Were Cooks Enlisted in the Confederate Army?
In a recent post, I took to task a well-known researcher on the subject of black Confederate soldiers, for her misrepresenting the case of a private in the 21st U.S. Colored Infantry, who upon enlistment was taken out of the ranks and assigned to work as a company cook. Although his subsequent disability discharge paperwork makes clear that the 42-year-old private’s reassignment as a cook was because “he has never been able to drill, or to march with the company, or do any military or fatigue duty,” the researcher stated, incorrectly, that he had enlisted specifically as a cook, and she then went on to argue that, because that man was a soldier in the Union army, all cooks in the Confederate army were soldiers, too.
In making her case, the researcher compared the USCT soldier to William H. Dove, an African American man who appears on the rolls of the 5th North Carolina Cavalry. In the comments that followed, one of my regular readers made a blunt point: “But if they were enlisted they were soldiers. William Dove, Cook, Co. E, 5th NC Cavalry was a soldier.”
That’s an entirely reasonable position to take. It’s simple, it’s logical, and it’s easily applied as a standard. But it also raises the question: were the cooks who accompanied and served the Confederate army actually enlisted?
[Before proceeding, let me clarify that in this post, I'm discussing men who worked full-time as unit cooks, not individual soldiers who took turns acting as "cook" for their messes.]
There are several ways to approach this question. A reasonable place to start would be the actual regulations for the Confederate States Army. Several editions of the regs were published from 1861 through 1864; I haven’t found an 1865 edition. But the wording in different editions of the regulations is so similar that I’ll take the mid-war edition of the Regulations for the Army of the Confederate States (“the only correct edition”), published in 1863, as representative. It also happens to be the edition in effect at the time William Dove joined the 5th North Carolina as a cook in December 1863.
While the Regulations go into considerable detail on the provision of cooks in military hospitals (see here and here and here), when it comes to field formations it’s almost completely silent. Article XLVI on the Confederate recruiting service, makes no mention of enlisting cooks in eighteen pages. Elsewhere the regulations are unclear, if not contradictory. They state, for example, that “as soldiers are expected to preserve, distribute, and cook their own subsistence, the hire of citizens for any of these duties is not allowed, except in extreme cases,” but elsewhere provide that each company would be allowed four cooks (as well as four washer-women) for distribution of rations, and that cooks of units embarked on military transports were exempted from one of the two required inspection formations daily. There were other arrangements, as well; in the closing days of the war, for example, Nathan Bedford Forrest issued general orders reorganizing and consolidating his command, instructing that “there will be allowed a negro cook to every mess of ten” troopers, a proportion more than double that allowed under army regulations for infantry units. There’s little clarity to be found in existing army policy and procedure. While the Regulations acknowledge the presence of, and make explicit allowance for, cooks in the Army, there’s no indication that the Richmond intended those men to be formally enlisted.
But regulations are one thing; practice is often another. Anyone who’s been part of a large organization knows that there’s often a wide divergence between policy — what’s supposed to be done — and what actually is done in the day-to-day operations of the group. Is there a way to get a rough estimate of how common it was for the Confederate Army to formally enlist cooks? Yes, there is.
The Data. The National Park Service developed its Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System (CWSSS), an online database, to include essential facts about servicemen who served on both sides during the war. It contains about 6.3 million names, which are themselves drawn from compiled service records (CSRs) held at the National Archives. CSRs are not regimental muster rolls, but are abstracted from them; long before they were transferred to NARA, file clerks at the War Department meticulously copied each man’s name, on each roll, to a long card along with other information about him drawn from the rolls. These, along with other paperwork — hospitalization records, receipts, requisitions, discharge papers and the like, were combined and filed in small folders, one for each man. (These are the documents, microfilmed and digitized, that are now available via commercial services like Footnote.) Because any given man might have his name listed differently on several documents, and because the clerks doing the work had no practical way to sort them out, there many duplications of names, alternate spellings, and so on. The end result of all this is that, while the CSRs and NPS database derived from them are not “clean” data — due in large part to the duplication of names — the CWSSS is a relatively comprehensive database.
It’s true that many contemporary records were lost, particularly Confederate unit records from the last months of the war, and so are not reflected in either the CSRs at the National Archives or the CWSSS. But while this poses a problem for researchers looking for a specific individual, it’s less a concern for the simple analysis offered here, which focuses on extant records only, to see how often cooks are reflected in the muster rolls of Confederate units. The fields available in the CWSSS include “Soldier’s Rank_In” and “Soldier’s Rank_Out,” which allow the researcher to quickly scroll through the names listed for each regiment, to identify men with the listing of “Cook” in either field.
Methods. I selected twenty Confederate regiments to look for men who appear in the CWSSS as “Cook,” either as their initial or final rank. Several regiments were ones that my own relatives had served in; others were suggested by readers of this blog. I tossed in a couple of other regiments on a whim, including the parent regiment of the famous companies of the (supposedly integrated) Richmond Howitzers, just for fun. I also included William Dove’s 5th North Carolina Cavalry, which was the only unit I knew going into the project that had at least one entry for a cook — the number of cooks in the other nineteen regiments were unknown to me at the time I began going through the lists.
Results. There are five entries for cooks, in 40,825 names total — one one-hundredth of one percent, as opposed to a figure between 3% and 5%, based on the organization outlined by army regs, at four cooks per company, or 40-45 cooks per infantry regiment at full strength. It’s possible I missed a few cooks in skimming through the regiments listed here, but even a dozen more men would barely move the needle. But if this sampling is broadly indicative of the Confederate army as a whole — and I don’t know why it wouldn’t be — then the larger situation is clear, that cooks were almost never carried on the rolls as enlisted men. Certainly there are other examples than the five men in the 5th North Carolina Cavalry, but even if there are scores more, they much represent a very tiny fraction of the thousands of men who served as army cooks at one time or another during the war.
So why, in this sample of 20 regiments, are there only a handful of examples clustered in the 5th North Carolina Cavalry? The answer may lie in those five men’s CSRs — four of the five were carried on the rolls of Company E of that regiment, and were placed there by Captain Thomas W. Harris. (The fifth man, like Hannibal Alexander, has a CSR that reflects only his parole from a Federal prison camp; his presence with the 5th North Carolina is not recorded.) Why did Captain Harris, in particular, formally enter these men on his company’s rolls when the other officers of the regiment did not? It’s apparent that these men were not themselves cavalry troopers; each one’s CSR carries the notation, like William Dove’s, “has no horse.” Did he he misunderstand the regulations, or common practice, or was there a specific reason? Whatever the answer, Harris’ decision to enter these men on the roster of Company E clearly stands in stark contrast to common practice; it’s very much a one-off situation.
There’s no question that Confederate cooks, body servants and others considered non-combatant did sometimes find their way into action. Richard Quarls, for example, is reputed to have picked up his master’s rifle when the man was hit, and defended him until he could be removed from the field. There are many such anecdotes, but it’s useful to keep in mind why such incidents were recorded in the first place — because they were out of the ordinary, and beyond the expected scope of those mens’ stations.
But against this there are at least as many accounts from Confederate soldiers of African American cooks and servants that gently mock them for supposed dumb indifference to enemy fire, or for their alleged comical cowardice. Val Giles, describing how his company of the 4th Texas Infantry was pinned down at the foot of Little Round Top after the previous day’s assault, noted that “Uncle” John Price brought up the company’s rations under fire, and promptly lay down behind a boulder and went to sleep, even as Yankee Minié balls splatted against the rocks, “making lead prints half as big as a saucer.” The Rev. J. N. Crain, told of an incident in an 1898 issue of the Confederate Veteran, about an outdoor religious service held after the Battle of Chickamauga:
In the early part of the service a battery belonging to “out friends the enemy” sent a shell, which exploded some two or three hundred yards below our position. A negro [sic.] cook, who had his belongings just outside of the place occupied by the congregation, put them over his shoulder with the significant remark: “this nigger is gwine to git out o’ here.” That caused a ripple of laughter in the congregation, but all sat still. During the long prayer of our service another shell came much nearer. When the prayer was finished and the chaplain’s eyes were opened he saw that the congregation, with the exception of five or six, had followed the cook.
African American cooks and servants were often remembered in this way, as a sort of comic relief, and even so august a personage as Robert E. Lee joined in humor at the expense of the servants’ dignity. John Brown Gordon, a corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia and later the first Commander of the United Confederate Veterans, wrote in his memoir that
General Lee used to tell with decided relish of the old negro [sic.] (a cook of one of his officers) who called to see him at his headquarters. He was shown into the general’s presence, and, pulling off his hat, he said, “General Lee, I been wanting to see you a long time. I ‘m a soldier.”
“Ah? To what army do you belong—to the Union army or to the Southern army ?”
“Oh, general, I belong to your army.”
“Well, have you been shot ?”
“No, sir; I ain’t been shot yet.”
“How is that? Nearly all of our men get shot.”
“Why, general, I ain’t been shot ’cause I stays back whar de generals stay.”
This anecdote reinforces Gordon’s (and Lee’s) dismissal of the idea that the service of black men like the cook should be considered soldiers; what made the story amusing to both generals is that the man’s claim to status as a soldier was, to their thinking, preposterous on its face, and (according to Gordon) thought by Lee himself to be worthy of telling and re-telling.
These men were also sometimes the direct target of ribald and occasionally dangerous pranks by bored soldiers, in ways that fellow soldiers likely would not be. Clement Saussy, a private in Wheaton’s Light Battery (Chatham Artillery), told of one such incident in a 1906 issue of the Confederate Veteran:
Of course we had to have some amusement as the time passed, and I decided to have some fun with a negro [sic.] named Joe, who was cook for the “Jeff Davis Mess.” He was ignorant and superstitious. I told him the Yankees were going to shell our camp. He lived in a small hut near the mess house, and every night held a solo prayer meeting. While on picket duty at the ordnance stores I had obtained the powder from an eight-inch shell, and then had removed the fuse. The powder I took to camp and made a bomb out of an old canteen, placed it behind Joe’s house, and lighted the fuse. A number of the boys stood by with bricks, so that when the bomb exploded they were to pelt the house. The fuse burned too slow, and one of the boys said: “Saussy, go look at the fuse.” I crept up. peeped in, and said : “It’s burning all right.” “Blow it,” my companion said, and, without thinking, I blew it and it blew me, for off it went, about two pounds of powder close to my face, blinding my sight for the instant and burning my eyebrows and eyelashes. I fell over, but this was not all. The boys began the brickbat bombardment, and I received my full share of the bricks. Joe was badly scared and ran from the hut. I was temporarily put out of service, but it was fun all the same.
Saussy doesn’t say whether Joe also found being scared and pelted with brickbats “fun all the same.”
These are not respectful accounts; these are not the way one speaks of, or remembers, a peer. Anecdotes like these make clear that, while they might occasionally be praised for noteworthy actions, more commonly army cooks were mocked and derided, the butt of jokes and pranks at their expense. (One should note that their treatment in the Union army was probably little better.)
While it does appear that at least a handful of African American men were carried on the rolls of Confederate regiments, it’s equally clear that the practice was not only not common, but exceedingly rare compared to their actual numbers. Formal regulation, personnel records from the National Archives, and anecdotal evidence all make clear that, while Confederate cooks were an indispensable part of the army, and part of soldiers’ daily lives, they were almost never formally enlisted or carried on military rolls. As a general rule with (it seems) very few exceptions, cooks in the Confederate were not enlisted, and though part of the army, were legally, socially and operationally fundamentally different from the privates, corporals and lieutenants they served.
Image: “Dick, sketched on the 6th of May, on return to camp,” by Edwin Forbes. A Union Army cook from 1863. Library of Congress.