Slave Stories from the Confederate Army at Gettysburg


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Tom Elmore

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We usually have only the master’s version of master/slave interactions and slave experiences at Gettysburg, but I think it worthwhile to reconstruct and present what little we know of the activities of individual slaves on the battlefield. In relating these stories, the focus is placed upon the slave himself, with the goal of recovering at least a portion of his identity as a human being, and to document his presence on this historic field, which has long been ignored or overlooked.

Part I:

Elijah, an “old” slave of brigade commander, Col. Isaac E. Avery. Elijah helped place Avery’s body in a crude coffin (oak or walnut), which was loaded on a wagon. Elijah drove the wagon himself as part of the long train of wounded that departed on July 4. He managed to avoid multiple attacks made by Federal cavalry on the train. However, when nearing Hagerstown, Maryland, the advanced decomposition of the body began to offend everyone in close proximity. Elijah was ordered to drive off the road and abandon the wagon, or bury the body, but he refused, evidently feeling it his duty to return Avery’s remains to his home in Morgantown, North Carolina. For his defiance, Elijah was roundly cursed, and when that failed to make an impression, some soldiers took pieces of fence rails and began to hit him. At that moment, a few North Carolina soldiers rescued Elijah from further harm, but clearly it would not be possible to proceed much farther with the body. The coffin was buried by Elijah, and two others from Avery’s brigade, under a pine tree in Williamsport’s public burial ground, near the Potomac River. It was marked Col. I. E. Avery, which was afterwards interpreted as “Col. J. E. Ayers” when the body was reinterred at “Rose Hill,” Washington Cemetery, in Hagerstown. (sources: Walter A. Montgomery, The Days of Old and the Years that are Past – Montgomery was sergeant in the 12th North Carolina; Greg Coco, A Vast Sea of Misery; Greg Coco, Gettysburg’s Confederate Dead; Civil War News, January 2008, p. 27; Letter from John A. McPherson to Isaac Thomas Avery (father), dated September 3, 1863, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

Peter (Pete), from Lexington, Virginia, slave of Coupland Page, artillery staff sergeant major. In the late afternoon or early evening of July 1, after the fighting was over for the day, Pete walked to the railroad cut and collected four filled haversacks from dead Federal soldiers. He then returned to the woods, probably near the McPherson barn, gathered some loose wood and built a fire. Pete greeted Page when he returned, saying he would prepare a good supper for him and the other members of his mess, knowing they must all be hungry. As darkness descended, Page and his mess enjoyed the food Pete had prepared, along with real coffee for a welcome change. Meanwhile, Pete took Page’s horse, fed him, and then returned to the fire. (Coupland R. Page, “Reminiscences of the Battle of Gettysburg,” n.d., Randolph T. Shields Collection, Special Collections and Archives, Leyburn Library, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia)

Henry, slave of Private Henry Pipes, 4th Company Washington Artillery). On June 27, 1863, Henry was accosted in the streets of Chambersburg by a woman on the front porch of her house. She tried to persuade Henry to desert, promising him $100 in cash, a ticket north and a new set of clothes. Henry laughed heartily, then reportedly told her he was going to stay, and if Pipes was killed, he would take his body back home. (Memoirs of Henry Pipes)

Unidentified, slave of a North Carolina colonel from Fayetteville (possibly Lt. Col. Samuel H. Boyd of the 45th North Carolina). On July 1, the colonel instructed his slave to stay with the wounded Lt. Col. John Callis of the 7th Wisconsin, and give him water. The slave replied, “Yes, sir.” A soldier was also left as a guard. On July 3, the slave and guard dragged Callis over the railroad grade to a house. Leaving Callis, both slave and guard went to the cellar, possibly with an intention to desert. (John Callis, Bachelder Papers, 1:144)

Horace, slave of Lieutenant Robert W. “Bob” Morgan, Company C, 11th Virginia. When Morgan was shot in both feet during the July 3 charge, Horace literally carried him on his back on occasions during the return journey across the Potomac, through the Shenandoah Valley, all the way to his home in Campbell County, Virginia, south of Lynchburg. At other times, Horace accompanied Morgan in an ambulance or wagon, and tended to his needs. When they finally reached home, Morgan’s mother Sophia showered thanks upon Horace and “almost” embraced him for helping save her son’s life and bring him home. Morgan recovered and returned to duty. (Online diary of William H. Morgan (brother of Bob); William Henry Morgan, Personal Reminiscences of the War of 1861-5, Lynchburg, VA: J. P. Bell Company, Inc., 1911)

Peter, slave of Charles L. Pettigrew, brother to brigade and division commander Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew. Peter was sent by Charles to the General to manage his personal belongings. On July 1, once the fighting was over, Peter walked over the battlefield and recovered a Federal havelock that he afterwards presented to the General. The havelock is on display at North Carolina’s Museum of History. When Pettigrew was wounded on the retreat, Peter stayed by his side for three days, then returned to North Carolina with his body. (North Carolina Museum of History)
 

Northern Light

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We often think that the enslaved people hated slavery and jump to the conclusion that they therefore must have hated their masters. These stories show us that they often had affection and a sense of loyalty or duty to those who owned them. For some, it must have been difficult to make a decision to go or to stay. Perhaps the expression, "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't" is apropos here.
 

Tom Elmore

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Part II

Levi Miller, slave of Robert McBride of Rockbridge County, Virginia, but who served Robert’s brother, Captain John J. McBride, Company C, 5th Texas. Prior to the war, Levi and six fellow slaves worked on the farm of Robert McBride in Rockbridge County, Virginia. In the summer of 1861, Levi was sent away to serve Captain John J. McBride at the latter’s request, and did so for the entire war, taking part in the battles of Second Manassas, Gettysburg and Spotsylvania. Levi helped to nurse Captain McBride back to health after he was wounded at Second Manassas. On the march to Gettysburg, Levi recalled that he twice encountered runaway slaves from Virginia whom he knew. They tried to entice him to desert, but Levi declined. When McBride was incapacitated in the Wilderness, Levi stayed on to serve his successor, J. E. Anderson. He surrendered at Appomattox with the remaining members of the company. After the war, Levi applied for and was granted a pension from Virginia, citing his long and dedicated service, which was strongly endorsed by Captain Anderson. When Levi died on February 25, 1921, his coffin was draped with the Confederate Stars and Bars. (John McBride, ancestor, Texas in the Civil War Message Board, 02/03/2001; Peculiar Pairings: Texas Confederates and their Body Servants, Thesis of Brian A. Elliott, 2016)

Bob, slave of Colonel Joseph N. Brown, 14th South Carolina. Brown had acquired a female pony while still a junior officer. Being entitled to a government-owned horse as a colonel, Brown gave Bob the pony to ride at the outset of the Gettysburg campaign. But when Brown learned that one of his officers, Captain H. P. Griffith, had badly blistered feet, he told Bob to dismount so Griffith could ride. Griffith was wounded in the battle and rode the pony back to Virginia, leaving Bob either to walk or ride in the regimental wagons. (Recollections of Capt. H. P. Griffith, in A Confederate Colonel at Gettysburg and Spotsylvania, by Varina D. Brown)

Henry Johnson, slave of Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin F. Carter, 4th Texas. Henry was primarily a body servant to Carter, although at least earlier in the war he also served as a barber for Carter’s former company (B). Late on July 2, after Carter’s wounding south of Devil’s Den, Henry stayed by his side at the field hospital, then in the wagon train of wounded. However, Carter had to be left behind owing to the severity of his injuries, and ended up at the Academy (school house) hospital in Chambersburg, where he died on July 21. Henry stayed with him until the end, behind enemy lines, then saw Carter decently buried at the Methodist cemetery. His duty done, Henry decided against returning to bondage under a stranger. Instead, he proceeded to Baltimore to open a new chapter in his life, which unfortunately was short. Henry reportedly died the following year. (Unveiling and Dedication of Monument to Hood’s Texas Brigade, by F. B. Chilton; Peculiar Pairings: Texas Confederates and their Body Servants, Thesis of Brian A. Elliott, 2016)

Charles Wesley, slave to Captain Wayland F. Dunaway, 40th Virginia, Acting Adjutant General for the brigade. Charles and Dunaway had grown up together on the farm, where they played, boxed and wrestled. Entering Pennsylvania, Dunaway alluded to the freedom that awaited Charles if he decided to desert. Charles replied that he was well aware of that fact, but had no intention of taking the opportunity. After Dunaway was captured at Falling Waters on the retreat, Charles rode his horse home to Virginia and delivered it to Dunaway’s brother. (Wayland F. Dunaway, Reminiscences of a Rebel)

Sam, slave of Lieutenant James Peter Coladen Belvin, Company K, 11th Georgia. Sam’s mother died at birth, being about the same age as James, who was born on June 5, 1840. They spent a lot of time together while growing up. According to the 1856 tax returns, James Wiley Belvin, patriarch of the family, owned 3,480 acres of land and 76 slaves, perhaps half of whom worked in the field or in the household, while the other half were either too young, or too old and infirm. On April 14, 1858, when Sam was probably in his late teens, a traumatic event occurred on the plantation. The local paper (Journal & Messenger) reported that two house servants, a young girl and old woman, had assaulted the wife of the overseer with an axe. On July 3, 1861, James P. C. Belvin enlisted as a private in the 11th Georgia. He was later wounded at Sharpsburg, but recovered. Sam was with him throughout the entire war, tending to horses and supplies out of harm’s way, although he acquired a reputation for being quick in removing boots from dead Federals after a battle. Sam was most likely with then Lieutenant James P. C. Belvin at Gettysburg. After the war, Sam adopted the surname Belvin and began life anew as a free man with his wife Betty in a house not far from where James lived. Years later, upon learning of Sam’s death, James retired to the back steps of his home, where a family member overheard him weeping. James passed away on April 17, 1917. (Source: Descendent Belvin Cooper, who provided a copy of his family history, with photographs, in 1995).
 

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From the article:
"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 war, the 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."

This just amazes me that a person, especially Black slaves, who were considered by many as possessing less intelligence than an animal, and involved in a hasty retreat from a place they've never been to before, could remember a couple of years later where they had buried the body of their master. And to think that today many people are lost and clueless if their GPS goes down or is stolen.
 
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Deleted User CS

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I just saw a you-tube video this week narrated by Kent Masterson Brown on the Retreat from Gettysburg in which Brown mentioned the role of slaves in treating their wounded masters and in some cases where they accompanied their dead master's body back across the Potomac. David.
 

Tom Elmore

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I don't agree with Kevin Levin that "hidden property" as described by Maj. Gen. Pender is a reference to escaped slaves living in southern Pennsylvania. The citizens of Pennsylvania hid their valuables to keep them safe from Lee's army, to include horses, wagons and supplies that were often sent a considerable distance or otherwise concealed.
 

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