My two Civil War classes had the privilege to Skype today with Boston-based historian and fellow teacher, Kevin Levin. I find collaborative endeavors like these to be one of the best parts of the teaching profession. Despite the typical daily time constraints placed on teachers, Kevin has been incredibly generous with his time over the past three years; always willing to discuss Civil War Memory with a group of Marquette High students whether they were 5 or 25 in number. He has modeled for me the importance of making time for students and keeping them the focus of our work. Kevin has also paved a way for middle and high school teachers to have a meaningful voice in various forums (academic conferences, print and social media) how the Civil War is taught and remembered. Needless to say, Kevin has been a great influence on how I teach and understand history. I am honored to call him a friend and look forward to future collaborations.
In anticipation of our video conference, my students read Kevin’s article, “Confederate Like Me,” in The Civil War Monitor which debunks contemporary theories that slaves served in the Confederate army as soldiers. The distinction he makes between camp servant and soldier is clear. The plethora of tasks given to slaves while in camp and during military campaigns varied between manual labor, cooking, menial police details and personal work for their master. Historical evidence has not been discovered that proves slaves were used as organized Confederate soldiers. He also explains why this is a topic of debate today and its role in how the war is remembered.
When asked by a student today what is the most challenging roadblock to his research of slaves in the Confederate armies, Kevin replied, “The fact only Southern white owners provided the accounts of these slaves” is a huge roadblock. “Slaves were illiterate and not allowed to write so historians have to be extremely careful how they interpret these existing letters and also the motivations of people who did not, could not leave an account of their own.” This discussion of how historians interpret historical sources related to slavery was timely for many reasons.
Foremost was the valuable insight it lent to my class’s study this semester of Southern soldiers, like Jefferson Davis, who brought slaves with them to Wisconsin Territory while serving at frontier forts in the late 1820s and early 1830s. For example, one student asked kevin whether there was a distinction between a servant and a slave during the early/mid nineteenth century. Students had found a copy of Jefferson Davis’s pay voucher (left) which shows he received extra money while at Fort Winnebago for his “servant” although slavery was illegal here under the Northwest Ordinance. Even an autobiography of a Northern woman who lived at the same fort used the term “servant” to describe what are clearly slaves throughout her writing. Kevin’s responded, “There was not a legal difference between a servant or slave. The use of servant illustrates that many Southerners (and society as a whole) struggled with owning another human and were often not comfortable with the use of the term slave.” Excellent insight into this complicated topic that will help us move forward in our research on slavery in Wisconsin.
Other questions students asked Kevin today which may be the topic of a future post:
- What happened to a slave when the their master was killed in battle?
- What were Yankee reactions to slaves in the Confederate army?
- How did Northern soldiers treat escaped slaves? Excellent comparison of Contraband Camps during war to refugee camps in modern day war zones around the globe.
- Were there any black volunteers in the Confederate army?
- How were loyal slaves treated by Yankee soldiers?
- What is your opinion on current events regarding the use of the Confederate flag in song and in schools?
- Does the “Heritage, Not Hate” movement have any foundation to base its argument?
- Why did President Lincoln not want blacks in Yankee armies at the war’s start?
- Would the use of slaves as soldiers in the Confederate armies have made a difference?
I look forward to discussing these questions more with my students in the days to come.