The recent movement to pull down Confederate monuments and expose racist public figures has led to some rethinking of the Lost Cause. The historical revisionism that has played a huge part in teaching since shortly after the war ended is finally being questioned on a national scale. Here, the Atlantic tackles the “faithful camp slave” myth.
Camp slaves performed essential tasks in an army that was always outnumbered and short on supplies. The historical record makes clear that they were not, on the whole, happy participants in the war effort; they routinely committed acts of disobedience, including running away to join the Union army. But the photograph of Andrew and Silas—likely taken early in the war, when enthusiasm was at its height—reinforced the widely held belief among white Southerners that slaves supported the Cause. The presence of men such as Silas reassured Confederates that invasion, battlefield loss, and even emancipation itself could not sever the strong bonds of fidelity between master and slave.
Indeed, the photographs and stories of camp slaves occupied a central place in how former Confederates reimagined antebellum society following surrender in the spring of 1865. The Silas photo was part of a larger Lost Cause narrative that emphasized Confederate generals as Christian Warriors, a united home front, and especially the loyalty of the black population. Popular lithographs such as Prayer in “Stonewall Jackson’s” Camp, for example, showed the famous general leading a prayer service during the war, his men listening attentively and using their swords as tools of prayer. Alongside Jackson stands his “loyal” slave.