Skip to main content

Even as some enslaved men escaped North, the retreat by the Army of Northern Virginia would have been disastrous without the support of its camp servants.

By Kevin M. Levin, Smithsonian — 

Walking the Gettysburg battlefield today, it’s easy to imagine the Union and Confederate armies dueling for control of the Pennsylvania town and its surrounding picturesque fields and rocky hills for three days in July 1863. For many tourists, no visit to Gettysburg is complete without retracing the steps General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, those Confederates who crossed the open fields toward the Union line on Cemetery Ridge on July 3 in what is still popularly remembered as “Pickett’s Charge.” Once safe behind where the Union lines held strong, however, few turn around and acknowledge the hundreds of enslaved people who emerged from the woods to render assistance to the tattered remnants of the retreating men.

Enslaved workers constituted the backbone of the Confederate war effort. Although stories of these impressed workers and camp slaves have been erased from our popular memory of the war in favor of mythical accounts of black Confederate soldiers, their presence in the Confederate army constituted a visual reminder to every soldier —slaveowner and non-slaveowner alike—that their ultimate success in battle depended on the ownership of other human beings.

Anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000 enslaved people supported in various capacities Lee’s army in the summer of 1863. Many of them labored as cooks, butchers, blacksmiths and hospital attendants, and thousands of enslaved men accompanied Confederate officers as their camp slaves, or body servants. These men performed a wide range of roles for their owners, including cooking, cleaning, foraging and sending messages to families back home. Slave owners remained convinced that these men would remain fiercely loyal even in the face of opportunities to escape, but this conviction would be tested throughout the Gettysburg campaign.

On the first of the new year, Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which emancipated enslaved people in the states that seceded from the United States. The news quickly filtered through Confederate ranks and was certainly discussed among the army’s enslaved servants. The Proclamation, in effect, turned Union armies into armies of liberation, functioning as a funnel through which newly freed men could enlist in one of the black regiments that were filling up quickly throughout the North as well as in occupied parts of the Confederacy. Conversely, the Proclamation highlighted even further the degree to which the Confederate Army represented a force of enslavement. Lee’s decision to bring his army north into free states in early May, following his victory at Chancellorsville, was fraught with danger given the dramatic shift in Union policy; his soldiers’ rear guard, the support staff of enslaved labor, were at risk of emancipation.

When Lee’s three corps of infantry, numbering roughly 70,000, crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania, they encountered clear signs that they were no longer in friendly territory. South Carolinians in Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps witnessed the women of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, appeal to their enslaved servants to run off and seize their freedom. If Confederate Major General William Dorsey Pender worried about his camp servant named Joe, he Pender did not share it in what would prove to be his final letter home to his wife. “Joe enters into the invasion with much gusto,” he noted, “and is quite active in looking up hidden property.”

“Hidden property” served as a reference to the escaped slaves already living in southern Pennsylvania; orders had been handed down throughout the Confederate army to capture and return this “property” to the South. Free African-Americans and fugitive slaves in Adams County (including Gettysburg) and surrounding counties fled with the news of Lee’s advance. While no known evidence exists that the army’s slaves assisted in kidnapping of roughly 100 men from towns such as Chambersburg, McConnellsburg, Mercersberg and Greencastle on the eve of the famous battle, it is very likely that those ensnared and led south would have passed camp servants and other slaves whose essential presence in the army helped to make their capture possible.


The battle that commenced west and north of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, expanded gradually as the two armies shifted units along the roads leading to the small town. By the end of the first day, Confederates had achieved the upper hand as the Union army established a new defensive line south of the town, with Confederates taking up a position opposite along Seminary Ridge. Lee went on the offensive for the following two days but failed to crack the Union defenses.

Very few accounts exist today of black men marching with Confederates in the heat of battle at Gettysburg. (The previous summer’s campaign on the Virginia Peninsula, where the two armies were in close proximity to one another for an extended period of time, contains a wealth of such narratives.) These primary source accounts, in the form of letters and diariesdetail how camp slaves remained in the rear, prepared to perform various support roles. Historians can piece together what the battle was like by reviewing such documents, and gather an understanding of how soldiers up and down the chain of command viewed their world, including the role of enslaved labor in their lives.

As units readied for battle, a member of the 24th Georgia recalled, “The Colonels sent back their horses by their servants.” On the afternoon of July 1, Union captain Alfred Lee of the 82nd Ohio found himself wounded and behind enemy lines. A number of rebels passed by until a “young man of benevolent expression” attempted to locate a surgeon. Failing this he “directed some negroes to go and gather” items that “might improve our comfort.” Matt Butler, assistant surgeon of the 37th Virginia, had a horse shot out from under him and was wounded in the foot on July 2 as he tended to fallen Confederates. He managed to “limp” off the field with the help of a camp servant by the name of Jim. Just as the firing ceased late on July 2, Confederate artillerist Edward Porter Alexander was pleasantly surprised to see his servant Charley “on my spare horse Meg & with very affectionate greetings & a good haversack of rations.” Alexander recalled, “Negro servants hunting for their masters were a feature of the landscape that night.”

Lee’s failure to dislodge the Union army from its position led him to order one final assault on the afternoon of July 3, utilizing the men under the command of Generals George Pickett and James Johnston Pettigrew. As their shattered command fell back following their repulse, scores of camp slaves made their way out from the cover and protection of the woods in search of their owners and to assist the wounded. Removal of the wounded took on a renewed urgency through the late afternoon and evening of July 3, following another failed assault along the center of the Union line. The Army of Northern Virginia’s ability to safely cross the Potomac with the Union army in pursuit depended in large part on camp slaves, who cared for their wounded owners, and the great numbers of enslaved workers assigned to ordnance trains, wagons and ambulances, all of which extended for miles.

Once again, the historical record tells us their stories. For one major from South Carolina, his war ended along the difficult retreat route from Gettysburg, forcing his servant to take steps to properly bury the body. As retold by the family of the fallen officer after the warthe servant eventually made his way home and remembered enough information about the burial site to escort family members there to disinter the body for transport home shortly after the war. Captain William McLeod of the 38th Georgia, meanwhile, died before the retreat, but an enslaved worker named Moses took steps to bury McLeod on a farm nearby. Moses then followed a Confederate brigade back to Winchester, Virginia, before heading home with his owner’s personal effects to Swainsboro, Georgia. In 1865, Moses made the long journey back to Gettysburg with McLeod’s brother-in-law to bring the body home.

Camp slaves like Moses who, for whatever reason, were committed to their owners made do with the limited resources available and resigned themselves in the end to passing on their owners’ parting words to their grieving families. These men chose not to escape, and while there can be little doubt that these stories convey evidence of strong bonds between owner and slave, the tendency of Lost Causers to frame them around the narrow motif of unwavering loyalty fails to capture other factors that may have influenced their behavior. Some likely anticipated the brutal punishment that accompanied their recapture (or punishment that might be meted out to family members in their absence), while others worried about how they might be treated once behind Union lines. Some eagerly awaited reunion with their own families.

Lieutenant Sidney Carter’s wounding at Gettysburg cut his life short, but before his death he requested that his camp slave, Dave, “take everything he had and bring it home,” where each item would be offered as a parting gift to his family members. More important than the transportation of personal possessions, however, Dave also conveyed the final thoughts of his master to loved ones. Carter wanted it known that “he was willing to die” and that he “talked to the clergyman about dying . . . tho so weak he could hardly be understood.” He assured his family that they would meet again in heaven. Absent the body, news that a soldier had been comforted in his final hours and had prepared himself for death reassured family members that their loved one experienced what 19th-century Americans understood as a “Good Death.”

The loss of Colonel Henry King Burgwyn Jr., killed on the first day of fighting at Gettysburg, was a devastating loss not only to the 26th North Carolina but also, as described by a fellow officer in the regiment, to his servant Kincien, who “takes it bitterly enough.” Once Burgwyn’s body was given an appropriate burial, Kincien proposed transporting the young colonel’s personal items home along with information about his death that he knew his family craved. The regiment’s quartermaster reassured the family that the colonel’s items, including spyglasses, watch, toothbrush, and various memoranda books plus $59, were all safe under Kincien’s care. “I never saw fidelity stronger in any one,” noted the quartermaster in a letter. Four years later Burgwyn’s body was reinterred in Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina.

In the immediate aftermath of the battle and continuing throughout the Confederate army’s retreat to Virginia, other camp slaves and enslaved men, however, abandoned their posts. A quartermaster in John Bell Hood’s division observed that “a great many Negroes have gone to the Yankees.” Union cavalry raids, such as the one led by Judson Kilpatrick at Monterey Pass on July 5, hampered the retreat of tired Confederates and resulted in additional prisoners being taken, including the camp servants attached to the Richmond Howitzers as well as Major William H. Chamberlain’s servant, horse, and personal equipment. Some of these men were briefly held as prisoners in Union prison camps. Once released, they joined Union regiments or found their way to towns and cities across the North looking for work.

For many Confederate officers who were separated from their servants as a result of the battle or the confusion of the retreat, disappointment awaited them, as it did Captain Waddell of the 12th Virginia, who rejoined his unit on July 8 only to learn that his servant Willis had run off with his personal baggage. These heroic stories of abandonment were quickly supplanted by the extraordinary steps of fealty taken by enslaved men like Moses, Dave or Kincien and became the centerpiece of the Lost Cause movement, which stressed unwavering and unquestioning obedience of slaves to their masters.


As the Confederate army reorganized in the weeks following the campaign, the thin ranks of many regiments were magnified by the absence of its enslaved. Gettysburg may not have been the great turning point of the war for Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia—the army would go on to fight for close to two more years—but the Gettysburg campaign did signal a crisis of confidence in soldiers’ belief in their slaves’ unwavering fidelity.

Today some of these stories pulled from the historical record can be found on hundreds of websites, not as the stories of enslaved men, but as black Confederate soldiers. This mythical narrative, which dates only to the mid-1970s, would be completely unrecognizable to the enlisted men and officers in the Army of Northern Virginia. For real Confederates from Robert E. Lee on down, camp slaves and other enslaved workers—the entire institution of slavery, really—were crucial to the ultimate success of the army in the field and the Confederate insurgency as a whole.

Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. He is the author of numerous articles and books about the Civil War, including Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth.

Featured image: L. Prang & Co. print of the painting Hancock at Gettysburg by Thure de Thulstrup, showing Pickett’s Charge. (Restoration of Library of Congress image by Adam Cuerden via Wikicommons)


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.