Thursday, June 25, 2015

Just Finished Reading - Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South

When visiting battlefields around the Petersburg and Richmond area one often hears and reads about who constructed the various earthworks that have managed to survive. Much of the lines that are still with us were built by the soldiers who fought behind them. However, the massive Confederate fortifications that ringed the cities of Petersburg and Richmond, and that are almost all gone, were most often laid out by military engineers but built by impressed slave labor.

I have always wanted to know more details about how the slave impressement system was implemented and worked, so I was pleased to find and read Jaime Amanda Martinez's book Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South (UNC Press, 2013).

The focus of Martinez's book are the states of Virginia and North Carolina-where slave impressement projects affected populations of free people of color, the enslaved, and of course, their owners. Massive fortification projects such as the defenses of Petersburg, Richmond, Lynchburg, and Saltville in Virginia, and in Fayetteville and Wilmington, North Carolina; along with road, railroad, and hospital work took the majority of impressed slaves.

Martinez points out that the battle between private property ownership rights and the tug of being a good citizen of the newly formed Confederate States of America put many owners into a difficult position. In a nation pledged to honor certain states' rights, the centralized nature of slave impressment made for some contentious moments, especially when slaves were not returned to owners in the promised amount of time or were killed or injured while doing government work.

One significant issue that arose with slave impressment was what to compensate owners when their property either ran away from projects or were injured or killed while in government service. Martinez contends that slaves were probably less likely to run away while working on fortifications where they were under tighter supervision than on most plantations during the war. The author found that fewer than ten percent of the cases reviewed by the Board of Slave Claims involved runaways. The Board was also provided funding by by Confederate government to pay claims to owners whose slave were killed or hurt while impressed.

Another issue was who would supply the slaves, and in what percentage. Covering this subject Martinez unearthed some very intriguing documents from owners to their governors and representatives seeking exemption from supplying their slaves for government projects. Some owners (often single women or women with husbands in the army) of few slaves claimed that they could not provide food stuffs for their own families without the labor of their slave men. Large slaveholders argued that if their slaves were taken they would not be able to harvest crops needed to feed the soldiers and the people of their communities.

While Virginia's slave impressment system was enforced by county courts, the practice in North Carolina was carried out by the state's militia. Martinez found that "Impressment by militia operated more efficiently than impressment via the county courts in Virginia, but it was also more prone to abuses and thus to alienating the state's slaveholders." And she contends that the impressment system worked in both states "because it had the support of the state and local governments." Governor Vance of North Carolina supported and enforced the slave impressment system in most instances. He viewed it a way that citizens could sacrifice for the greater good of the new nation. Governor William "Extra Billy" Smith of Virginia, too, supported the impressement system. However he sometimes granted exemptions, especially to owners in counties near Union occupation. This fear was founded in the belief that if slaves heard about impressments occurring, they would flee more readily to the Union army.

The research that Martinez incorporated into her work and her insightful interpretation of the primary source evidence is impressive. I highly recommend reading Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South to anyone wanting to learn more about this important aspect of the Confederate experience. The issues it brought about between owners' property rights, sacrifices for the greater good of the nation, and who would and would not be subject to its regulations makes for an intriguing and relevant read. On a scale of one to five, I give it a full five.

1 comment:

  1. I recently became aware of this. In the narrative “My Life in the South” Jacob Stroyer described being sent to Sullivan’s Island and Fort Sumter during the Civil War – “In the summer of 1864, when I was in my fourteenth year, another call was made for negro laborers for the Confederate government, and fifteen from our plantation, including myself, with thousands from other plantations, were sent down to Charleston again.”