The “colored wing”: “A peculiar institution of our (Confederate) army”


Photograph of the 57 Georgia Regiment
Officers and Cook, 57 Georgia Regiment, Confederate States of America Army (Officers of Company H (Independent Volunteers) of the 57th Georgia Regiment, Army of Tennessee, 1863. Left to right, First Lieutenant Archibald C. McKinley, Captain John Richard Bonner, Scott (cook), and Second Lieutenant William S. Stetson), circa 1860’s, photographer unknown
Image Source: Flickr.com page for Georgia College & State University Special Collections, James Bonner Collection, Identifier: JCB_Photo_57_Georgia_1863; retrieved 10/13/2015

During the American Civil War, thousands of slaves accompanied slaveowners who enlisted in the Confederate army to camp. These slaves – often called body servants – were not themselves enlisted in the army; slaves could not enlist in the Confederate army until March 1865 (Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865). The servants kept their master’s quarters clean, washed clothes, groomed uniforms, secured rations and cooked food, cut hair, and cared for animals.

The actions and behavior of these slaves were sometimes a source of amusement and derision for Confederate officers and soldiers. In his memoirs (page 383), Confederate general John B. Gordon mentions a humorous story told by Robert E. Lee. In this tale, Lee spoke about a black servant, a cook for one of the officers on his staff, who called on him one day at his headquarters:

“General Lee,” the old man said, pulling off his hat, “I have been wanting to see you a long time. I’m a soldier.”

“Ah?” Lee replied, “To what army do you belong—to the Union army or to the Southern army?”

“Oh, General, I belong to your army,” the man said.

“Well, have you been shot?” Lee asked.

“No, sir; I ain’t been shot yet,” he answered.

“How is that?” Lee asked. “Nearly all of our men get shot.”

“Why, General,” the old black man replied, “I ain’t been shot ‘cause I stay back whar de generals stay.”​

The story attributed to Lee may have been apocryphal, but the attitude it displays is not unique. Consider the following “Observations on the camp life of Confederate soldiers in Middle Tennessee,” which are noted in The Tennessee Civil War Sourcebook. The “observations” are from a letter that was written from Shelbyville, TN, by a soldier named “I. G.,” and published in the Mobile Register and Advertiser of April 19, 1863. The letter discusses several aspects of camp life, including a portion concerning ‘military niggers,’ as the writer calls the servants. The letter is filled with language that many today find offensive, but was not uncommon back then. Still, the words used and feelings described give us a view into the sentiments some Confederates had toward the slaves in their midst:

A peculiar institution of our army here is the “colored wing”— the military niggers — I mean the officers’ servants. They dress well, ride thousand dollar horses, smoke two-bit cigars, live on the fat of the land, get up five dollar dancing parties, put on airs over the country niggers, break the wenches’ hearts, and lay over the army and mankind in general. So far as ease, comfort and pleasure go, they seem to be the finest gentlemen in the army.

They observe keenly the distinctions of rank; a General’s nigger won’t associate with the Colonel’s or Captain’s nigger if he can help it; and they look upon the white foot soldiers as the wretchedest of mankind. Very often a tired and dusty volunteer, trudging along the road with his gun and knapsack, hears a clatter behind him, steps aside, and a dandy nigger gallops by without turning his head, stiff and dignified as a Major General. The soldier looks as if he would rather make a target of the saucy black rascal; but as he happens to be quite as rich a man as the nigger’s master, and has pet niggers of his own at home, he doesn’t do it.

Here’s a specimen of the stunning process adopted by some of the officers niggers. Old country nigger with his jaw hanging over a fence, stupidly staring at the crowds passing up and down the road. Young dandy nigger in gold lace comes clattering along on a spanking stallion. Sees the old one and reins in suddenly, with this question: “Nigga, has you seen Gen’l Bragg pas dis way?” Old one grants a surly “no,” and dandy travel on as though he were going to a council of war. He doesn’t know Bragg from Adam, and has no business with him. The old one stares after him in evident disgust, tinctured, however, with a wonder whether that whipper-snapper is Bragg’s Adjutant General, or only some Brig.-General or Colonel.

A week or two since the niggers had a grand shindy at McMinnville; admittance five dollars, to keep common niggers out. Two splendid military niggers, strangers to each other, got in each other’s way whilst bucking up to the bell-wench of the ball; they put on tall airs and tried to look each other down; but they were of equal grit and neither backed down. At last, in a manner intended to crush, one asks, “Who is you?” “I’se boss barba’ on Gen. Morgan’s staff!” was the spunky reply, “who is you?” Drawing himself up to the utmost stretch, the other answered, “Ise boss barba’ on Gen. Wheeler’s staff; I ranks you, I does; you commands a division, but I commands a corps!” The Morgan nigger “went under,” and his superior officer sailed off with the wench. Of a verity, these army niggers are a gay set of birds.

I don’t know how much of I.G.’s story is real or inspired story-telling. For example: how does he know what happened at the “grand shindy at McMinnville,” unless he was there himself? Or did he hear the story about it from a second or third hand source? In any case, the mocking disdain for the “military niggers” leaves no doubt that the writer doesn’t think highly of his enslaved camp-mates.

And who was I.G. anyway? Was he a relatively well-off slave-owner (as suggested by the “pet niggers of his own” comment), or was he one of the “tired and dusty volunteers” who seems to chafe at the relative ease of the camp servant’s life compared to his own? My guess is that the latter is true. It seems to me that the author is perturbed by the relative ease, comfort, and safety of the common servant’s life, versus the harshness and danger faced by the common soldier. But that’s just a guess.

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