The Diaries Left Behind by Confederate Soldiers Reveal the True Role of Enslaved Labor at Gettysburg

Stories have been told since about the mid-1970s of black soldiers who fought for the Confederate States of America, despite their status as slaves. Historian Kevin M. Levin looked into those accounts, and wrote a book titled Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth. Levin's most important sources were the diaries that Confederate soldiers kept as the war went on. Those contemporary accounts painted a picture of the war from the inside. While there were no black Confederate soldiers, there were plenty of slaves taken to war.   

Enslaved workers constituted the backbone of the Confederate war effort. Although stories of these impressed workers and camp slaves have been erased from our popular memory of the war in favor of mythical accounts of black Confederate soldiers, their presence in the Confederate army constituted a visual reminder to every soldier —slaveowner and non-slaveowner alike—that their ultimate success in battle depended on the ownership of other human beings.

Anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000 enslaved people supported in various capacities Lee’s army in the summer of 1863. Many of them labored as cooks, butchers, blacksmiths and hospital attendants, and thousands of enslaved men accompanied Confederate officers as their camp slaves, or body servants. These men performed a wide range of roles for their owners, including cooking, cleaning, foraging and sending messages to families back home. Slave owners remained convinced that these men would remain fiercely loyal even in the face of opportunities to escape, but this conviction would be tested throughout the Gettysburg campaign.

When Robert E. Lee brought the Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania, the enslaved support workers knew that, thanks to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, they could make a run for freedom -although with great risk from the army surrounding them. Read about the slaves of the Confederate forces at Smithsonian.

(Image credit: Thure de Thulstrup/Library of Congress, restoration by Adam Cuerden)

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