- Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South by Jaime Amanda Martinez
In Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South, Jaime Amanda Martinez crafts a well-researched analysis of slave impressment, providing substantial evidence to support her contention that slave impressment, while often resisted by slaveholders and deemed a failure by many historians, largely succeeded. This is a significant contribution to the historiography of the Civil War in its own right, but through this lens Martinez also addresses the popular belief that the Confederate government fell victim to its own ideology, the doctrine of states’ rights, and created a nation resistant to a centralized authority and ultimately unwilling to sacrifice self-interest for the benefit of the Confederacy. Confederate impressment policy undermines this premise by revealing a level of cooperation between national, state, and local governments and, over the course of the war, increased centralization of control in the central government. This federal government could be, and often was, effective. Additionally, while slaveholders vocalized their resistance to losing their slaves, the enforcement of impressment policies meant that they still, perhaps unwillingly, sent their slaves to labor for the Confederacy.
Martinez conveys her argument by focusing on the Upper South, specifically Virginia and North Carolina. The process of implementing impressment differed between the two states, as North Carolina, like other Confederate states, would more willingly comply with centralization and turn over the task of impressment to the Confederate government while Virginia accepted national control but sought to keep its governor actively involved in process. More specifically, the two states used varying procedures and enforcement policies and formed different relationships with national government offices. Despite these differences, both North Carolina and Virginia were of vital importance to the Confederate war effort because of their locations, slave populations, and production of both [End Page 439] agricultural and industrial materials—which depended heavily on the labor of slaves. Martinez contends that while more research on slave impressment throughout the South is necessary, these two states serve as a foundation for other state studies and provide significant insight into the institution of slavery in the Upper South. Indeed, Martinez’s study leaves many questions about what slave impressment was like throughout the South and, particularly, what other states that might be classified as part of the “Upper South.”
Slave impressment began at the local and state level. Confederate officials recognized that local leaders would prove more effective in soliciting slaves from their communities. As the war continued and the Confederate army called for more and more laborers to dig ditches and build fortifications, frustrated citizens appealed to their states and governors to protect their slaves from impressment. Caught between their citizens and the demands of the Confederacy, state governments led by Governor Vance of North Carolina and Governor Smith of Virginia turned to the national government, removing the burden from the states. The Confederate Bureau of Conscription became responsible for the collection of slaves, most notably requesting twenty thousand slaves in 1864, and created more bureaucracy in the Confederate government with the formation of the Board of Slave Claims, which was charged with determining financial restitution for slaveholders who could prove negligence caused injury or death to their slaves. Although the Confederate government grew stronger during the war, a scarcity of resources and labor continued to plague the war effort and, as Martinez argues, increased the resolve of slaveholders who were unwilling to part with their slave labor.
Within this political narrative, Martinez interweaves the experiences of southerners, both slaves and slaveholders and the consequences of Confederate impressment policy. Slaves impressed within the Confederate army were often mistreated, suffering through the hardships of intense labor and poor medical care as Martinez points out in her chapter, “Throwing up the Breastworks.” Alternatively, the next chapter, “Provisions are Needed,” provides insight to the slaveholders’ experience with impressment, their perceptions of their labor requirements, the importance of slave labor for agricultural production, and their resentment towards the government for undermining their authority in slavery.