“There are three grown negroes there doing nothing, and wants men to build him a kitchen.”

25 06 2013

I came across a couple of passages today that got me thinking, the way things get you thinking to the point where you can’t read any further until you sort those thoughts out a bit. Do something about them. My current read is the very fine Voices from Company D, a collection of diaries by members of the Greensboro Guards, 5th Alabama Infantry, edited by G. Ward Hubbs. It really is a must read for anyone studying the war. I’ve had it for a long time and am just getting around to actually reading it, as opposed to skimming. Currently I’m in January of 1863, and this entry by John Henry Cowin (who, despite being a doctor and graduate of Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College, served as a private) got me to thinking (p. 138):

January 13, Tuesday…Col. Hall ordered today a detail from the different companies to go to Camp and build him a kitchen. Capt Renfrew refused to send him any man and Capt Williams sent him word that he could not get any more men for such a purpose. There are three grown negroes there doing nothing, and wants men to build him a kitchen.

This got me thinking on two levels (at least), one being that CW armies in many ways were not armies as many of us understand them today, whether that understanding comes from service, study, or simply watching dozens of movies over the years. Many of us tend to think that orders are orders, yet we run across so many instances of orders not necessarily being orders in Civil War armies of independent-minded citizen soldiers. (By the way, Renfro – inconsistent spelling – was arrested the next day, though Williams was not.) The Colonel detailing soldiers for manual labor of a personal nature while more “appropriate” personnel for such duty was available was seen as adding insult to injury. The passage gives the lie to the first line of defense of many who try to downplay the role of slavery as a cause of the war – that only fillintheblank percent of southerners actually owned slaves. As if actual ownership of human chattel was the single criteria for interest in seeing the institution perpetuated. This plays into one of my other on-going interests regarding how slavery as a character-molding fact of life in the south affected the efficiency and capabilities of the Confederate military.

Just three days later, another Cowin entry caught my attention (p. 140):

January 16, Friday…Last night about ten o’clock it began to rain and continued until day light this morning. Six of us were under a fly. (The tent being occupied by Britton’s Servant who is very sick with Typhoid Fever.) Our blankets all got perfectly saturated with the rain, and occasionally a large drop of water would fall in my face rendering all hopes of sleep vain. I could only lay there and amuse myself dodging from the drops of rain and wishing fro day light to come…Britton’s Servant John died today about half past twelve o’clock and was buried this afternoon. No coffin could be procured and he was buried as a soldier, wrapped in his blanket.

This second passage illustrates the complexity of viewing slavery with minds formed in the latter part of the 20th Century. It’s difficult to reconcile the inhuman nature of human bondage with the image of six white men huddled under a tent fly in a rainstorm while a servant, presumably a slave, lies dying as the sole occupant of their nice, dry tent, and with the fact that they  made an effort to procure a coffin for the man before burying him “as a soldier.” What do you think?

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5 responses

25 06 2013
Robert Moore

“It’s difficult to reconcile the inhuman nature of human bondage with the image of six white men huddled under a tent fly in a rainstorm while a servant, presumably a slave, lies dying as the sole occupant of their nice, dry tent, and with the fact that they made an effort to procure a coffin for the man before burying him “as a soldier.”

I don’t think so, Harry. We have to get out of the ruts that are at the extreme ends of the discussion of the relationships between slaves and slaveholders, and accept the fact that humanity between the two was not only possible, but did exist. Furthermore, in lieu of broad-brushing, we need to take one instance at a time. There are certainly examples where we can see the worst in people, but there are also those, such as this, were we see compassion.

I don’t think any student/historian who tackles this subject can be taken seriously until they acknowledge the complex and variable nature of these relationships.

25 06 2013
Harry Smeltzer

I agree the relationships are complex and variable. If they weren’t, reconciliation of apparent conflicts wouldn’t be difficult.

6 07 2013
Debra McShane

My 2nd great grandfather was Capt. Jonathan Williams. Though he did not keep a diary, he did write articles in 1902 about the 5th Alabama Greensboro Guard. It opened my eyes in so many ways. Not only to the suffering of the men who served, but to their dedication to their “cause” and to their fellow Guard members.

18 07 2013
Returning Fire | Bull Runnings

[…] Greensboro Guards, Fifth Alabama Infantry Regiment, Army of Northern Virginia. I’ve written a little about it before. If you haven’t already read it, you should add this one to your list. It features […]

9 08 2013
In Dreams: Romance In the Valley | Bull Runnings

[…] still – STILL – reading Voices of Company D. Thankfully though, it is now January of 1864. The other day night I came across tan entry from […]

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