Today’s post comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
During the U.S. Civil War, the Confederate Army required enslavers to loan their enslaved people to the military. Throughout the Confederacy from Florida to Virginia, these enslaved people served as cooks and laundresses, labored in deadly conditions to mine potassium nitrate for creating gunpowder, dug the extensive defensive trench networks that defended cities such as Petersburg, and worked in ordnance factories.
To track this extensive network of thousands of enslaved people and the pay their white enslavers received for their lease, the Confederate Quartermaster Department created the record series now called the Confederate Slave Payrolls, which is available online in the National Archives Catalog. In addition to the wealth of genealogical information the documents contain relating to the names and home counties of African Americans, they are a boon for helping historic sites tell often-overlooked stories about the role African Americans played in the Civil War.
Emmanuel Dabney, museum curator at Petersburg National Battlefield, is one of the researchers who has been using these records to tell a more complete story of the Civil War. As Emmanuel writes, “Petersburg National Battlefield includes former plantations and farms that became wrapped up in a 9.5-month military campaign from June 1864 until April 1865. Many, though not all, of the buildings associated with some of these large plantations were destroyed. In the process of the refugee status for the landowners, many valuable records were lost documenting enslaved men, women, and children who lived and worked on these farms and plantations.”
Petersburg National Battlefield also includes portions of the Confederate defenses that were built by free and enslaved Blacks starting in the summer of 1862 and continuing until the June 15, 1864, Union Army assault on Petersburg. Many local farms hired out their enslaved workers to the Confederate Army to construct the fortifications, making the slave payrolls a critical part of unveiling some of this National Park’s past.
By cross-referencing records from multiple institutions, Emmanuel was able to partly chart the life of one such enslaved man who helped construct these earthworks.
Prior to the Civil War, Moses Hunt was a field laborer at a plantation called White Hill, which is now partially protected in the modern national park’s boundary. Confederate Slave Payroll 1099 shows that Charles Friend hired Moses and another man named Henry to construct earthworks at Williamsburg in the spring of 1862.
That summer, Moses fled from White Hill with several other men and one woman. Moses immediately enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served until July 1863. In 1880 Moses was living in Washington, DC, having married Eliza Fantroy in 1878. Moses Hunt is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
New Market is another plantation whose lands now partly sit on the modern national park, though the main house and outbuildings were obliterated during the Petersburg campaign. Otway P. Hare, the owner of New Market, hired out some of his enslaved men to the Confederate Army in 1861, giving researchers the invaluable names of Thomas Parham, as well as two other men named Phil and Tom.
Emmanuel, who is Black and researches the experiences of Black people before, during, and after the Civil War, reminds researchers that it’s important to not assume that people born into slavery defaulted to the surname of their enslavers. One thing he’s learned from his work with slave payrolls is that while it’s common to see people listed with just a first name, sometimes both a first and last name appear, giving hope to genealogists when all hope had been lost.
Emmanuel finds it fascinating that enslaved men and boys constructed the earthworks that defended Petersburg, only to have the U.S. Colored Troops breach those initial defenses on June 15, 1864. While the names of the soldiers have been known for a long time, with the digitization of the payrolls, researchers now know the names of those who built the earthworks as well.
Read more about the Confederate slave payrolls in Victoria Macchi‘s National Archives News article.