Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“At Freedom’s Door” by Cooper Wingert

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on May 25, 2019

Some of you, like me, are looking forward to the release of Kevin Levin’s Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth late this summer. In the meantime though, there’s a lot of worthwhile material out there. Cooper Wingert’s cover story in the August 2019 issue of Civil War Times is one of those that’s worth your time.

“At Freedom’s Door” traces the experience of the thousands of “camp slaves” that accompanied the Confederate Army north into Virginia and Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg campaign. While Kevin’s book takes in the broad, sweeping view of African-Americans connected to the Confederate Army during the war, Wingert zeros in on the experiences and torn loyalties of men working as personal servants, cooks, and laborers with the Army of Northern Virginia in the summer of 1863. Wingert pulls details from the private correspondence of Confederate officers and soldiers, civilians, and whenever possible the enslaved men themselves. There are some familiar names here, first among them being Major General William Dorsey Pender, who commanded a division in A. P. Hill’s Third Corps. Pender left detailed accounts in his correspondence of his bondsman, Joe. Pender embodied the deep contradictions and attitudes that were probably typical of slaveholders like himself. Pender paid Joe well — although he appointed himself “treasurer” of Joe’s money — and deplored the mistreatment and neglect of enslaved persons he saw by other white officers. At the same time, he also didn’t hesitate to give Joe “a tremendous whipping” when he thought it necessary, explaining that “like most young negroes [sic.] [Joe] needs correction badly.” Pender would be wounded on the second day at Gettysburg near Cemetery Hill, and died two weeks later.

Pender, like most slaveholders, managed to convince himself of the deep and ingrained loyalty of enslaved men and women, and discounted any notion that they might have the desire and initiative to escape. When they did, Wingert points out, slaveholders usually embraced the long-held conviction that they only did so because they were influenced and corrupted by others, free African Americans or whites with abolitionist leanings. Men like Pender could scarcely credit that their bondsmen might act on their own courage and initiative.

Wingert’s article is a good read, especially in conjunction with Ted Alexander’s 2001 North & South article, “A Regular Slave Hunt: The Army of Northern Virginia and Black Civilians in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Together they help to fully flesh out the story of African Americans impacted by Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania – both those with the Confederate army, and those kidnapped by it.

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