Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Old Pete, “Slave Raids” and the Gettysburg Campaign

Posted in African Americans, Leadership by Andy Hall on July 1, 2010

One hundred forty-seven years ago today, Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet, writing through his adjutant, ordered General George Pickett to bring up his corps from the rear to reinforce the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia. The lead elements of the armies of Robert E. Lee and George Meade had come together outside a small Pennsylvania market town called Gettysburg. The clash there would become the most famous battle of the American Civil War, and would be popularly regarded as a critical turning point not just of that conflict, but in American history. More about Longstreet’s order shortly.

I was thinking about that when I recently read an essay by David G. Smith, “Race and Retaliation: The Capture of African Americans During the Gettysburg Campaign,” part of Virginia’s Civil War, edited by Peter Wallenstein and Bertram Wyatt-Brown. All but the last page and a few citations is available online through Google Books. It’s not a pleasant read.

During the Gettysburg Campaign, soldiers in the the Army of Northern Virginia systematically rounded up free Blacks and escaped slaves as they marched north into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Men, women and children were all swept up and brought along with the army as it moved north, and carried back into Virginia during the army’s retreat after the battle. While specific numbers cannot be known, Smith argues that the total may have been over a thousand African Americans. Once back in Confederate-held territory, they were returned to their former owners, sold at auction or imprisoned.

That part of the story is well-known. What makes Smith’s essay important is the way he provides additional, critical background to this horrible event, and reveals both its extent across the corps and divisions of Lee’s army, as well as the acquiescence to it, up and down the chain of command. The seizures were not, as is sometimes suggested, the result of individual soldiers or rouge troops acting on their own initiative, in defiance of their orders. The perpetrators were not, to use a more recent cliché, “a few bad apples.” The seizure of free Blacks and escaped slaves by the Army of Northern Virginia was widespread, systematic, and countenanced by officers up to the highest levels of command. This event, and others on a much smaller scale, were so much part of the army’s operation that Smith argues they can legitimately be considered a part of the army’s operational objective. Smith is blunt in his terminology for these activities; he calls them “slave raids.”

These ugly episodes did not spring up spontaneously; it was a violent and entirely predictable result of multiple factors that had been building for months or years. For a long time, there was growing resentment in Virginia over escaped slaves seeking refuge in Pennsylvania, where there was considerable sympathy for the abolitionist cause, and stops on the Underground Railroad. These tensions increased substantially after the outbreak of the war, as Virginia slaves learned that they could expect to be safe as soon as they reached Union territory, where they would be considered contraband. White Southerners’ resentment of this situation redoubled again in the fall of 1862, with the news that the Lincoln administration would issue the Emancipation Proclamation. This further encouraged slaves to flee to the North, and made it clear to slaveholders — had it not been clear before — that defeat would put an end to the “peculiar institution,” and upend the economy and culture that went with it.


A November 1862 Harper’s Weekly (New York) illustration showing Confederate officers driving slaves further south, to put them out of reach of the Federal armies in advance of the Emancipation Proclamation. The accompanying article told of two white men who escaped to Union lines and

upon being questioned closely, they admitted that they had just come from the James River; and finally owned up that they had been running off “niggers” having just taken a large gang, belonging to themselves and neighbors, southward in chains, to avoid losing them under the emancipation proclamation. I understand, from various sources, that the owners of this species of property, throughout this section of the State, are moving it off toward Richmond as fast as it can be spared from the plantation; and the slaveholders boast that there will not be a negro left in all this part of the State by the 1st of January next.

Against this backdrop, the organization of Federal units of Black soldiers, comprised of both escaped slaves and free men, was taken as an outrage. It struck a raw nerve, never far off in the Southern psyche: fear of a slave insurrection. The prospect of African American men in blue uniforms was taken as an extreme provocation, so much so that it was proposed in the Confederate congress — and endorsed by General Beauregard, the hero of Fort Sumter — that all Federals captured, black or white, should be summarily executed. This proposal was never adopted, but the Confederate congress did eventually pass, in May 1863, a proclamation instructing President Jefferson Davis to exercise “full and ample retaliation” against the North for arming black soldiers.

Finally, there was simple revenge. The Union army’s shelling of Fredericksburg several months before had been a particular sore point, that festered for months as the Confederate army went into winter quarters nearby. One officer, determined to fix the destruction there in his mind’s eye, made a special visit to that town one last time before setting out on the road north into Maryland and Pennsylvania.

So when Lee’s army finally marched north in June 1863, it was fully infused with the intent to exact “full and ample retaliation” on Union territory as it passed. Lee issued orders against the indiscriminate destruction of civilian property, but made no mention of seizing African Americans, whether free or former slaves. In his essay, Smith points out that diaries, letters and even official reports from every division in Lee’s army mention Confederates rounding up African Americans and holding them with the army. The practice was tolerated — if not actively encouraged — by officers at all levels of the army. Even Lieutenant General Longstreet, the most senior of Lee’s corps commanders and effectively the second-in-command of the Army of Northern Virginia, acknowledged the practice and accommodated it. In sending orders to General Pickett, whose corps was bringing up the rear of the army, Longstreet, writing through his adjutant, G. M. Sorrel, sent word on July 1 — the day the two armies first engaged each other — to move his troops toward Gettysburg. In closing he added, “the captured contrabands had better be brought along with you for further disposition.”

“Further disposition” here refers to imprisonment, auction, enslavement, and (often) severe punishment at the hands of a former-and-once-again master.

Those thirteen words closing words of Longstreet’s order are damning, in that they show full well that the seizure and abduction of African Americans was, if not official policy, widely tolerated and made allowance for, even at the highest levels of the Confederate command structure. Longstreet was second-in-command; while his order does not prove Lee knew and approved of this practice, it’s hard to imagine he was unaware of it, and there’s no evidence that he publicly objected to it, or made any effort to curtail it. My intent here is not to condemn Longstreet specifically — the de facto policy neither originated nor was actively encouraged by him — but to demonstrate that the forcible abduction of free African Americans and escaped slaves was known and tolerated, from the lowest private to the most senior generals.

There are many questions, many aspects, of the Civil War that are legitimate sources of controversy and dispute. There are questions that serious historians will argue about as long as anyone remembers this conflict, saying that this politician’s actions were justified by that event, or that general made the right decision because he didn’t know those troops were on the other side of the river. The abduction of free Blacks and escaped slaves from Maryland and Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg campaign is not one of those events. It cannot be justified, or rationalized, or denied. It can only be ignored.

But it shouldn’t be.


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Encounters with Grant at Chattanooga

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Hall on June 16, 2010


Grant (l.) and his staff on Lookout Mountain, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, November 1863. Library of Congress photo.

One of the great firsthand accounts of Texas troops in the Civil War is Val C. Giles’ Rags and Hope: Four Years with Hood’s Brigade, Fourth Texas Infantry, 1861-1865 (Mary Lasswell, ed.). The account of Sergeant Valerius Cincinnatus Giles is important to me personally because he served in the same regiment, the Fourth Texas, as one of my relatives. More significant still, Giles’ time is the unit matches my uncle’s almost exactly, from the formation of the unit to each man’s being taken prisoner during the Chattanooga campaign — Giles in late October 1863; my uncle about three weeks later. It seems likely that much of what Giles saw and did and heard was shared by other men in the regiment, including my relative.

Giles was captured during a confused skirmish in the early morning hours of October 29. After running smack into a big, burly German private of the 136th New York in the dark, Giles and about twenty of his comrades were rounded up and marched back behind Union lines.

We were marched back and halted near General Hooker’s headquarters. By that time it was daylight, and the whole earth appeared covered with bluecoats. I was a Sergeant at that time, and the only noncommissioned officer in our squad. I was ordered to report to General Hooker, and was escorted to headquarters, between two muskets. Hooker was rather a pleasant-looking man, and returned my salute like a soldier. Then he began to interrogate me. He asked me a hundred questions and wound up by saying that I was the most complete know-nothing for my size he had ever seen.

That evening we started to Chattanooga under a heavy guard. We crossed the Tennessee River about four miles below Lookout Mountain. Near the middle of the bridge we were halted and formed in one rank on each side, to let some General Officers and their escorts pass. General Grant and General Thomas rode in front, followed by along train of staff officers and couriers. When General Grant reached the line of ragged, filthy, bloody, starveling, despairing prisoners strung out on each side of the bridge, he lifted his hat hat and held it over his head until he passed the last man of that living funeral cortege. He was the only officer in that whole train who recognized us as being on the face of the earth. Grant alone paid military honor to a fallen foe.

Grant doesn’t mention this encounter with Giles and his fellows in his memoirs, but he does mention encountering Confederate troops in the field, apparently that same day:

In securing possession of Lookout Valley, Smith lost one man killed and four or five wounded. The enemy lost most of his pickets at the ferry, captured. In the night engagement of the 28th-9th Hooker lost 416 killed and wounded. I never knew the loss of the enemy, but our troops buried over one hundred and fifty of his dead and captured more than a hundred.

After we had secured the opening of a line over which to bring our supplies to the army, I made a personal inspection to see the situation of the pickets of the two armies. As I have stated, Chattanooga Creek comes down the centre of the valley to within a mile or such a matter of the town of Chattanooga, then bears off westerly, then north-westerly, and enters the Tennessee River at the foot of Lookout Mountain. This creek, from its mouth up to where it bears off west, lay between the two lines of pickets, and the guards of both armies drew their water from the same stream. As I would be under short-range fire and in an open country, I took nobody with me, except, I believe, a bugler, who stayed some distance to the rear. I rode from our right around to our left. When I came to the camp of the picket guard of our side, I heard the call, “Turn out the guard for the commanding general.” I replied, “Never mind the guard,” and they were dismissed and went back to their tents. Just back of these, and about equally distant from the creek, were the guards of the Confederate pickets. The sentinel on their post called out in like manner, “Turn out the guard for the commanding general,” and, I believe, added, “General Grant.” Their line in a moment front-faced to the north, facing me, and gave a salute, which I returned.

The most friendly relations seemed to exist between the pickets of the two armies. At one place there was a tree which had fallen across the stream, and which was used by the soldiers of both armies in drawing water for their camps. General Longstreet’s corps was stationed there at the time, and wore blue of a little different shade from our uniform. Seeing a soldier in blue on this log, I rode up to him, commenced conversing with him, and asked whose corps he belonged to. He was very polite, and, touching his hat to me, said he belonged to General Longstreet’s corps. I asked him a few questions—but not with a view of gaining any particular information—all of which he answered, and I rode off.