Slave Stories from the Confederate Army at Gettysburg

Tom Elmore

Sergeant Major
Member of the Year
Jan 16, 2015
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)

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Northern Light

Lt. Colonel
Forum Host
Jul 21, 2014
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.

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