In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

55 • 3 • The Greatest of Masters The Confederate Army and the Impressment of Black Labor The Confederate draft forced Southern troops to remain in the army against their will. Slaves were by definition compelled to serve, but in 1863, they too became conscripts of a sort. In March 1863, the Confederacy passed an impressment law giving commanders power to use slaves for military work. Impressment proved a controversial aspect of the Confederacy ’s massive effort to use black workers to aid the war effort. From the war’s beginning, the army found itself in a power struggle with masters who did not want their property taken and commanders who needed slaves for military work. Impressment created tensions between two powerful segments of the Confederacy—planters and officers—who depended on slave labor. Far from revealing that Southerners were fatalistic about emancipation, impressment showed the military’s commitment to, and continued reliance upon, human bondage. The Confederacy’s use of impressed slaves resulted from an increasingly serious military situation requiring the army to have reliable black labor. It was also a result of the government’s increasing centralization. “States’ rights ideology,” one historian has recently written, “eventually lost to a more expansive vision of the Confederate central state.”1 The Confederacy passed a white conscription law after the South had suffered defeats in early 1862. The army found black laborers invaluable, and by March 1863, the Confederate government had the power to impress them into service. The Rebel military became the greatest of masters, but many civilians did not like the army’s strong-arm tactics, which infringed upon their property rights. As a result, the Confederate army had to work hard to supply its camps with black workers, while at the same time not asking slaveholders to sacrifice too much. After the war, some former Rebels complained about the Confederate government’s impressment policy and the disadvantage the South bore marching masters 56 in trying to control its slave population. In his memoirs, Richard Taylor said, “It was a curious feature of the war that the Southern people would cheerfully send their sons to battle, but kept their slaves out of danger.2 Another Confederate noted that slavery “gave the Federal Government a great advantage in the prosecution of the war and imposed additional cares and responsibilities upon those charged with . . . ​ military operations in the South.”3 Such sentiments, written after the war, tended to revise the important role slaves played in the Confederate army. During the war, white Southerners believed strongly in slavery’s advantages. Blacks made up the majority of agricultural and industrial workers in the South, enabling 80 percent of Southern white adult males to serve in the army. Slavery was a “tower of strength to the South,” wrote the Montgomery Advertiser in 1861, “really one of the most effective weapons employed against the union by the South.” With slaves freeing white men to fight, Confederate armies were two-thirds the size of Union ones.4 The advantages of slave labor were offset to some degree by the flight of thousands of slaves to the Union armies. Confederates, however, adapted to the realities of wartime. Confederate industry, for one, used slaves in innovative ways.5 As Edward Ayers has asserted, by 1863, when the Confederate Congress made impressment official practice, slavery “remained a crucial weapon of the Confederacy.” Ayers notes that slavery’s role “not only remained undiminished but actually grew as white Southerners saw their men killed, maimed, and lost in [battle].”6 Early in the war, Confederates realized that they must mobilize all their resources. As Capt. E. John Ellis wrote in March 1862, “Every man, woman or child, negro or dog in the South that wants to submit ought to be hung up to the nearest limb as soon as possible.”7 Southerners saw that they had to mobilize their slaves effectively to military advantage or Northerners would use them against them. The Confederate army employed blacks by the tens of thousands, to build and repair fortifications and railroads, and as haulers, teamsters, and ditch diggers. Slaves also served alongside medical workers. “I have all hands at work cleaning and whitewashing at the Hospital,” said a surgeon a few weeks before the battle of Chancellorsville. “Today the Medical Director sent me 12 negroes extra.”8 Slave labor made the Confederacy function, as it had the antebellum South. Some historians, however, have argued that the Confederacy’s impressment policy failed because of the refusal of...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.