PEMBROKE – In her new book “Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South,” Laurinburg resident and Ph.D. Jaime Amanda Martinez re-examines one of the most dearly held beliefs about the Civil War.
In 248 pages, Martinez looks at the nature of Confederate government through the unpopular practice of taking slaves from plantations in Virginia and North Carolina to build defensive fortifications. “Confederate Slave Impressment” was published in December 2013 by UNC Press and is part of its Civil War America series.
“Like scholars of my generation, I was raised on the idea that the Confederacy ‘died of a theory’ – that theory being states rights,” Martinez said. “Eventually, the South realized that an intrusive government was the key to winning the war.
“I kept reading that impressment didn’t work at all, but I also kept reading complaints from slave owners that impressment was interfering with work in the fields,” she continued.
Martinez began her research as a graduate student at the University of Virginia and broadened the study to include North Carolina because the two states contributed the most slaves to the cause.
“There was a lot of tension over impressment in North Carolina in large part due to Maj. Gen. (William H.C.) Whiting who was responsible for building the defenses at Fort Fisher,” Martinez said. “Toward the end of the war, Wilmington was the only Southern port that blockade runners could successfully bring in much needed supplies.”
Impressment to build Fort Fisher had consequences for Robeson County too, she noted. Lumbee Indians of Robeson County unwillingly contributed labor at Fort Fisher.
“All of the Southern states allowed impressment of free people of color, and North Carolina allowed for the substitution of free blacks and Indians to meet any requisition for slaves. Militias had goals and this put Indians and free slaves in the line of fire.”
“The problem with Wilmington under Whiting was that two months of temporary service often meant that slaves never came back,” she said.
Resistance was high to the taking of property, and the work proved fatal for many slaves. Martinez said impressment could not have been accomplished without strong government.
“The high level of cooperation between local, state and national government officials that slave impressment required suggests that the existence of powerful governors, state legislatures, and county court officers strengthened, rather than undermined, the Confederate nation,” Martinez wrote. “Academic and popular histories have long suggested that the Confederacy collapsed due to some internal failure.”
Through several years in North Carolina and Virginia archives, Martinez made her case using the records and the communications between slave owners and Confederate elected and military officials. The Confederacy was more than a loose collection of states, Martinez maintains, and slave impressment was a most important example of how powerful and efficient its government was.
Martinez points to more fundamental reasons that the “lost cause” was lost.
“Most of the complaints slaveholders raised against slave impressment point to a problematic reality echoed in nearly every other aspect of the Confederate experience — the Confederacy simply did not have the sufficient labor resources to sustain an extended war,” she wrote in the epilogue. “The South was prepared to fight a two year war.”
Martinez, who joined the faculty in 2008, is pleased with the result of her work. Being published by the UNC Press Civil War series during the 150th anniversary of the war is also gratifying and resulted in an invitation from the National Park Service to speak at the Petersburg National Battlefield. The book was named one of the best Civil War books of 2013 by Kevin Levin, who writes the blog “Civil War Memory.”
Other reviewers said: “Martinez challenges the standard critiques of slave impressment with fresh and substantial evidence. An original contribution to Civil War scholarship” — George Rable, University of Alabama.
“Martinez analyzes the relationship between slavery and the state, shows the interaction of the home front and battlefield conditions, and tells the stories of a variety of little-known actors, including planters, slaves, local officials, and Confederate bureaucrats. Her deeply researched and clearly written book will be an important contribution to the literature on slavery and the Civil War.” — John Majewski, author of “Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation.”
Martinez may stay closer to home for her next project. “I’m looking at the Wilmington area from 1850 to 1870,” she said. “Most histories focus on 1861 to 1865, but I’d like to look at the last decade of slavery and the transition to free labor.”
Readers and fellow historians should expect some revealing analysis of a war that continues to fascinate readers after 150 years.
To contact Martinez, call her at 910-775-4031 or email Jaime.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Bigelow is a public communications specialist at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.