Historic America

Did the Movie Gettysburg Whitewash Lee’s Army?

As a Civil War buff, director Ron Maxwell’s Gettysburg (1993) is one of my all-time favorite films. For the general public, it is the definitive depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg, an epic three-day struggle between the Union Army of the Potomac and Confederate Army of Northern Virginia over the fate of the nation. Based on the novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, its soundtrack is epic and performances by its cast are top-notch.

The more I read about the battle, however, the less historically accurate the movie appears. Race is one area where Gettysburg falls short. Despite multiple discussions about slavery during the 271 minute run time, only one African American character appears: a runaway slave used as a catalyst for a discussion between Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Sgt. ‘Buster’ Kilrain.

Would you be surprised to learn thousands of enslaved African Americans traveled with the Confederate Army on its invasion of Pennsylvania? Many Southern officers were slaveholders, after all. But by all appearances, the Confederate Army as depicted in Gettysburg was entirely white (the Union Army employed hundreds of freed black laborers at Gettysburg–a fact also omitted from this film).

Of course, slaves would not have appeared in battle scenes, but there were plenty of opportunities when it came to scenes of Confederate encampments and units on the march, where black slaves served a variety of non-combat roles. If the filmmakers were making a genuine effort to be as historically accurate as possible, how could they miss this obvious fact?

We know there were hundreds, if not thousands, of African Americans in the Army of Northern Virginia because contemporary sources tell us there were. Maj. Johann August Heinrich Heros von Borcke, a Prussian cavalry officer assigned to Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s staff, recalled the moment Stuart was alerted to fighting which led to the Battle of Brandy Station, June 9, 1863, at the opening of the Gettysburg Campaign:

“Stuart was immediately awakened, the alarm sounded throughout the entire headquarters; negro servants saddled the horses, and everything was made ready for the imminent fight.”

Quoted in The Last Road North: A Guide to the Gettysburg Campaign, 1863 by Robert Orrison and Dan Welch, pg. 10.

Von Borcke wrote much about these “negro servants” in his Memoirs of the Confederate War for Independence (1866). In July 1862, following the Battle of Malvern Hill, Von Borcke complained that his saddle bags had been stolen by “one of the negro camp-followers, who were always lounging in large numbers about our encampments.”

In June 1863, British observer Sir Arthur James Lyon Fremantle accompanied the Army of Northern Virginia on its march into Pennsylvania. In his memoir, Three Months in the Southern States: April-June 1863, he noted:

“…we watched two brigades pass along the road. They were commanded, I think, by Semmes and Barksdale, and were composed of Georgians, Mississippians, and South Carolinians. They marched very well, and there was no attempt at straggling; quite a different state of things from Johnston’s men in Mississippi. All were well shod and efficiently clothed. In rear of each regiment were from twenty to thirty negro slaves, and a certain number of unarmed men carrying stretchers and wearing in their hats the red badges of the ambulance corps.”

Just how many black slaves accompanied their masters in the Army of Northern Virginia? It’s difficult to say. Slaves weren’t counted on the official muster rolls, so traditional troop estimates only reflect white men officially serving in the Confederate Army. Historian Kevin M. Levin estimates the Army of Northern Virginia brought as many as 10,000 slaves (sometimes called “body servants”) on its invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863.

Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) and SGT Buster Kilrain (Kevin Conway) encounter “John Henry” (Darryl Wharton), a runaway slave in the 1993 movie Gettysburg.

During the Gettysburg Campaign, Semmes’ and Barksdale’s Brigades each consisted of four regiments, which means between 80 and 120 slaves accompanied each brigade (if Freemantle’s observation was accurate). For Barksdale’s Brigade, that’s roughly a ratio of one slave for every 15 to 18 white men. In Semmes’ Brigade, the ratio was more like 1:13 or 1:15.

In General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse, historian Joseph T. Glatthaar estimated one in 20 or one in 30 white soldiers brought a body servant with him. In Some units, he admitted, the ratio was closer to one in 10. The number of body servants declined as the war dragged on.

During Lee’s 1862 invasion of Maryland, which led to the Battle of Antietam, Lewis H. Steiner, an inspector for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, kept a diary chronicling the Confederate occupation of Frederick, Maryland. In his 40 page report, the following paragraph stands out:

“Wednesday, September 10. At four o’ clock this morning the rebel army began to move from our town, Jackson’s force taking the advance. The movement continued until eight o clock P.M., occupying sixteen hours. The most liberal calculations could not give them more than 61,000 men.”

Steiner wasn’t too far off. Modern estimates put the Army of Northern Virginia at 50 to 55,000 men when it entered Maryland on September 3, 1862.

Over 3,000 negroes must be included in this number. These were clad in all kinds of uniforms, not only in cast-off or captured United States uniforms, but in coats with Southern buttons, State buttons, etc. These were shabby, but not shabbier or seedier than those worn by white men in the rebel ranks. Most of the negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabres, bowie-knives, dirks, etc. They were supplied, in many instances, with knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, etc., and were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederacy Army. They were seen riding on horses and mules, driving wagons, riding on caissons, in ambulances, with the staff of Generals, and promiscuously mixed up with all the rebel horde. The fact was patent, and rather interesting when considered in connection with the horror rebels express at the suggestion of black soldiers being employed for the National defence.”

Some interesting things appear in Steiner’s observation. Even though black slaves in the Army of Northern Virginia were considered non-combatants, many evidently wore uniforms and carried an assortment of weapons. Unlike the Union Army, which was strictly segregated, blacks and whites were “mixed up” in the Confederate Army. Each regiment probably had a small contingent of black servants who accompanied their owners. Arming trusted slaves to guard wagons, horses, and provisions freed up white soldiers for the front lines.

On July 6, 1863, as the Army of Northern Virginia was retreating from Gettysburg, Arthur Fremantle “saw a most laughable spectacle”:

“a negro dressed in full Yankee uniform, with a rifle at full cock, leading along a barefooted white man, with whom he had evidently changed clothes. General Longstreet stopped the pair, and asked the black man what it meant. He replied, ‘The two soldiers in charge of this here Yank have got drunk, so for fear he should escape I have took care of him, and brought him through that little town.’ The consequential manner of the negro, and the supreme contempt with which he spoke to his prisoner, were most amusing.”

Fremantle didn’t say what became of the pair, but evidently the sight of an armed slave walking past a Confederate corps commander and his staff was a source of amusement and not alarm.

In 1864, an Englishman serving in the Army of Northern Virginia, Lt. Thomas Caffey, published an account of his service designed to persuade his readers (especially overseas) of the righteousness of the Southern cause. The book ends after the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. It contains an entire chapter on Southern slavery and in particular slaves serving in the Confederate Army. While his account should be read with a healthy dose of skepticism, it can also be informative. He wrote:

“In our whole army there must be at least thirty thousand colored servants who do nothing but cook and wash—nine tenths of the ditching falls to our share—yet in all these thousands I have yet to hear of more than one hundred who have run away from their owners! This is true, although they are continually moving about with ‘passes’ at all hours, and ten times more frequently than masters: what greater opportunities could be presented for escape? They are roaming in and out of the lines at all times, tramping over every acre of country daily, and I have not heard of more than six instances of runaways in our whole brigade, which has a cooking and washing corps of negroes at least one hundred and fifty strong!”

Lt. Thomas Caffey, Battle-Fields of the South, pg. 278

Caffey’s estimate of 30,000 is undoubtedly exaggerated. There were 43 brigades (including infantry and cavalry) and a total of 72 to 78,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Fredericksburg. If Caffey is correct there were 150 slaves in his brigade, and that number can be taken as an average, that means there were approximately 6,450 slaves in Lee’s army, a ratio of 1:11 to 1:12.

In his book Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, Historian Allen C. Guelzo took Caffey’s exaggeration at face value and estimated anywhere between 10,000 to 30,000 slaves in Lee’s army prior to the Gettysburg Campaign. I consider any estimate above 10,000 to be highly unlikely. Lee had enough problems feeding his own men, let alone an entire corps of camp followers.

Of course, having enslaved African Americans in the ranks cooking, washing, foraging, tending horses, digging graves, and acting as teamsters was not the same thing as fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Throughout the war, several high ranking Confederates floated proposals to offer freedom for any slaves who voluntarily enlisted. These proposals, though hotly debated, never went anywhere until weeks before the war ended.

Given the best information we have available, it’s not unreasonable to conclude approximately 4,500 to 5,000 black slaves accompanied the 75,000-man Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania in June 1863. Some units in Lee’s army even rounded up free blacks and escaped slaves in Maryland and Pennsylvania (estimates run as high as 1,000).

So to depict the Army of Northern Virginia as mono-racial is not only inaccurate, it is a deliberate attempt to gloss over the extent to which slavery, and African Americans in general, played in the Confederacy. Seeing black slaves wandering the camps, preparing meals, tending horses, and performing other labor was a daily occurrence for Confederate soldiers. The all-white army depicted in films like Gettysburg would have been unrecognizable to actual Southern veterans of the American Civil War.

One reply on “Did the Movie Gettysburg Whitewash Lee’s Army?”

[…] My first stop was Winchester, Virginia, to visit Turner and Richard Ashby’s and George and Waller Patton’s graves in the Confederate portion of Mount Hebron Cemetery. Lt. Col. Waller T. Patton was in the 7th Virginia Regiment and mortally wounded during Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. If you pay close attention, you can see Ted Turner portraying him in the movie Gettysburg. […]


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