But collaboration exacted a price. In 1862, Confederate military officers in Virginia managed to secure the cooperation of local and state officials in North Carolina to furnish more than one thousand slave laborers, “much to the dismay” of the chief engineer of the defenses at Wilmington (30). Impressment thus contributed to the process of Confederate state formation, but “centralization … happened haltingly, with frequent compromises and renegotiations” (128–29).
The advance of Federal forces prompted slaves to escape just when military engineers needed laborers the most. In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the Rockingham County Court noted as early as the fall of 1863 that the presence of Union forces to the west had “made slavery ‘a volunteer matter’” (113). Throughout the state, “most communities lost at least a quarter of their adult male slaves by 1864” (134). In the circumstances, slaveholders sought relief from predetermined labor quotas, and the rebalancing of local and national needs began anew. In finding that “runaway slaves shaped government policies” in the Confederacy (63), Martinez offers a nice complement to Glenn David Brasher’s important recent study of the same dynamic on the Union side.1
The book’s obvious strengths highlight several weaknesses. Martinez presents somewhat contradictory information on the extent to which impressment affected slave discipline and morale. She reports, for instance, that of the compensation claims that masters submitted for the loss or injury of slaves, “fewer than 10 percent” involved runaways (65). As she...