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Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South$

Jaime Amanda Martinez

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9781469610740

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: July 2014

DOI: 10.5149/9781469610757_Martinez

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Introduction Cornerstones and Construction Workers

Introduction Cornerstones and Construction Workers

Slave Labor and the Confederate War Effort

(p.1) Introduction Cornerstones and Construction Workers
Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South

Jaime Amanda Martinez

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter discusses slave impressment in North Carolina and Virginia. Through impressment, white Virginians and North Carolinians temporarily surrendered control over portions of their slave populations to state authorities, military officials, and finally the national government in order to prosecute their war for Confederate independence. In one of the most ironic developments of the war, Confederate citizens who had emphatically rejected the United States government's attempts to interfere with the institution of slavery came, reluctantly, to accept that interference from their new government.

Keywords:   Confederacy, Civil War, slave impressment, slaves, North Carolina, Virginia

“We have nothing to fear from any action of our slaves in this crisis,” intoned the editor of the Richmond Whig in February 1864. Instead, he proposed, Confederate fiscal and impressment policies had steadily undermined the institution of slavery, the Confederacy's “sheet anchor” in its struggle for independence. While inflation had devalued slave property and government seizure of grains and livestock made it difficult to feed large slave populations, the paper focused much of its ire on government requisitions for slave labor. By impressing slaves, he suggested, the Confederate and state governments had forced each slaveholder to calculate “the value of his slaves, and in some instances [he] is ready to discard them as burdensome to him. Slavery will nowhere exist where it proves unprofitable.”1

This bombast masked a well-known reality: slaves were running away from their owners, often in large numbers, especially in Virginia. Rather than slaveholders calculating the costs and benefits of slavery with an eye toward discarding the institution, slaves themselves were making daily decisions about how and under what circumstances to resist and perhaps even escape. The purpose of this particular editorial, however, was not to explore the process of wartime emancipation but rather to excoriate the practice of slave impressment by both state and national officials. From the perspective of at least some slaveholders, the government they had founded to protect their interests had become the primary threat.

(p.2) Through impressment, white Virginians and North Carolinians temporarily surrendered control over portions of their slave populations to state authorities, military officials, and finally the national government in order to prosecute their war for Confederate independence. In one of the most ironic developments of the war, Confederate citizens who had emphatically rejected the United States government's attempts to interfere with the institution of slavery came, reluctantly, to accept that interference from their new government. In part, this acceptance reflected their confidence that no Confederate officials secretly harbored abolitionist tendencies, although, as the Richmond Whig noted, their actions did ultimately hasten emancipation. But the dire necessity of war encouraged voters, elected officials, and state governments to give the Confederate government more latitude to enact policies regarding slavery than the U.S. government had boasted. This latitude was not unlimited, however, and slaveholders would raise numerous objections to the practice of slave impressment.

Slaveholders, fearing that the government's seizure of slaves for military work would leave them without sufficient laborers, objected to slave impressment for both practical and ideological reasons. Many questioned the right of state and national officials to impress all forms of property, not just slaves. Yet despite any furor over slave impressment, winning the war was the primary aim of most white North Carolinians and Virginians, and thousands of slaveholders in both states quietly—no doubt begrudgingly—acquiesced in recurring requisitions for slave labor, thus demonstrating their continuing support of the Confederate war. More important, the high level of cooperation between local, state, and national government officials that slave impressment required suggests that the existence of powerful governors, state legislatures, and county court officers strengthened, rather than undermined, the Confederate nation. By 1864, in fact, the governors of Virginia and North Carolina responded to complaints from their constituents not by obstructing Confederate requisitions for slave labor but instead by supporting a more intrusive national impressment plan. These observations fly in the face of much popular and historical orthodoxy about the nature and success of Confederate governance.

Academic and popular histories have long suggested that the Confederacy collapsed due to some internal failure. Many, taking their cue from President Jefferson Davis's suggestion that the Confederacy “died of a theory”—that theory being states' rights—have emphasized the ways that state governments resisted central authority and thus undermined (p.3) the war effort.2 In some iterations of this argument, Governor Zebulon Baird Vance of North Carolina has come under particularly harsh criticism, although recent biographies by Gordon McKinney and Joe Mobley have correctly emphasized the many actions Vance took in support of the Confederate war and government.3 This included working to make slave impressment a success. Other scholars have emphasized class conflict, offering more sophisticated versions of the popular refrain that the Confederate experience was “a rich man's war but a poor man's fight.” In his most recent study, for example, Paul Escott indicts the slaveholding elite for placing the well-being of their plantations above the success of their new country and further indicates that the broad mass of the non-slaveholding population lost faith in the Confederacy when poverty became a greater threat than the U.S. armies.4

The states' rights and class conflict theses both begin with the assumption that residents of the Confederacy lacked a unified sense of national purpose. Some, like Escott, suggest that the planter class was ultimately motivated by self-interest rather than by national identity and therefore deserted the Confederacy when maintaining national identity would have required more economic sacrifices than they were willing to make.5 More often, historians have asserted that those outside the circles of political and economic power in the slaveholding South were the residents least likely to hold strong attachments to the Confederacy. William W. Freehling, for example, places great emphasis on the populations of the border states, as well as on slaves and Unionists within the Confederacy, suggesting that the new nation could have won its independence if all these parties had supported it.6 The most recent contribution to this school of argument is Stephanie Mc-Curry's Confederate Reckoning. Mc-Curry proposes that resistance on the part of white women—by definition a disenfranchised population—both challenged and reshaped the Confederate government but did not ultimately bear sole responsibility for its defeat. She also argues that resistance to impressment on the part of both slaves and planters doomed the policy at all stages of its development, irrevocably harming the Confederate war effort.7

Mc-Curry is not the first historian to pronounce impressment policy a dismal failure.8 While her work contains more details about the process of impressment than do earlier treatments of the subject, she ultimately repeats many of their assumptions, taking the complaints of planters and lamentations of government officials at face value. It is hardly surprising that slaveholders and slaves would object to impressment, or that government officials and newspaper editors would thunder against that (p.4) resistance. What is surprising is that slave impressment was often successful. That success was never perfect, but it was probably more complete than many scholars of the Confederacy have suggested. In Virginia, for example, state-directed requisitions between 1862 and 1865 garnered nearly 29,300 laborers out of the 35,000 called for two-month terms of service on the fortifications. In addition, hundreds of slaves served under ad hoc requisitions during the first year of the war, especially in the southeastern portion of the state, while several thousand were impressed by the Conscript Bureau in the fall of 1864.

Examining the step-by-step process of slave impressment in Virginia and North Carolina—its progress from localized ad hoc requisitions by individual commanders, to statewide requisitions for thousands of workers under state law, to a cooperative venture between state and national legislators, and finally to a fully nationalized call for 20,000 laborers in the fall of 1864—demonstrates that while planters and slaves regularly resisted impressment, they could not prevent it from happening and often could not completely avoid participation. If self-interested slaveholders did not entirely derail slave impressment, perhaps blaming them for Confederate defeat more generally may be unrealistic. After all, even the heavily fortified town of Wilmington eventually surrendered to a large and well-trained Union army. When they worked together, Confederate and state government officials had the power to overcome planter resistance, putting vast numbers of slaves to work for the Confederate war effort.

An unpopular program that state governments enacted for the benefit of the nation, slave impressment demonstrated the efficacy of federalism in the Confederate state. From the very beginning of its existence, the Confederacy placed great powers in the hands of local and state governments. The preamble to the Confederate constitution insisted that the new nation remained a collection of strong states, each “acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government.” While “sovereign and independent,” though, the states did not have unlimited powers. Ultimately, Confederate framers recognized that the central government would need to exercise some control, and so Article IV insisted that “this Constitution, and the laws of the Confederate States made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the Confederate States, shall be the supreme law of the land.” The mere fact that the members of the Confederate provisional Congress chose to model their new state after the 1787 Constitution—rather than on the Articles of Confederation—indicates that they envisioned a stronger central government than their preamble suggested.9

(p.5) The exact nature of the relationship between state and national governments, however, was something at which the constitution only hinted. In reality, the federal nature of the Confederate state was always in flux and firmly connected to the difficulties of fighting a long and complex war for independence. In general, states took the lead on most questions, but policies and actions became more centralized over time. This was certainly the case with slave impressment. The officers seeking slave laborers early in the war came from both state and national engineering departments, but eventually most fortifications came under national control. In a similar vein, some states passed comprehensive slave impressment legislation before the Confederate Congress did so. After 1863, with a few exceptions, the legislative and practical steps associated with impressing slave laborers became increasingly centralized. This process did not move in a single direction, however, and the governors retained significant powers—powers they used, for the most part, to increase the capacity of the Confederate armies to protect their new country. Local, state, and national leaders had to sort out their relationship on a daily basis, and enforcing slave impressment on a reluctant population was one of the ways they proceeded to do so.

In terms of both the sheer number of slaves and the proportion of the state's slave population put to work for the Confederate War Department, Virginia was the state with the most successful combination of impressment and government hiring. The city of Lynchburg, for example, sent approximately 350 slaves to meet state requisitions for labor over the course of the war. More significant, nearly 500 of the city's slaves worked for the Confederate Medical Department or other military employers, while another 300 were hired by private employers serving the needs of the Confederate army, including the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. Although far from perfect, Virginia's successes at marshaling slave labor for the war effort turned the Old Dominion's impressment legislation into a model for other states and the national government. While effective, slave impressment was still unpopular, and the increasing reluctance of local officials in Virginia to comply with labor requisitions during the last two years of the war demonstrates a fairly common pattern in other states with slave impressment laws, most notably Mississippi.

In other ways, North Carolina's experience with slave impressment was more typical. The smaller proportion of its adult male slave population usually involved—10 percent—was more common in the other states than was Virginia's 20 or 25 percent, although North Carolina had unusually high rates of compliance because its pro-impressment governor used armed militia officers, rather than county courts, to enforce each (p.6) requisition. But once the Conscript Bureau assumed responsibility for slave impressment in the late summer of 1864, North Carolina and most of the other states encountered the same basic process for enforcing requisitions, one that largely bypassed state and local elected officials. Only in Virginia did the governor remain actively involved in slave impressment even after this point. In most aspects of slave impressment, then, North Carolina provides scholars with a reliable model for almost all the Confederate states, while Virginia serves as an illuminating aberration. While it would be wonderful to see additional state studies in the future, starting with Virginia and North Carolina lays a crucial foundation. Widely recognized as two states of great importance to the Confederate war effort—contemporary observers and scholars alike noting their large free and slave populations, heavy production of crucial grain crops, and successful industrial operations—it is perhaps fair to say that if slave impressment had not worked in Virginia and North Carolina, its success in the other states would have been of little value. Indeed, the early and imperfect successes of state-directed slave impressment in these two states probably helped ease the path toward national legislation.

The success of slave impressment in Virginia prompted another set of national laws with more lasting implications—the U.S. Congress's Confiscation Acts and, eventually, emancipation. Major General John Bankhead Magruder's heavy use of slave labor to build fortifications southeast of Richmond helped slow the Union Army of the Potomac's advance toward the Confederate capital in the spring and summer of 1862. As Glenn David Brasher demonstrates in The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation, many Union soldiers and commanders were frustrated that the Confederate army had such a large and effective pool of labor and wished to turn Virginia's black population into an asset for the Union. Slaves who escaped from Confederate fortifications, meanwhile, provided valuable information to Union officers. When the Army of the Potomac failed to capture Richmond, President Lincoln and many military and government officials came to the conclusion that emancipation was a military necessity—a conclusion impelled largely by the efficacy of local slave impressments in southeastern Virginia.10

Understanding the full story of slave impressment in Virginia and North Carolina also reiterates the importance of slavery to the Upper South. Over the decades, some scholars have suggested that the Upper South's slower progress toward secession reflected a weaker commitment to the preservation of slavery.11 Even the Fire-eaters of the Lower South feared this might be the case. Yet the history of slave impressment in these (p.7) two states tells a very different story. Planters' intransigence when confronted with labor requisitions, their insistence that each slave was crucial to agricultural production, and the wide variety of industrial operations employing slaves in support of the war effort all demonstrated the continuing salience of slavery in the Upper South's economy.

As with many aspects of the Confederate war effort, states took the first steps by enacting clear policies on slave impressment. The Virginia General Assembly did not approve its first official legislation to impress slave labor until October 3, 1862, but slaves were already an integral component of the engineer labor pool from the very beginning of the war. Indeed, a bewildering array of officials borrowed, hired, and impressed slaves to perform manual labor for the armies, particularly in coastal and tidewater areas. The inability of the local labor supply to meet this demand was one factor leading to the General Assembly's legislative action. The North Carolina state legislature enacted its own impressment legislation a few months later. The series of impressment laws that followed in both states, and eventually from the Confederate Congress, would attempt to draw labor from an ever-widening geographic area as well as, in some cases, to improve the conditions under which those slaves worked. Slave impressment would not have been possible without the cooperation of civilian officials at every level of government throughout the Confederacy.

The vast majority of impressed slaves served their terms of employment with the Engineer Bureau, digging defensive trenches outside key cities and along important transportation routes. In its early days, the Engineer Bureau relied heavily on state engineer forces and individual Confederate commands. Virginia state engineers began designing and erecting fortifications in the southeastern portion of the state at Gloucester Point, Yorktown, and Williamsburg in April 1861. Virginia engineers also began constructing defensive lines around Richmond before November 1861, when the Engineer Bureau assumed responsibility for all fortifications.12 Key points of fortification along the James River included Mulberry Point, Drewry's Bluff, and Chaffin's Bluff. Slaves dug ditches and built walls outside Petersburg, Lynchburg, Danville, and Saltville and along the railroad lines connecting these cities with Richmond. In North Carolina, the most significant installations were those guarding the approach to Wilmington, including Fort Fisher, Fort Caswell, Fort Pender, and Fort Anderson. Slaves also regularly worked to protect railroad depots like Weldon, Tarboro, Goldsboro, and Greensboro, as well as the Cape Fear River near the Fayetteville arsenal.


Introduction Cornerstones and Construction WorkersSlave Labor and the Confederate War Effort

Map 1. Primary points of fortification

Many government officials at the local, state, and national levels participated in slave impressment. In Virginia, county court officers assembled the slaves targeted for impressment and appointed overseers to accompany them on the fortifications; county sheriffs and their assistants delivered the slaves to engineer officers and collected receipts for their owners. In North Carolina, local militia officers fulfilled this responsibility. Legislators at the state and national level demonstrated at least some support for slave impressment by enacting it into law. Virginia governors John Letcher and William “Extra Billy” Smith and North Carolina governor Zebulon Baird Vance issued and enforced numerous requisitions for slaves to work on Confederate fortifications. The Confederate secretaries of war, especially James A. Seddon, facilitated communications between the governors, Confederate army officers, and President Davis.

This approach to slave impressment was designed to centralize control over each state's slave labor force, to resolve any legal or constitutional (p.9) objections to slave impressment, and to create a consistent and efficient system for delivering laborers to the fortifications. Impressment laws needed to grant each governor, and eventually the president, adequate authority to impress slaves for Confederate service while still protecting the property rights of southern slaveholders. Virginia's October 1862 slave impressment law was much more stringent than its North Carolina counterpart, passed in December 1862. The Virginia law guaranteed that no more than 10,000 slaves would be impressed for Confederate service at any one time and that slaves would serve a maximum of two months under each impressment quota. The Virginia General Assembly also stipulated a clear chain of authority for slave impressment that granted much of the impressment power to state officials rather than to Confederate officers. Those in North Carolina's General Assembly, while intending to give their governor primary authority over slave impressments, failed to place any limitations on Confederate officers' ability to impress slaves without the governor's approval.

North Carolina and Virginia were two of seven Confederate states that passed slave impressment laws in late 1862 and early 1863. The state legislatures of Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama also enacted comprehensive slave impressment legislation during this period, while Geor-gia's legislature allowed a few labor requisitions on a case-by-case basis. Each state law established different procedures, and the remaining states failed to pass any laws on the subject.13 For this reason, national legislation needed to resolve discrepancies in how slave impressment would proceed in each state. The Confederate Congress tackled slave impressment as one portion of a general impressment bill passed in March 1863, but this law specifically respected state acts on the subject of slave impressment. Later amendments to the Confederate legislation were intended to create uniformity and cement central authority over impressment. They often adopted Virginia's provisions as the most effective at collecting slaves while also respecting slaveholders' property rights.

Viewed through the lens of slave impressment, it becomes clear that the strong state and local governments in North Carolina and Virginia contributed immeasurably to the Confederate war effort rather than undermined it. Local elected governments played a more active role in Virginia than they did in North Carolina. The county courts in Virginia debated, apportioned, and enforced every statewide quota issued prior to the summer of 1864, although they became increasingly reluctant as the burdens of the war mounted. In contrast, the North Carolina county courts only rarely involved themselves in slave impressment. In both states, however, (p.10) the governors provided vital support to the Confederate army's requisitions of slave labor, often in the face of opposition from the slaves' owners and state legislatures.

Slaveholders objecting to slave impressment most commonly argued that taking slaves to work on fortifications reduced the number available for labor at home, making it harder for them to meet the heightened needs of wartime production. Thus, it is necessary to explore the impact of slave impressment, both real and imagined, on agriculture in Virginia and North Carolina. Because slaves were crucial to food production for both the Confederate armies and civilians in each state, the governors proved far more likely to interpose their power between the national government and the slaveholders of their states to protect agriculture than for any other reason. It is fair to describe their actions in these cases not as denying laborers necessary to the Confederate war effort but rather as declining to redistribute laborers already forced to work on behalf of Confederate victory. Even so, the governors only rarely interfered with requisitions from Confederate officials, and they usually acted to reduce impressment quotas rather than to rescind them entirely.

Growing opposition from slaveholders and local leaders, however, prompted the centralization of slave impressment that began in February 1864, which mirrored the growing strength of the Confederate government as a whole. Control over slave impressment passed into the hands of the Confederate Bureau of Conscription, bypassing local and state governments. Impressed slaves would be organized into Negro Labor Battalions that the government could assign to any location and any type of work without the consent of their owners. Congress also created the Confederate Board of Slave Claims, which met in the summer of 1864 to determine compensation for slaves who died as a result of government service. Legislators hoped that establishing a process to better compensate slaveholders for their losses would preempt at least some slaveholders' objections to the national impressment plan.

The Conscript Bureau put the new procedures into action in October 1864, when it began collecting 20,000 slaves from across the Confederacy who would work for the traditional sixty days; in November, the bureau impressed an additional 2,000 Virginia slaves for a twelve-month term of service. In North Carolina, Governor Vance gladly relinquished responsibility for slave impressment to the Confederate government. While Governor Smith of Virginia continued to play an active role in each requisition, he also welcomed the more centralized procedure under the direction of the Conscript Bureau. Both men chose to support the centralization (p.11) of slave impressment as a response to the petitions and complaints they received from their constituents, believing that a more regulated and centrally organized process would solve many of the political problems those letters presented. If slave impressment is a reliable model, then, the growing strength of the Confederate government during the last eighteen months of the war was the direct—if unintended—consequence of its citi-zens' pleas for assistance.

Both the problems and the potential benefits of slave impressment became more pronounced during the last six months of the war. Planters continued to protest slave impressment at every available opportunity, reflecting the dearth of laborers and resources throughout the Confederacy. But by late 1864, the governors' patience for such complaints was wearing thin. A new Virginia law passed in March 1865 at Governor Smith's request prescribed harsh penalties for both slaveholders and local officials who resisted slave impressment; these newer, stricter plans for requisitioning slave laborers exemplified the state government's strong commitment to the Confederate war effort, even in the face of opposition from many voters. Governor Smith, President Davis, and General Robert E. Lee saw the potential application of the new Negro Labor Battalions to the percolating debate over enlisting slaves as soldiers and thus wanted to ensure a continued supply of laborers. Both state and national governments expected any changes they made to either the legal theory or the actual practice of slave impressment in early 1865 to have a long-term impact on the Confederacy's prospects for victory.

Wartime labor requisitions often targeted several thousand slaves at a time, so an enormous number of people participated in the process of slave impressment in some fashion. Among top officials and the most active participants, individual personalities and relationships shaped each requisition's enforcement. Most actors in the process of slave impressment, unfortunately, remained anonymous or at least voiceless. Compliance rates suggest that for every slaveholder who wrote a letter protesting impressment, for example, there were several others who sent their slaves without public complaint, and probably one who refused to obey the summons but did not openly seek to justify his resistance. Most of the men who enforced slave impressment quotas—county court officers and sheriffs in Virginia, militia members and officers in North Carolina, and Confederate impressment agents and enrolling officers—went unnamed in official correspondence. As a group, their participation may not suggest much about their support for or interest in slave impressment. Most (p.12) were simply following orders. The speed and accuracy with which they executed those orders, though, provides some insight into their opinions on impressment, especially among the county court officials in Virginia.

Of course, the names and opinions of the laborers were almost always excluded from government records. Some of their voices came through the testimony their masters and overseers offered before the Confederate Board of Slave Claims in 1864. A few exslaves spoke of impressment in statements to U.S. Army personnel, in Southern Claims Commission cases, in state pension applications, or in Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews, but most of those descriptions were perfunctory, with little opportunity for the men to share their personal experiences or thoughts on impressment. Internal correspondence between engineer officers regarding slaves' work on the fortifications was similarly devoid of detail; statements like “hands digging along river” or “hands cutting timber” were the only type of records most left. Major General William H. C. Whiting, commanding the Wilmington fortifications, was the only person to offer descriptive comments, often complaining to state and national officials that his enslaved laborers were constantly sick or ran away in large numbers, but it is necessary to take Whiting's statements with a grain of salt. Perhaps his laborers were genuinely sick, perhaps they were feigning illness to protest impressment, or perhaps Whiting was exaggerating labor shortages at Wilmington (as he often did) to bolster his demands for additional workers.

Since their department employed most of the impressed laborers, the officers in charge of Confederate engineering operations were regular participants in slave impressment. Lieutenant John B. Stanard directed construction of the Richmond fortifications, working in close and regular consultation with Major Walter H. Stevens, chief engineer for the Army of Northern Virginia. Captain Thomas M. Talcott oversaw fortification work in much of southwestern Virginia. Colonel William Lamb arrived in Wilmington in July 1862, serving there as General Whiting's top subordinate until the fall of Fort Fisher in January 1865. On the administrative level, Major Danville Leadbetter served as acting chief of the Engineer Bureau from August 1861 to November 1861, followed by Captain Alfred Landon Rives. Both were eventually replaced by Colonel Jeremy Francis Gilmer, who would serve as chief engineer for most of the war.

A North Carolina native, Gilmer graduated from West Point in 1839 and immediately became an officer in the Army's Engineer Corps, a highly prestigious appointment. He resigned from the U.S. Army in June 1861 before beginning service as General Albert Sidney Johnston's chief (p.13) engineer. Wounded at Shiloh in April 1862, Gilmer reluctantly found himself consigned to desk duty in Richmond that summer—he would have preferred to serve as chief engineer to the Army of Northern Virginia. On General Lee's recommendation, Gilmer accepted a compromise in July: promoted to colonel, he would serve as chief of the Engineer Bureau, a position he retained throughout the war and that facilitated his promotion to brigadier general and then major general. Captain Rives remained in the Engineer Bureau as Gilmer's primary adjutant, and he routinely acted as bureau chief during Gilmer's frequent illnesses and regular visits to fortifications outside of Virginia. The two men seem to have sustained a cordial working relationship; Gilmer also communicated and worked quite effectively with other military officers, government officials, and the various Confederate secretaries of war.14

Two commanding generals at key points of fortification had an especially significant impact on Confederate slave impressment. General Magruder began impressing slaves to build defensive works in southeastern Virginia in the earliest months of the war. Flamboyant, dramatic, and fiercely independent, Magruder, a native of Virginia's Tidewater region, graduated from West Point in 1830 and served in the U.S. Army until Virginia's secession in April 1861. Shortly after offering his services to the Confederate government, he took command of several thousand men stationed along the narrow peninsula separating the York and James Rivers, where he constructed a line of defensive works just south of Williams-burg, opposite the Union army's Fort Monroe. Magruder operated independently of the Engineer Bureau, although he usually sought its permission and assistance when impressing laborers. While local planters eagerly filled his earliest requests for slave labor, he began having difficulty obtaining sufficient workers by the fall of 1861. Conflicts between Magruder, Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, and slaveholders in southeastern Virginia shaped much of the slave impressment legislation that emerged in 1862 and 1863.15

General Whiting took command of the Confederate fortifications in and around Wilmington in the fall of 1862, eventually turning Fort Fisher, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, into the Confederacy's most impressive fortress. A native of Biloxi, Mississippi, and a top-achieving graduate of West Point, Whiting was thorough, meticulous, confident, and firmly committed to achieving his objectives—in many ways, the ideal engineer.16 But he may have lacked the ability to see beyond his specific objectives to the broader demands the war placed on civilians. From the time of his appointment until January 1865, when Fort Fisher fell to the Union, (p.14) Whiting demanded a nearly constant supply of laborers in order to carry out his extensive plans for fortifying Wilmington and its valuable harbor. In so doing, he caused serious political difficulties for state and national officials.

Whiting's incessant requests for labor sorely tried the patience of James A. Seddon and other War Department officials. Six different men served as Confederate secretary of war during the brief period that the office existed, but Seddon served the longest and was most actively engaged in the development of slave impressment policies and practices. Born into several of Virginia's wealthiest families, Seddon inherited his father's estate at a young age and invested in Louisiana sugar plantations before studying law at the University of Virginia. His impressive speaking skills brought him prominence in state Democratic politics, and he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1844 on an expansionist platform. He served in Congress for eight years, an ardent supporter of slavery and states' rights. By the eve of the Civil War, Seddon had largely retired from public life, but he eagerly served on Virginia's secession convention and then accepted a provisional seat in the Confederate Congress. After a second attempt at retirement, Seddon became secretary of war in November 1862. His primary role in the process of slave impressment was negotiating between the governors who controlled access to each state's workforce and the Confederate officers who demanded laborers.17

Virginia and North Carolina each had two different wartime governors, but three of these four men were strong supporters of slave impressment at both the state and national levels. John Letcher, a lifelong Democrat, had served in the U.S. House of Representatives for nearly a decade before taking office as Virginia's governor in January 1860. The son of a nonslaveholding carpenter from Rockbridge County, Letcher had established himself as a lawyer and newspaper editor before entering electoral politics and consistently defended the rights of Virginia's slaveholders against any encroachments by the federal government during his nine-year congressional career. Yet he expected Virginians to comply with all Confederate requisitions for slave labor.18 His successor, William “Extra Billy” Smith, took office in January 1864 with a wealth of political experience, a passable military reputation, and significant popular support to his credit. He served in the U.S. Congress in the early 1840s and late 1850s, with intermediary stints in the California and Virginia state legislatures, and remains one of a very short list of Virginia governors elected to more than one term (1846–49 and 1864–65). Like Letcher, Smith proved an ardent supporter of slave impressment.19

(p.15) North Carolinian Henry T. Clark rose to the office of governor quite unexpectedly, upon the illness and death of his predecessor John Willis Ellis in July 1861. While he had served ably as Speaker of the North Carolina Senate, there is no indication that Clark sought or welcomed the state's chief executive position, especially in the chaotic months immediately following North Carolina's secession. Clark took advantage of the U.S. arsenal at Fayetteville to provision militias and volunteer soldiers, and he encouraged all North Carolinians to unite for local defense, but he was reluctant to issue requisitions for slave labor and informed his constituents that they were not obligated to comply with impressment orders issued by Confederate military personnel.20 Clark's successor, Zebulon Baird Vance, was elected in the summer of 1862 and quickly acted in favor of slave impressment. Like his Virginia colleague Smith, Vance's service in the Confederate army made him more supportive of policies that would expand the resources available for military use. Vance and Smith also enjoyed populist reputations that led many of their constituents to treat them as channels of protest against requisitions for slave labor, and so enforcing state and national slave impressment policies would occupy a great deal of their time and energies.21

Impressment, of course, was not the only means by which slaves rendered involuntary service to the Confederacy. Slavery was, as Vice President Alexander H. Stephens famously noted, the ideological “corner-stone” of the Confederate government.22 Equally important, slave labor provided the physical cornerstone for the Confederate war effort. Private employers like the Tredegar Iron Works, railroad lines, salt mines, and iron forges, all of which sustained the Confederate war effort, hired increasing numbers of slave laborers as their white employees left for the army. Owners also leased their slaves to individual officers within the Confederate army or to larger departments like the Confederate Medical Department, which hired hundreds of slaves to work as nurses, cooks, and laundresses in army hospitals. Most slaves remained agricultural laborers, however, and their wartime production helped feed both civilians and soldiers, particularly after the Confederate Congress passed legislation impressing wheat, corn, and other foodstuffs. All of these slaves played a role in supporting the Confederacy. Slaves also filled a variety of noncombatant positions within the armies themselves, including those of teamsters, cooks, and musicians. By all accounts, the Confederate war effort would have failed long before April 1865 if these slave laborers had not freed white military-age men for service as soldiers.

The War Department's use of hired slave laborers extended one of the key developments in the Upper South's economy during the late (p.16) antebellum era. Slave hiring was already an established facet of southern industry at the beginning of the war, and its prevalence helped smooth the transition to wartime production. In Virginia, for example, hundreds of male slaves were hired to or sold to iron manufacturers or railroad companies, and many of these slaves acquired skills they could use to protect themselves and their families from further sales. Using slaves as industrial workers, moreover, turned out to be just as profitable as using free laborers. Industrial work was only one potential application of slave hiring, however. Hired slaves most commonly worked as house servants or field hands. Some of the families who hired slaves did so to supplement their existing slave workforce, while others did so because they could not afford to purchase a slave outright.23

Slaves were almost always hired annually under the antebellum system, and both government and private hirers typically conformed to this pattern during the war. Owners and hirers negotiated the terms of a contract in late December or early January, and the slaves remained with their hirers from the beginning of the year until just before Christmas, when they returned home for the holidays. Some slaves would return to the same person who had hired them the previous year—this was particularly the case for slaves who had learned a trade or industrial job—while others faced the prospect of a new master every year. Moreover, the hiring trends of the 1850s accelerated dramatically after 1861. The war increased the importance of slaves with industrial skills in the Upper South's hiring market; the demand for hired field hands also increased as white men joined the Confederate army.24 By 1863, impressment quotas began to disrupt standard hiring rituals. But the hiring practices of the antebellum period continued to shape military requisitions for labor because the Confederate attorneys general turned to state laws regulating slave hiring when seeking precedents for slave impressment.

Although the numerous enslaved men and women hired to the Confederate armies and War Department agencies by their owners provided vital labor to the Confederacy, they are generally absent from this study. Free blacks and Native Americans, two equally important pools of labor for the Confederacy, are largely silent here as well. While impressed free blacks, Native Americans, and slaves all performed similar duties, the vast difference in their legal and political status makes them incompatible subjects for study. Though neither citizens nor voters, free black and Native American men were legally persons, making their impressment more akin to conscription—or kidnapping. Slaves, however, were the property of full citizens and voters. Their status as chattel meant that slave impressment, (p.17) from a legal standpoint, had more in common with the impressment of horses and mules than it did with the impressment of free blacks and Native Americans. At the same time, slaves' owners had a financial interest in protecting them, which prompted a concern that typically did not extend to free blacks and Native Americans. In many ways, it was therefore easier for government authorities to appropriate the labor of free non-white men than that of slaves. While the emotional and psychological experience of forced military labor differed greatly for free and enslaved men, their physical experiences often overlapped. Testimony from hired slaves and free blacks thus occasionally appears in order to provide a clearer view of impressed slaves' daily lives.

The Richmond Whig's editor was perhaps correct to suggest that Confederate policies inadvertently devalued slavery over the course of the war. Slave labor on the Confederate fortifications served as the jus-tification for the U.S. Confiscation Acts, which paved the way toward the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. Rumored or impending impressment quotas may have encouraged slaves to escape their plantations and make the risky journey toward Union lines. But the vast majority of slaves in the Confederacy did not escape, and those who remained in servitude were forced to undertake a wide variety of labor designed to increase the chances of Confederate victory. Slave impressment, the most obvious example of that labor, brought tens of thousands of slaves into the direct service of the War Department and also illustrated both the vast expansion of the Confederate state and the high level of coordination between its various levels of governance. The centralization of slave impressment over the course of the war demonstrates the impressive growth and great effectiveness of the Confederate government as it struggled to achieve independence.


(1) . “Slavery Tested,” Richmond Whig, February 6, 1864, p. 2, col. 3.

(2) . Anyone who watched Ken Burns's massively popular documentary on the Civil War heard the “died of a theory” remark, as well as a strong indictment of Governors Joseph Brown and Zebulon Baird Vance for undermining the Confederate war effort by withholding food and supplies. This interpretation suffuses many histories of the Civil War, including those intended for academic, as opposed to popular, audiences. (p.188) Owsley (State Rights in the Confederacy) and Beringer et al. (Why the South Lost the Civil War), for example, argue that strong state governors and local officials kept men out of the Confederate armies for militia duty, refused to send supplies that might reach soldiers from other states, and encouraged general discontent with the national government among their constituents.

(3) . McKinney, Zeb Vance; Mobley, “War Governor of the South.”

(4) . Escott, Confederacy, 113–15. Williams makes a similar argument in (among others) Bitterly Divided. Robinson (Bitter Fruits of Bondage) and Tripp (Yankee Town) connect this class conflict more explicitly to nonslaveholders' perception that state and local leaders failed to fully utilize slavery in support of the war effort.

(5) . Faust, for example, argues that planter women deserted the Confederacy when it failed to protect their interests, foreshadowing Escott's point about the planter class as a whole (Mothers of Invention). Their earlier works also suggest that the planter class's weak initial attachment to the Confederacy was eventually overridden by self-interest; see Escott, After Secession, and Faust, Creation of Confederate Nationalism. My approach is more heavily influenced by those who suggest that a strong sense of Confederate identity did exist and who focus primarily on external factors when explaining Confederate defeat. See, for example, Thomas, Confederate Nation; Blair, Virginia's Private War; Gallagher, Confederate War; Campbell, When Sherman Marched North from the Sea; Rubin, Shattered Nation; and Sheehan-Dean, Why Confederates Fought.

(6) . Freehling, The South vs. The South. Bynum also explores discontented internal populations, primarily Unionists but also Quakers and Dunkers, in Free State of Jones and Long Shadow.

(7) . Mc-Curry, Confederate Reckoning, 4–5.

(8) . For specific treatments of slave impressment and its relationship to insufficient Confederate nationalism among the planter class, see Trexler, “Opposition of Planters”; Nelson, “Confederate Slave Impressment Legislation”; and Robinson, Bitter Fruits of Bondage.

(9) . Constitution of the Confederate States of America, Preamble, Article VI, Section 3, The Avalon Project, Yale School of Law (accessed January 18, 2010).

(10) . Brasher, Peninsula Campaign.

(11) . Most notably, Freehling argues in his two-volume Road to Disunion that the decline in slaves as a percentage of state population in the Upper South signaled a declining commitment to protecting the institution, and he connects this decline to those states' slower rate of secession. Other scholars have disagreed, insisting, as Ayers and Thomas do, that “slavery was slavery to the border,” remaining as intertwined in the economy, politics, and culture of the Upper South as it was in the Lower South (“Difference Slavery Made”).

(12) . Nichols's Confederate Engineers contains detailed descriptions of state engineer forces, key officers in the Confederate Engineer Bureau, and key points of fortification.

(13) . Nelson, “Confederate Slave Impressment Legislation.”

(14) . Warner, Generals in Gray, 105; Nichols, Confederate Engineers, 29–32.

(15) . Settles and Campbell, John Bankhead Magruder, 145–54; Gallagher, “The Undoing of an Early Confederate Hero,” in Lee and His Generals in War and Memory, 119–21; Warner, Generals in Gray, 207–8; Nichols, Confederate Engineers, 19–20.

(16) . Warner, Generals in Gray, 334–35; Nichols, Confederate Engineers, 76–79.

(17) . See Curry, “James A. Seddon.”

(18) . Boney, John Letcher of Virginia, 24–35, 74–90, 173–75.

(19) . See Fahrner, “William ‘Extra Billy’ Smith.”

(20) . Crabtree, North Carolina Governors, 93–94.

(21) . See McKinney, Zeb Vance; Mobley, “War Governor of the South.”

(22) . Extemporaneous speech of March 21, 1861, in Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens in Public and Private, 721.

(23) . See Bancroft, Slave-Trading in the Old South; Dew, Bond of Iron and Ironmaker to the Confederacy; Kimball, American City; Takagi, “Rearing Wolves”; Eaton, “Slave-Hiring in the Upper South”; Barton, “‘Good Cooks and Washers’”; Golland, “Industrial Intersection.”

(24) . These observations stem from an earlier project, culminating in an essay published as Martinez, “Slave Market in Civil War Virginia.”