The Army of Northern Virginia and Slavery: By the Numbers

The Confederacy’s latter-day partisans have no shortage of arguments, making up for the dearth of quality with a surfeit of quantity. One must use the tools one has. I’ve taken a swipe or two before at the idea that ordinary soldiers had no stake in slavery and therefore the Civil War and the Confederacy had nothing to do with it, as well as its slightly more plausible variant that we should not operate under a presumption of proslavery intent in understanding military service with the Confederacy. I think the case against the proposition that the average men and occasional woman in a gray or “gray” uniform doesn’t require much further development and planned to leave it be.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

Plans changed this week when I remembered Joseph Glatthaar’s statistical study, Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia. It concerns the Confederacy’s principal field army. For most of its existence, Robert E. Lee had command of the force. The ANV fought in all of the battles most laypeople have heard of, against the familiar rotating cast of United States generals that ended with Ulysses S. Grant. I took an interest in Glathaar’s study when it first came out, but flinched at the price tag and its distance from my usual interests. I don’t mind straight military history, but have a much stronger interest in the politics that produce it. Likewise my interests have skewed rather more than I anticipated when I started this blog toward the Antebellum. When it fell off my radar, I hadn’t read an ebook and didn’t own a Kindle. Now I do and the digital version comes with a very reasonable price.

Before I get into the findings themselves, Glatthaar’s method deserves some explanation. Using existing records, he developed a random sample of 600 soldiers. The sample took in infantry, cavalry, and artillery in proportion to their numbers in the army and represents officers and enlisted men similarly. It does not attempt to achieve the same balance with regard to the home states of the soldiers, though it does include men from all eleven Confederate states plus Kentucky and Maryland. The most in the sample hailed from Virginia (239), followed by North Carolina (96) and Georgia (86). Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, and Texas tied for last at four each.

According to Glatthaar,

Just under half (46.7%) of all soldiers in Lee’s army were born in Virginia or North Carolina. With South Carolina and Georgia added, 3 of every 4 (75.1%) troops came from those Southern coastal states. One in every 13 (7.8%) was born in the North (a state that remained in the Union) or in a foreign country. Those numbers included young Private Bishop, the son of a fisherman, who originally hailed from New York and moved with his family to South Carolina.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (p. 4). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

I cannot claim any special knowledge of statistics, but this sounds like about what one would expect for a fair, random sample from which we can confidently generalize about the ANV. Glatthaar also notes that 55.0% of the men resided in the Upper South, so one can’t claim he cherry picked a sample from the Cotton Kingdom’s black belts and then shockingly found them especially involved with slavery.

Right then, we’ve got a decent enough sample. What did Glatthaar find out about the men of the Confederacy’s preeminent army?

Soldiers were more likely to come from heavier slaveholding counties than the recruiting states as a whole. […] Their home counties on average had 16.6% more slaves to whites than the average of all the counties in those states.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (pp. 5-6). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

One would expect more enslaved counties to show up more prominently in the rolls of an army defending slavery in a nation created for that purpose. A persistent person might argue that residence in a highly-enslaved county doesn’t necessarily make you more likely to favor slavery. The argument doesn’t make much sense considering the centrality of slavery in the South as a whole, let alone in its more enslaved than average counties where human property would have a more prominent and pervasive role still.

We could stop here and content ourselves with a data point in favor of an already well-supported position, but Glatthaar had more data still. Here we get into the real meat of things. It turns out that not only did men from unusually enslaved counties, by the standards of their own states, appear more frequently in Lee’s army. Men from slaveholding households did as well:

According to the 1860 census, 1 in every 20 (4.9%) adults owned slaves and 1 in every 4 (24.9%) households had slaves. In Lee’s army, more than 1 in every 8 (13.0%) soldiers owned slaves, and for those who lived with family members, approximately 3 in every 8 (37.2%) had slaves. Four of every 9 (44.4%) troops resided in a slaveholding household, some 78.0% greater than the South as a whole.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (p. 9). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

Near to half of all men in Lee’s army lived in a slaveholding household. They grew up intimately acquainted with and materially benefiting from the stolen labor of black Americans. Furthermore, that number far exceeds the typical proportion of slaveholding families in the South.

Glatthaar doesn’t provide breakdowns by state for context, but I have them from my past work with the 1860 census. If recast as a state, Lee’s army would have had a greater percentage of enslaver households than any state of the Border or Upper South by a large margin. North Carolina, the most slaveholding among those states, topped out with 27.71% of households owning at least one person. It would even beat the Lower South’s average (37.01%), coming in between South Carolina’s 45.53% and Georgia’s 37.38%. This would make the State of Lee the South’s fourth most enslaving.

The Deep South in the 1860 census. (Click to enlarge.)

The Deep South in the 1860 census. (Click to enlarge.)

I’ve seen the complaint that Glatthaar went through a tremendous geneology project, pinning the slaveholding of fifth cousins, twice removed and essentially a strangers on some poor solider out of pure malice. Those who want to believe such things can, but Glatthaar used the United States census. It lacks any such remote information. The census takers organized their data by household. The parlance of the time called everyone who lived under the same roof or on the same property a family, even inmates at insane asylums and boarding houses where everyone understood no blood relation need exist.

Nor did Glatthaar cherry pick the wealthiest soldiers about, counting on the fact that wealth meant slaves in the antebellum South to make his point. Slaveholders, including the wealthy ones, do appear somewhat more prominently, but in measures of personal and family wealth the plurality of soldiers still could claim no more than $400 (35.8%). Another 5.9% came in below $800. By period terms, this made them poor. The middle class, between there and $4,000 accounted for another 22.8% of the ANV. The wealthy made up the remaining 35.4%. This creates a substantial gap in the middle, but the very wealthy would include large slaveholders who one would expect to have a stronger enthusiasm for the cause:

Approximately 92% of all soldiers’ households with a minimum total wealth of $ 4,000 possessed slaves. More than 1 in every 15 soldiers or his family (6.9%) achieved planter status— owning 20 or more slaves— and 1 in 11 soldiers (9.3%) resided in planter households. By contrast, 1 in 32 (3.2%) households in the South qualified as a planter. This was not, therefore, a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. Slaveholders, who also happened to be rich, served in disproportionately high numbers in Lee’s army. It was a rich, moderate, and poor man’s fight.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (pp. 9-10). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

I know none of this can persuade those who have convinced themselves that the ordinary soldier had no interest in slavery. If the documentary record and bare census figures can’t do the job, then one more study never would. But for the rest of us, the numbers clearly show not just an increased interest in slavery for Lee’s army, in every way one would think to look, but one radically higher than coincidence or mere statistical noise could ever account for. They also, I must add, exceeded my own already generous expectations. I imagined thirty to forty percent more slaveholding households than the Southern norm, not nigh eighty.



Should we have an Appomattox Holiday?

Wilmer McLean's house, where the surrender was negotiated

Wilmer McLean’s house, where Grant and Lee met

The war did not end in Wilmer MacLean’s parlor, one hundred fifty years and one day ago today, but the surrender of the Confederacy’s premier field army on top of the loss of its capital and flight of its government made for something close to a final victory. The Americans on the winning side noted it as such. Some today think we should have a holiday to celebrate the anniversary of Lee’s surrender. I regret that I can’t recommend Brian Beutler’s two pieces on the subject. He appears to think that the white South today remains largely unchanged from that of 1865 or 1954. Kevin Levin has justly taken him to task for it.

But let’s take the question on its own. The holidays we recognize, the names we put on buildings, and all the rest constitute statements about ourselves. In having such a holiday, we would declare that we find the Confederacy’s defeat worthy of celebrating. Americans, with some exceptions, don’t normally celebrate the ends of wars. Few of us mark VE Day or VJ Day, though they occasioned great celebration at the time. We even turned Armistice Day, which in Europe carries a strong element of mourning and relief at the end of a great and terrible war, into the Veteran’s Day celebration of all former members of the military.

An Appomattox Day could be an American Armistice Day. A great many Americans died in the war, as people die in all wars. But we already have Memorial Day for remembering them. I suspect further that we have quite enough holidays dedicated in one way or another to the appreciation of the military. Another would neither say much more nor much new about Americans. It would quickly fall into the background noise of the numerous other patriotic observances. This might do for some other war, but Americans have only had the one Civil War. For such a sui generis event to vanish into the flag-waving haze misses the point entirely.

Should we then have a holiday that amounts to taking a victory lap around Lee’s house? Maybe at the end we could have a couple of professional wrestlers dressed up as Grant and Lee. Skullcrusher Ulysses could put the hurt on Lousy Lee while the crowd cheered. I suppose that I wouldn’t mind that, absurdity aside, but while Lee’s surrender constitutes a military victory I don’t see it as important just in light of that. Lee’s surrender signaled that the principle struggle of the Civil War had ended, but unmoored from why Lee’s army fought and what Grant’s helped achieve in defeating him we just have another one of those infamous dates to memorize from the history books. Appomattox matters because it serves as possibly the best place to mark where the Confederacy lost. With it died the dream of a new nation, conceived in slavery, and dedicated to the proposition that black lives belonged on white ledgers and the fruit of black labor belonged in white pockets. Most white Union soldiers did not fight for the freedom of black Americans. Nor did they all welcome the presence of black Americans, either as contraband laborers or fellow soldiers. But the presence of Union armies in the South resulted in the de facto freedom of countless slaves from the day Benjamin Butler invented the classification.

That deserves remembering and I think that it both differs sufficiently from Juneteenth or the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to warrant its own day. If those days could serve to celebrate the end of slavery, we could have Appomattox Day to remember how the nation achieved that end, the prices paid for it, and the Americans who had to lose so the slaves could win. I think that the last of those, however vindictive it might sound, deserves more remembering than it gets.

In the happy ending often given to the war, Grant gives Lee generous terms and Lee in turn doesn’t encourage any kind of guerrilla resistance to the Union’s victory. Whether Lee encouraged it or not that resistance, guerrilla and otherwise, appeared in depressingly short order. The defeated states promptly reelected their old politicians to go to Washington, some of whom had worn Confederate military uniforms. They embarked on turning the clock back as thoroughly as they could. On the ground, terrorist bands did the violent work of suppressing black agency. For a brief few years, despite all that, the American South had an  interracial political movement. Then the rest of the nation turned its back on the freedpeople and left them to the mercies of white terror for another century before we had another brief moment of interracial politics in the South. We’ve made some gains since then, but white Americans and black Americans still live in very different worlds. We vote accordingly. Those coalitions, like the partnership of whites and blacks during Reconstruction, did not confine their operations to the former Confederacy.

Maybe that’s the best argument for an Appomattox Day. We too eagerly congratulate ourselves for winning battles and pretend that each one ended the conflict that brought the armies, real or rhetorical, to the field. That day in Virginia brings with it all the continued, frequently vicious, complexities of life in America: the work done, the work ahead, the work left unfinished, and those who lost their war but won the next century’s peace, those who let them, and those sacrificed along the way.