Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“My humanity revolted at taking the poor devils away from their homes.”

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on June 29, 2011

Over at the Encyclopedia Virginia Blog, Brendan Wolfe posts a letter written by Colonel William Steptoe Christian (right, 1830-1910) of the 55th Virginia Infantry during the Gettysburg campaign. Christian’s letter, written from camp, describes the campaign through the Maryland and Pennsylvania countryside so far, and the Confederate army’s efforts at foraging on the march. He also mentions the seizure of African Americans from the free soil of Pennsylvania:

No houses were searched and robbed, like our houses were done, by the Yankees. Pigs, chickens, geese, etc., are finding their way into our camp; it can’t be prevented, and I can’t think it ought to be. We must show them something of war. I have sent out to-day to get a good horse; I have no scruples about that, as they have taken mine. We took a lot of negroes [sic.] yesterday. I was offered my choice, but as I could not get them back home I would not take them. In fact, my humanity revolted at taking the poor devils away from their homes.

They were so scared that I turned them all loose. I dined yesterday with two old maids. They treated me very well, and seemed greatly in favor of peace. I have had a great deal of fun since I have been here.

Christian’s letter is fascinating, both for what it says and what it doesn’t. Undoubtedly Colonel Christian’s perspective was shared by many Confederates, both officers and enlisted men. While he objected to searching and ransacking private residences, he had no qualms about the seizure of livestock for forage and even a personal mount for himself. And while he declined to take captured African Americans for himself personally, both on practical (“I could not get them back home”) and humanitarian grounds (“they were so scared that I turned them all loose”), he never questions whether he had the right to do so, not indeed if it was right to do so. Those larger questions simply aren’t part of his recorded consideration of the question, and one is left to imagine that, had his circumstances been different, might he have decided differently, as well.

Others in Lee’s army were not so scrupulous when it came to the well-being of their captives, many of whom had never been slaves at all, but were born free. In his essay, “Race and Retaliation: The Capture of African Americans During the Gettysburg Campaign,” David G. Smith uses original, primary sources like Christian’s letter to conclude that the total number of African Americans captured by Lee’s army and taken south during the Gettysburg campaign may have been more than a thousand.