Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Slavery in the Confederate States Army

Slavery in the Confederate States Army

Larry Holzwarth - September 30, 2020

During the American Civil War slaves and free blacks served the Confederate Army, in many roles and duties. They accompanied the Army of Northern Virginia in its two invasions of the North, in the Antietam Campaign of 1862, and the Gettysburg Campaign of the following year. The Antietam Campaign took place in Maryland, a slave state at the time. The later invasion of Pennsylvania which culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg marked the only time large numbers of slaves were carried into a free state during the war.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Former slaves in a contraband camp circa 1864. Wikimedia

Newspapers and magazines in the South touted the “loyalty” of slaves towards their masters, supported with letters from soldiers serving in the southern armies. One Confederate soldier wrote of the slaves during the Gettysburg Campaign, “…they preferred life and slavery in Dixie to liberty at the north”. Their role in the army did not include combat service, though many came under fire. They built fortifications, dug trenches, drainage ditches, canals and latrines. They erected tents and huts, served as teamsters, tended to livestock, cooked, did laundry, and cut and hauled firewood. Here is the largely unknown role of slaves in the service of the Confederacy during the American Civil War.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Virginia slave auction, circa 1862. Virginia Historical Society

1. The South had a slave economy before and during the war

Long before the guns at Fort Sumter heralded a war between the states, necessitating raising of large armies in the South, slave labor drove the economy. Slaveholders frequently hired their slaves out, to gristmills, cotton gins, shipping companies, and the South’s relatively few factories. Slave labor worked the tobacco processing factories and the iron works, including Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works, which over the course of the war produced nearly half of the artillery used by the Confederate Army. Factories and other businesses paid for the slave labor, but the wages went to their owners. In some cases, workers kept a small percentage of their pay as an allowance for food and clothing.

At the onset of the war, slaves were “hired” in such a manner to erect coastal fortifications and key defensive positions on internal rivers. Forts Henry and Donelson, the sites of early Union victories, were erected by Confederate engineers using slave labor. Slaves built the defensive bastion at Vicksburg, as well as those of Island No. 10 in the Mississippi. As the South geared up for war, with states first exhorting and soon drafting white men into the army, slave labor built railroads, carried supplies on wagons to depots, and traveled to the assembling military encampments. They did not organize into military units such as companies and regiments, but were assigned to military units as laborers.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Robert E. Lee took two slaves to war with him as personal servants. Wikimedia

2. Officers used slaves as body servants

Officers reporting for service with the Confederate Army brought with them slaves as their personal servants. Some brought whole retinues, including a personal servant/valet, cooks, laundresses, and seamstresses. Robert E. Lee brought two slaves with him to war, a personal servant named Perry and a cook called Meredith. Years later a man calling himself William Mack Lee claimed to have served as Lee’s personal servant during the war; those claims proved untrue when scholars pointed out that Lee was not present at the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas). Mack claimed he had, along with many other claims about the man he called “Marse Robert”, provably false.

The “servants” of senior officers had the freedom of working for pay for other officers in their spare time, and were allowed to keep the money thus earned. Alexander Porter, who led the artillery barrage against Union positions at Gettysburg, allowed his slave/servant Charley to purchase his own uniform with money earned. After the surrender at Appomattox, the newly freed Charley and Alexander parted company. The latter wrote in his diary that he sent the former slave on his way with a $10 gold piece in his pocket. Few of the slaves serving as personal servants attempted to escape over the course of the war, likely because they, like the man they served, had family at home, and no desire to lose touch with them in an uncertain future.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
An advertisement for a slave auction includes several skills of use to the army. Wikimedia

3. Slaves offered skilled labor the army needed

Southern plantations, especially the larger farms, were self-sustaining communities. When a plantation needed nails for new construction they forged them on-site. Laborers manufactured bricks and mortar, made barrels, shoed horses, repaired plows and wagons. Iron tires rimmed wooden wheels, manufactured in the plantation’s forges. Slaves provided skilled labor, as well as the simple laborers who supported the artisans. The 19th century armies of the Civil War required most of the same skills, both in camps and on the march. In the first year of the Civil War, local commanders called for volunteers from the nearby slave populations. Slave-owners who provided laborers to the army received compensation, though often in the form of promissory notes never redeemed.

Many slaves volunteered, seeking permission from their owners to answer the call. Often, they shared the motivations of the white, non-slave owners of the rural south. A desire to break the monotony of plantation life, t to see new lands and to experience adventure drove thousands of slaves to follow the armies. As difficult as it is to believe over 150 years later, patriotism provided motivation as well. Many slaves viewed the south as the only home they had ever known, and wanted to serve to protect it from the unknown enemy called the Yankees. By the summer of 1862, the number of volunteers for service with the Confederate Armies slowed to a trickle. The government in Richmond decided to impose a draft on both white men for armed service and slaves and free blacks for labor forces.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
A petition from free blacks, some of them former slaves, requesting pay for labor in the Union Army circa 1863. National Archives

4. The issue of free blacks in the Confederacy

The 1860 census recorded about 260,000 free blacks in the states which eventually comprised the Confederacy. In 1862 the Confederate government in Richmond instituted conscription, the first formal draft in North America, several months before quotas for men went out to the states of the Union. The Confederate draft laws underwent many changes over the course of the war as casualties and desertions drained manpower. One of the earliest regarding slaves was the exemption of young white men otherwise qualified for the draft, but needed at home to protect property on plantations holding 20 or more slaves.

The 20 Slave Law, as it was called, proved immensely unpopular among the non-slave holding population of the South. Viewed as a draft dodge for the scions of wealthier families, it generated widespread dissension. Further fueling the resistance to the draft among the poorer whites was the exemption of free blacks, since the Southern government opposed the idea of arming black troops. The idea of organized parties of armed and trained black soldiers terrified the whites of the South. In 1863, the government in Richmond extended the draft to free blacks, specifying that though they would be conscripted into the army, it would be in the non-armed labor parties supporting the troops. They received less pay, and were housed alongside the slaves accompanying the Confederate troops.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Cobb’s Georgia Legion suffered severe casualties at the Battle of Antietam in 1862. Library of Congress

5. Rented slaves worked for enlisted men

The typical enlisted man of the Confederate Army did not hail from wealth. Over half were farmers, coming from families which did not own slaves, or no more than one or two. In the rural antebellum south, though many small farmers did not own slaves of their own, they sometimes pooled their meager resources and owned slaves together, sharing their services. Other times they rented them from a larger landowner, usually during the critical periods of seeding in the spring and the fall harvest. The enlisted troops of the Confederate Armies reflected the practice. An enlisted man joined with his mess mates – the men with whom he encamped and shared rations – to rent or purchase a slave to serve them as a unit.

An enlisted man with Cobb’s Georgia Legion wrote of his mess sharing a slave named Daniel. According to Samuel Burney, Daniel “…does all for us; brings wood, water, cooks, spreads down beds, blacks (polishes) shoes, etc.” Free blacks also were used to serve enlisted troops, though they could negotiate their rates of pay with the men they served. The troops found life in camp easier without the mundane details of soldiering taking up their time. They used their spare time to write letters, keep diaries, gamble with cards and dice, and visit the sutlers. They also engaged in the time-honored pastime of enlisted men everywhere: complaining about the stupidity of the officers, the quality of their food, and army life in general.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Stonewall Jackson lies mortally wounded during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Wikimedia

6. Stonewall Jackson and Jim Lewis

Stonewall Jackson had a complicated view of slavery. In the final decade before the Civil War, he owned at least five slaves, though he rented them out. Some historians claim he rented the slaves himself, allowed them to work in Lexington as waiters and cooks. He allowed the slaves to keep the wages they earned, minus the rent he paid for them, to let them save the money to purchase their freedom. When the war began Jackson had one slave accompany him as his servant, a man named Jim Lewis. Evidence indicates Jackson either purchased or rented Jim Lewis from a Lexington businessman named W.C. Lewis. Archives in Lexington prove Jackson made annual payments of $10 for “hire of Jim”.

Little is known of Jim Lewis, beyond notes written by members of Jackson’s staff during the early years of the war. What is known is that after Jackson was mortally wounded during the Battle of Chancellorsville in May, 1863, it fell to Jim to gather the general’s belongings and move them to Guinea Station, where he at first appeared to be recovering. After pneumonia set in, which killed Jackson on May 10, 1863, Jim traveled with the body to the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, and remained with it as an escort during the funeral procession there. He then escorted the body to Lexington for interment. Jim Lewis later served with one of Jackson’s former aides, Sandie Pendleton. Pendleton died in 1864, after which little is known of the man known as Jim Lewis.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Confederate dead near Dunker Church following the Battle of Antietam. National Archives

7. The Maryland Campaign in 1862

When Robert E. Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland in early September, 1862, his main objectives included food for his troops. Two years of war in Virginia exhausted that state’s ability to feed the Confederate troops and the civilian population. Lee also hoped that his army would receive the support of Marylanders, since the border state was a slave state with many of its men serving in the Confederate Army. Lee miscalculated. Most of the slave owners in Maryland were in the southeast portion of the state, well outside the paths of his advancing troops. He received a hostile reception from the civilian population, which cooperated with the Union troops under George McClellan as they advanced to halt Lee.

Traveling with Lee’s army, which advanced up the Shenandoah Valley into western Maryland, were an estimated 2,000 slaves serving as wagoners and foragers. They accompanied the army to gather as much foodstuffs and other supplies as could be had during the campaign. Maryland being a slave state, and the countryside around dominated by Confederate troops, made attempted escape to freedom unwise. Few attempted. Lee was stopped at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. His retreat back to Virginia was leisurely however, and the mission of obtaining supplies for the Army continued as it withdrew to Virginia and encampments along the Rappahannock River. In the winter of 1862-63, Lee’s army was relatively well-fed, thanks in large part to the efforts of its camp slaves.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
A painting from the Lost Cause era shows slaves including women mourning the death of a Confederate officer. Virginia Museum

8. The role of women slaves with the Confederate Army

Black women, the overwhelming majority of the slaves, also traveled with the Confederate Armies, and lived and worked in their camps. A small minority of free black women served, most of them wives and daughters of free black men. Those received payment. The slaves, for the most part, did not. They served as cooks in the headquarters of senior officers, laundresses, and seamstresses. For the enlisted men and officers in less expansive quarters, they provided the same roles, often serving company messes rather than a single person. They also cared for the wounded and ill, under the direction of regimental surgeons.

They made bandages from lint, prepared paper cartridges for muskets, repaired tents and clothes, and foraged for food. As the Union blockade tightened and supplies of some items became scarce, black women slaves gathered substitutes. Chicory or okra substituted for coffee in the South, though few enjoyed the change. When army encampments relocated, the women marched alongside the men, and played a major role in establishing the new camps. Women accompanied the Army during campaigns, though remaining well to the rear of the troops, usually under minimal guard. As with the men, at first few escaped to freedom, deterred by the desire for family contact and fear of reprisals.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. Adam Cuerden

9. The Gettysburg Campaign of 1863

By the summer of 1863, somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 slaves and free blacks were with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in its several encampments along the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers. Following Lee’s victory over the Union Army at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May, 1863, he decided to again take the battle to the North. Similar to his Maryland Campaign, Lee believed striking into a Northern state untouched by war would readily resupply his army. In June his troops, shielded by the mountains, marched into Pennsylvania. An unknown number of slaves accompanied the troops north.

A British military officer, traveling under his announced rank of “Captain and Lieutenant Colonel”, named Arthur Fremantle, joined Confederate General James Longstreet’s Corps on June 30. Fremantle was a member of the famous Coldstream Guards, though he was in America in an unofficial capacity. Prior to meeting Longstreet, he observed most of the Army of Northern Virginia, including its slave encampments and the activity therein. Fremantle wrote that each of Lee’s regiments had “twenty to thirty…slaves”. That number equates to about 2,000 for each of the three Corps which fought at Gettysburg, roughly 6,000 overall. They were, presumably for the first time of their lives, in a free state.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Confederate troops marching through Frederick, Maryland, on a date disputed by historians. Encyclopedia Virginia

10. Confederate leaders encountered attempts to entice their slaves to escape

As Confederate troops marched into Pennsylvania, several officers reported incidents of abolitionists enticing the slaves accompanying the army to escape. Several Confederate officers, including Major General William Dorsey Pender, wrote home that their slaves approached the invasion with an enthusiasm shared with most of the troops. Of one of his own personal servants, a slave named Joe, Pender wrote, “Joe enters the invasion with much gusto, and is quite active in looking up hidden property”. The reference to “hidden property” is to a new activity assigned to the slaves in Pennsylvania, that of locating and rounding up escaped slaves and free blacks.

As large portions of Pennsylvania came under the control of Lee’s battalions, troops and their slaves searched for and captured both. They were placed, under guard, with the labor parties of the Confederate Army. Robert E. Lee issued Special Order 72 on June 22, 1863, prohibiting his men from destroying private property. He ordered his foraging parties to either pay for or issue receipts for the property they seized. The order did not apply to escaped slaves, and the Confederates did not differentiate between slaves and free blacks in some instances. Over 100 blacks were taken from several Pennsylvania towns and villages and sent south with Lee’s army when it withdrew.

Read More: This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
1863 photograph of the Union position of Big Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. Library of Congress

11. News of the Confederate seizure of blacks reached Gettysburg

Lee’s army approached Gettysburg from several directions, including one section from north of the town. As it did, news of its treatment of blacks it encountered preceded the appearance of the advanced units. Free blacks and escaped slaves in Adams County and its neighbors fled to the north and east. On July 1, 1863, advanced units of the Confederate Army made contact with Union cavalry and infantry on the roads to the north and west of Gettysburg. Numerous officers and men from both sides recorded the actions of Confederate slaves that day and evening. A wounded Union officer, found behind the Confederate lines as they advanced, reported being aided by black men, who located a surgeon to attend his wounds.

Confederate slaves attended to the wounded of both sides left on the field of battle as the Union troops withdrew to form their lines on the high ground south of Gettysburg. They carried the wounded in litters to the field hospitals in the rear. Many more sought out their masters on the field. Still, others brought forward rations for their messes and officers in the front lines. They also brought forward ammunition for the guns, fodder for horses, and distributed water to the wounded and the men in the field. Several Confederate officers recorded their personal servants seeking them out in the field to attend to their personal needs.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Edward Porter Alexander commanded Confederate artillery at Gettysburg. Wikimedia

12. The second day of Gettysburg

On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg Confederate slaves found themselves under fire in numerous incidents, as Union artillery in elevated positions pounded the lines. A surgeon from Virginia, tending wounded in the field, was wounded himself by Union artillery fire. He reported a slave known only as Jim came to his aid, helping him to limp off the field of battle to the surgeons in the rear. After reaching the hospital, Jim vanished to perform other duties. The young surgeon survived the battle. What happened to Jim is lost to history.

At the end of the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate slaves again flooded the field, aiding the wounded, and seeking out their masters. Several senior Confederate officers recorded in their diaries and letters home the “loyalty” of their slaves. Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, the artillerist and engineer from Georgia, reported his personal slave appearing late in the day as the firing died down, bringing food and drink to his owner. Alexander wrote of the evening of July 2, “…servants hunting for their masters were a feature of the landscape that night.” As most of the Confederate troops rested for the next day’s combat, slaves prowled the battlefield, delivering necessities to the front and providing aid and care for the wounded.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Pickett’s Charge, climactic moment of the Battle of Gettysburg. New York Public Library

13. The third day at Gettysburg

Lee’s frontal assault on the Union positions known to history as “Pickett’s Charge” remains one of the most famous actions of the American Civil War. To some historians, it marked the “high-water mark” of the Confederacy. Others consider it ill-advised, doomed to failure from the start. Whichever, it was a clear and bloody repulse, decimating three Confederate divisions, and leaving the Confederate Army in a dangerous position. The damage done was such that when General Lee instructed General Pickett to “Look to your division”, the latter is alleged to have replied, “General Lee, I have no division“. The survivors of the assault limped back across the field they had crossed under heavy fire, covered with dead and wounded men.

As they did so they encountered camp slaves and servants advancing onto the field, exposed to Union artillery fire, seeking their charges. The need for the Confederates to withdraw and escape to Virginia created a sense of urgency. Wagons were brought from the rear to nearer the front, driven by slaves, and wounded men and supplies were loaded. Lee’s army, as it withdrew toward the Potomac and presumed safety, became a winding serpent of men, artillery caissons, ambulances, supply wagons, horses and mules. It stretched along several roads, often miles long as it struggled along. Camp slaves proved essential to the safe withdrawal, aided by a less than enthusiastic Union pursuit of their defeated enemy.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg to Virginia in 1863 was largely unhindered. YouTube

14. William McLeod, 38th Georgia Infantry, and Moses

On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg the commanding officer of the 38th Georgia Infantry, William McLeod, a son of a wealthy planter, was shot in the head. He lingered for about five hours before dying of the wound. His personal servant, a slave from the family plantation named Moses, buried his late master’s body on Kime’s Farm near Gettysburg, noting carefully the site of internment. Moses followed the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia as it crossed the Potomac and entered encampments, the unit with which he traveled finally stopping near Winchester. During the retreat, he kept his late master’s personal effects with him.

After the army arrived in Virginia, Moses obtained permission to travel to the McLeod family’s plantation near Swainsboro, Georgia. The slave remained with the McLeod family, evidently for the remainder of the war. In 1865 Moses, then free, returned to Gettysburg and the Kime farm with McLeod’s brother-in-law, helping to disinter the body and return it to Georgia for burial in the family plot. The story of Moses’ dedication to his owner is but one of scores of similar examples of former slaves aiding their former masters in locating the remains of late family members.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Hundreds of slaves escaped Lee’s army as it retreated to the Potomac River. Pinterest

15. Many slaves escaped during the retreat

The defeated Confederate Army suffered from disorganization and lack of control, in part due to the loss of so many officers during the Battle of Gettysburg. While stories of the loyalty of slaves, particularly personal servants, abound, there is also evidence of large numbers of slaves escaping during the retreat. Some were freed by being captured during Union cavalry raids. These were usually held as prisoners of war, unless they agreed to enter the Union service in the segregated regiments. Others escaped from their confinement and fled to cities and towns in the north. There they sought work in meat packing plants, the mills of New England, and the iron foundries in Pennsylvania and New York.

Confederate newspapers and magazines made much of the acts of loyalty by slaves such as Moses and many others, and ignored the fact so many slaves escaped to the North. The propaganda, which began while the war continued, grew during the post-Reconstruction period of the Lost Cause. In reality, slaves escaped at a rate which further crippled the Army of Northern Virginia as it reorganized in 1863 and early 1864. The invaluable labors provided by slaves to the army during the first three years of the war deteriorated steadily after the disasters at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Some in the South suggested measures that to Confederate sensibilities were even more drastic than secession and war.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Major General Patrick Cleburne, CSA. Wikimedia

16. Patrick Cleburne proposed enlisting slaves

Patrick Cleburne, a major-general serving with the Army of the Tennessee, was one of the first Confederate leaders to recognize the South would lose the war without desperate measures. A veteran of Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Missionary Ridge, Cleburne earned the sobriquet “The Stonewall of the West”. By December, 1863, Cleburne concluded the shattered Southern armies needed more manpower to survive than the depleted white population of military age could supply. In January, 1864, Cleburne suggested to the leaders of the Army of the Tennessee that black troops be enlisted and armed, from emancipated blacks in the South. Cleburne’s suggestion did not fall on welcoming ears.

When word of the idea leaked out, Cleburne was excoriated in the press, in political circles, and among other Confederate generals. He was accused of collaborating with abolitionists by one general, and Braxton Bragg recommended Cleburne no longer be considered for further promotion. In late November 1864, Cleburne remained in command of his division as it faced Union fortifications south of Nashville. On November 30 he was killed in an assault on Union positions at the Battle of Franklin. An important note is that while Cleburne favored black emancipation, he also suggested that “necessity and wise legislation” would ensure emancipation did not mean equality between the races.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Howell Cobb firmly and vociferously opposed arming black soldiers for the Confederacy. Wikimedia

17. Some southern leaders reconsidered Cleburne’s suggestion

Cleburne died near the end of the disastrous year of 1864, from the Confederacy’s perspective. By the end of that year Union troops were everywhere deep in the South, its farms ravaged and its infrastructure collapsing. Lee’s formerly invincible Army of Northern Virginia had been battered back into the trenches at Richmond and Petersburg. Sherman completed his march across Georgia. The Army of Tennessee crumbled due to casualties, desertions, and illness. In early 1865, Confederate leaders including Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the influential editor of the Richmond Enquirer, Nathaniel Tyler, advocated arming slaves and impressing them into the Confederate Army.

On January 11, 1865, Robert E. Lee urged the Confederate Congress to offer slaves emancipation in exchange for their service in the army as armed troops. Major General Howell Cobb, one of the founders of the Confederacy and an ardent supporter of slavery, howled in outrage at the idea. “…the proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began…” wrote Cobb, adding “…they won’t make soldiers”. Confederate Senator Robert M. T. Hunter also argued against Lee’s suggestion, demanding of Congress, “What did we go to war for, if not to protect our property?”

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Tredegar Iron Works continued to employ slave labor until Richmond fell in April, 1865. National Archives

18. Camp slaves continued to serve in 1865

As Lee waited for the Confederate Congress to act on his suggestion to raise more troops, he requested an additional 5,000 slaves for assignment to his army around Richmond. Lee wanted the slaves to assist in building fortifications, and to aid in the supply system via wagons and the remaining railroads open to his army at Petersburg. He received about 2,000 additional slaves. By then, Confederate rations were distributed once per day for the officers and troops. Slaves received less. The other remaining major Confederate Army in the field, the Army of Tennessee facing Sherman in the Carolinas, was hampered in its movements and operations, through its dwindling number of slaves.

On March 13, with the situation in Richmond dire, the Confederate Congress finally passed legislation to raise segregated companies of troops from slaves, through impressment and voluntary enlistment. Jefferson Davis waited another ten days before issuing General Order 14, making the enlistment of black troops formal military policy. For many in the Confederate Army and Congress, the act was a humiliation, admitting the policy for which they had gone to war was wrong. The act came far too late to affect the outcome of the war. Lee was already planning his escape from beleaguered Richmond and march to the west, where he hoped to rendezvous with other troops.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
A contraband camp. location and date unknown. Wikimedia

19. The role of escaped and freed slaves

By the end of 1863, escaped slaves followed the Union Armies, straining logistics and forcing commanders to detail troops to guard them. Guards were necessary to protect against cavalry raids, aimed at recapturing the former slaves and returning them to the Confederacy. Some former slaves enlisted in the Union Army, where after training they were assigned to the segregated units which served with distinction. By the end of the war, they comprised nearly 10% of the Union Army. Hundreds of others served in the Union Navy, which by law was segregated, but in practice was not.

Slaves recaptured by the Confederate raids for the most part were redistributed in the Confederate Armies, all of which became desperately short of manpower in the last 18 months of the war. The need for labor in the army camps meant Southern commanders could not afford to return captured slaves to their owners. The practice became controversial in the south, with slave owners demanding the return of their “property” or compensation. The government lacked the means to provide any form of compensation. Confederate commanders were bedeviled by former owners demanding the return of their slaves, an act they could ill-afford even had they been so inclined.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Blacks continued to serve both sides of the conflict until its end, slaves in the South, freedmen in the North. PBS

20. Contraband camps

Early in the Civil War, Union General Benjamin Butler refused to return escaped slaves to their southern civilian owners. Although Butler was not the first to describe the escaped slaves as contraband (a Naval officer, William Budd, coined the term), his action more or less defined the attitude of Union commanders towards former slaves who reached their lines. After the First Battle of Bull Run Congress passed a law that forbade the return of any property used to the benefit of the Confederate Armies, including slaves. Union troops established camps to house the former slaves, called Contraband Camps, the first established at Union-controlled territory near Fortress Monroe in Virginia.

Using materials provided by the Union, former slaves erected a camp in the ruins of the village of Hampton, Virginia, beginning in the summer of 1861. They named it the Grand Contraband Camp. Others appeared throughout territory controlled by the Union, on Roanoke Island in North Carolina, in eastern Tennessee, and around forts in the west. Hundreds of former Confederate slaves were hired by the Union Army to provide similar services they had for their former masters. Laborers, teamsters, cooks, blacksmiths, and in many cases personal servants for senior officers entered the Union Army, having previously served in the same roles for the Confederacy.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Robert E. Lee as President of Washington College in 1869. Wikimedia

21. Mythology emerged regarding slaves in the Confederate Army

The slaves which served with the Confederate Army were just that, enslaved people. Though many were allowed to take on additional work for pay, and some were paid well by the officers they served, they remained slaves. Robert E. Lee, whom apologists often claim erroneously never owned slaves, took two slaves with him to war in 1861, Meredith, a body servant, and Perry, a cook. At the time, Lee was awaiting a decision by a Virginia appellate court over the status of the scores of slaves owned by his wife, inherited from her father. The conditions of the will established their freedom, which Lee was fighting in court, hoping to retain the slaves and profit from hiring them out. The court found against him, ordering Lee to free the slaves on January 1, 1863.

It was the same date the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, one of the great ironies of American history. Though the decision applied to Meredith and Perry, Lee did not release them. Years after the war, when Lee’s servants were long forgotten and the general himself was dead, a self-described minister calling himself William Mack Lee wrote an autobiography describing himself as Lee’s personal servant and cook throughout the Civil War. It appeared in 1918, during the period of the Lost Cause, in which the idea of Black Confederates took shape.

Slavery in the Confederate States Army
Children eye Federal Cavalry at Sudley Springs, Virginia, in 1861. Wikimedia

22. Mack helped create the myth of slaves fighting for the Confederacy

William Mack’s autobiography claimed his presence, with General Lee, at several battles during which Lee was elsewhere. He also claimed to have served Lee’s dinner guests at various times, including Nathan Bedford Forrest and Albert Sydney Johnston, “at the headquarters in Petersburg”. Neither of those Confederate officers came to Virginia during the course of the war. In his book, Mack described the former Confederate General in fawning terms, adding to the legend of the gentlemanly and honorable Lee perpetrated throughout the Lost Cause. He claimed Lee shared confidences with him throughout the war, including insights into his fellow generals and commanders.

Mack became an example of the loyalty and devotion shown by slaves to their masters before and during the war. Ample documentation of Lee’s harshness toward his slaves exists, including in his own letters and diaries. Mack’s writings refute them. In the pre-war listing of the slaves held at Arlington, Lee’s home, Mack’s name does not appear. Nor is it in the listing of the slaves in the court records in Virginia. Lee did not refer to his cook and servant in his letters or documents regarding the war. None of his staff officers or fellow commanders mentioned him in any of their writings. His autobiography, which is still frequently referenced by those defending the Confederacy and the myth of slaves fighting for it, is unsupported by fact.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“How did slaves support the Confederacy”. Article, Virginia Museum of History and Culture. Online

“Black Confederates: Truth and Legend”. Sam Smith, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“The Diaries Left Behind by Confederate Soldiers Reveal the True Role of Enslaved Labor at Gettysburg”. Kevin M. Levin, Smithsonian Magazine. July 2, 2019

“10 Fascinating Details About Confederate States of America”. Larry Holzwarth. History Collection. December 6, 2017

“Myths and Misunderstandings: Black Confederates”. John Coski, American Civil War Museum. November 7, 2017

“Dismantling the Myth of the ‘Black Confederate'”. Rebecca Onion, Slate. August 30, 2019

“Black Confederates: Exploding America’s most persistent myth”. David Smith, The Guardian. October 13, 2019

“Marching Masters”. Colin E. Woodward. 2014

“Black Confederates”. Article, Encyclopedia Virginia. Online

“A Slave’s Service in the Confederate Army”. Ronald S. Coddington, The New York Times. September 24, 2013

History of the Life of Rev. William Mack Lee”. Rev. William Mack Lee

“Gen. Robert E. Lee owned slaves. Arijeta Lajka, Associated Press. June 12, 2020

“CSA First Louisiana Native Guard”. Joelle Jackson, June 23, 2011