'The World the Slaves Made' in the Army of Northern Virginia
Yesterday I asked you to imagine Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia marching north into Pennsylvania on this 159th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.1 The point of the post was to try to begin to refocus how we understand the racial profile of Lee’s army and the presence of thousands of enslaved men throughout the ranks.
We can begin to bring this picture into focus with the help of Col. Arthur J.L. Fremantle, of the British Coldstream Guards, who as many of you know traveled throughout the Confederacy in 1863. On June 25th Fremantle was in a position to watch as part of the ANV forded the Potomac River. Later that day he observed two brigades commanded by James Barksdale and Paul Semmes in Lieut. Gen. General James Longstreet’s First Corps.
They marched very well, and there was no attempt at straggling[.] In rear of each regiment were from twenty to thirty negro slaves… (p. 234)
This reference to the presence of enslaved men in the ranks is brief, but it allows us to begin to appreciate just how pervasive slaves were throughout the army. I count 171 regiments in the Army of Northern Virginia during the Gettysburg Campaign. If we go with Fremantle’s conservative number of 20 then the infantry units included roughly 3,420 slaves. On the high end that number rises to 5,130 enslaved men.
Keep in mind that I am only counting the infantry and not artillery and cavalry units, as well as other non-combatant departments in the army in which they would have been present.
Most of these men observed by Fremantle (if not all) were body servants or camp slaves.
Fremantle’s observation that these men marched in the rear of the regiment is also helpful. There are a number of accounts of slaves marching in the Army of Northern Virginia throughout the war. Dr. Lewis Steiner’s published account during the 1862 Maryland Campaign has long been misinterpreted as evidence of Black Confederate soldiers, but placed alongside Fremantle it helps to fill out our mental picture of the place of slaves in the army.
As I show in my book Searching for Black Confederates these men carried weapons and other supplies that belonged to their masters. Many of them wore uniforms that were provided by their masters or picked up along the way.
There is also evidence that enslaved men organized themselves into informal ranks in the army. I have not come across any evidence that this practice was discouraged. I suspect that observers believed this practice bound these men closer to their masters and the army, which would have been crucial given the fact that the army was moving into the free state of Pennsylvania. There would be plenty of opportunities to escape in the coming days.
What Confederates made of this practice is one thing, but I’ve always been curious about what it tells us about slave culture in the army. As I point out in the book, it is extremely difficult to draw any firm conclusions given the available evidence, but we can begin to ask questions and offer tentative observations.
It is impossible not to imagine these men talking about family and friends left behind, the progress of the war and, of course, freedom. Enslaved men must have valued moments like this when they were able to talk amongst themselves away from the prying eyes of their masters.
In the coming days they would have other opportunities to reflect on and share their thoughts about the progress of the campaign. No doubt some of the men observed by Fremantle were veterans, in their own right, of previous battles. They likely anticipated another bloody fight with each step. For others it would be their first experience in support of an army that functioned as the military extension of a nation committed to the preservation of slavery.
As students of history we have an obligation to acknowledge the thousands of enslaved men who toiled in the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. Their stories are as much a part of the history of the battle of Gettysburg as those of the men who fought at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, and Barlow’s Knoll.
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The title of this post references the subtitle of historian Eugene Genovese’s classic study, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. I was reminded of it in a recent article by Patrick Lewis that appeared in The Journal of the Civil War Era.