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80 • 4 • “Send Me the Negro Boy” Confederate Soldiers and the Need for Slaves in Camp The conscription of able-bodied white troops and the impressment of slaves into the Rebel armies were two instances of the Confederacy exerting unprecedented power in the South. Throughout the war, Confederates hoped to strike a balance between the forces of states’ rights and centralization , volunteerism and coercion, the free market and government intrusion into the economy. Many slaves who served in the Confederate army were impressed from Southern masters, but when Irby Goodwin Scott entered the army in 1861, he brought two slaves with him. They were among only six slaves who shared the camp with his entire unit, but on the whole, in Rebel armies, black workers literally represented a division of labor. When Lee’s forces invaded Pennsylvania, the Army of Northern Virginia had roughly 6,000 African Americans with them. None of them were soldiers.1 The Confederate military proved to be a place where blacks could alleviate Rebel soldiers from a multitude of tasks and where Southern whites could exert greater control over slaves. Confederate troops found a safe haven for slaves by having them share their tents, messes, and firesides, and as Joseph Glatthaar has noted in his study of the Army of Northern Virginia, the peculiar institution “represented a world of contradictions to Rebels.”2 Indeed, Confederates’ relationship with slaves and camp and with those back home revealed the tensions that existed in being treated both as human and as property , as valuable and as expendable, as a beloved friend and as merely a servant. And as was the case with impressment and conscription, the war challenged the normal workings of slavery and Confederates’ faith in the institution. In Rebel camps, slaves weathered the uncertainties of the market and the difficulties of combat while also being under their master ’s control. Camp slaves were dear to soldiers, but even beloved body confederate soldiers and the need for slaves in camp 81 servants—immortalized in wartime letters and postwar literature—were valuable only if they were useful, obedient, and cost effective. The more conventional the Confederate unit, the more slaves played a part in its operations. In the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee, for example, one would expect to find more slaves per white man than would be found in a guerilla unit located in the trans-­ Mississippi, or in a unit of home guards hunting down deserters in North Carolina. In comparison to most Confederate forces, Lee’s army was of much greater size and stability, and geographically, for most of the war, it remained within the one-hundred-mile corridor between Richmond and Washington. Months would pass during which Lee’s men were not engaged in significant fighting. In such “quiet” periods, soldiers could run their camps like small Southern communities, in which slaves would be expected to perform domestic functions. But camp slaves were a part of every theater of Confederate operations. Body servants were in the army at the demand of their masters, not the government, so their presence depended on the willingness of slaveholders to put their chattels in harm’s way. The less domesticated the camp environment, the less sense it made for a master to have what was, in essence, a domestic worker with him. In many ways, Confederate soldiers found that the army proved a good home for African Americans, who could help with washing, cooking , cleaning, and the upkeep of animals. Men frequently wrote to family members about their need for a servant, although they also wanted to be sure that their servant would be manageable. The Mississippian Ruffin Thomson wrote at length about the faithfulness of his servant, “Press.” Despite the risks, he believed Press was safe with him in camp. In June 1862, Thomson worried about the possible loss of Vicksburg, but were that to happen, he said, Press “will be better with me than at home.”3 Soldiers thought of slaves much as they did any other military resource. Using the logic of defending interior lines, Confederate troops knew that a loss of territory was not necessarily detrimental to their cause—the less land the Confederacy had, the less it had to defend. Similarly, the fewer numbers of slaves the Confederacy had to worry about, the more they could control those nearby. Soldiers could do very little about blacks hundreds of miles away, but they could keep watch over those serving alongside...


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