@Book{ martinez2013,
	author = {Jaime Amanda Martinez},
	title = {Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South},
	address = {Chapel Hill},
	publisher = {University of North Carolina Press},
	year = 2013,

Martinez argues against mccurry2010 and others who see impressment only as a failure or as a sign of the Confederacy’s internal weakness. “What is surprising is that slave impressment was often successful” (p. 4):

In Virginia, for example, state-directed requisitions between 1862 and 1865 garnered nearly 29,300 laborers out of the 35,000 called for two-month terms of service on the fortifications. In addition, hundreds of slaves served under ad hoc requisitions during the first year of the war, especially in the southeastern portion of the state, while several thousand were impressed by the Conscript Bureau in the fall of 1864.

Martinez urges historians to look past slaveholders’ complaints about impressment to their actual practice: they could not “completely avoid participation,” nor did most intend to. She also believes that historians have exaggerated the extent of dysfunction in the relationship between state and Confederate officials: “An unpopular program that state governments enacted for the benefit of the nation, slave impressment demonstrated the efficacy of federalism in the Confederate state” (p. 4). Her primary intervention seems to be in the “what caused Confederate collapse?” debate, and she is strongly opposed to the “internalist” school of thought on that question. According to Martinez, even governors like Zebulon Vance, who have been most often seen as state renegades who undermined the Confederacy, were crucial to enacting impressment and thereby “contributed immeasurably to the Confederate war effort” (p. 9).

To reach this conclusion requires seeing Confederate federalism as something constantly in “flux,” with the relationships between states and the national government constantly being renegotiated instead of fixed by the Constitution.

The study is based on Virginia (which she describes as “the state with the most successful combination of impressment and government hiring” (p. 5) and the one with the largest number of requisitions) and North Carolina (whose rates of impressment, involving around 10 percent of the adult male slave population, were more typical). After late summer 1864, however, the creation of the Conscript Bureau gradually eliminated distinctions between states as the nation increasingly took charge of the impressment process. “In most aspects of slave impressment, then, North Carolina provides scholars with a reliable model for almost all the Confederate states, while Virginia serves as an illuminating aberration” (p. 6).1

Confederate governors did sometimes work to reduce quotas for impressment, primarily on the grounds that slaves were needed for agricultural production. But even those who resisted eventually acquiesced in the increased centralization of slave impressment in 1864.

Martinez notes that impressment “was not the only means by which slaves rendered involuntary service to the Confederacy. … Private employers like the Tredegar Iron Works, railroad lines, salt mines, and iron forces, all of which sustained the Confederate war effort, hired increasing numbers of slave laborers as their white employees left for the army” (15). Many more slaves remained on plantations as agricultural laborers, where they helped provision Confederate armies and civilians.

To some extent, says Martinez, the “hiring” of slaves by the War Department also “extended one of the key developments in the Upper South’s economy during the late antebellum era”—slave hiring (15-16), as well as on the antebellum practice of raising levies of slaves to work on public roads and works. The use of slaves by industries like railroad companies and manufacturers had already been well established in Virginia, and proven to be as profitable as the hiring of free workers. Wartime hiring contracts were also typically for annual terms, just as they had been before the war, though these practices were disrupted by the increased requisitions for laborers in 1863 and after.

Important that John Bankhead Magruder plays an important role in her Virginia story as an officer who pioneered the practice of requisitioning slaves to build fortifications at the beginning of the war, as early as the summer of 1861 (Chapter 1). Martinez also notes that “black convicts from Richmond’s penitentiaries formed another key component of the Confederacy’s defensive labor force early in the war” (21).

The major complaints of slaveholders themselves about impressment fell under three categories of concern: “treatment of slaves on the fortifications, the possibility that impressment might encourage slaves to run away, and the damage that labor shortages might do to agricultural operations” (44, Chapter 2 generally). Complaints about lack of medical treatment were also common (61-62). In Martinez’s view, however, these complaints, rather than signaling the inevitable failure of the system, only “prompted significant growth in the breadth and power of the Confederate bureaucracy” (p. 47).

Slaveholders attempted to adjust to these policies in ways that preserved their control as much as possible. For example, “hiring slaves to Confederate departments offered slaveholders some measure of control over their human property and often carried with it the promise that the owner would be shielded from future impressment quotas” (p. 72).2 They also frequently protested the impact of impressment on agricultural labor markets, especially when added together with conscription, tax-in-kind, and other policies; state and Confederate governments, in turn, adjusted to these complaints and sought to mollify planters’ fears while continuing to make requisitions (Chapter 3).

For Martinez, in the end, impressment reveals “some of the most ironic developments in Confederate governance” (98):

In a republic founded to protect the institution of slavery, few contested the basic right of governments to impress those slaves for military labor, although plenty of people complained about the impact of impressment policy on their individual households and communities. This federal republic of supreme states became increasingly centralized over the course of the war, often exercising its growing power to increase slaveholders’ responsibility for waging war, developments that were neither universally condemned nor universally celebrated.

Where other historians might have told a story about increased centralization leading to greater problems with governance, Martinez’s tale is one of specific problems with governance and policy that increased the appeal of centralization. “Viewed through the lens of slave impressment, the Confederate government was a highly activist state that combined unprecedented intrusions on its citizens’ property rights with concerted efforts to respond to their demands for assistance” (p. 129).

A clear illustration of this balancing act was the Confederate Board of Slave Claims, which “met to adjudicate hundreds of claims between April 1864 and February 1865” (135, Chapter 5). Out of over 600 claims for compensation filed by slaveholders for the loss of impressed slaves, the board approved “between 20 and 25 percent of the claims” (136), while the Confederate Congress appropriated $3 million for compensation.

(One question I have is whether increasing bureaucratization and appropriation is a good measure of “the growing strength of the Confederate government.” Does the empowerment of the board by legislation translate into actual power?)

The challenging work of the Confederate Board also seemed, however, to lay the groundwork for a plan proposed by Jefferson Davis to “purchase 40,000 enslaved men,” thus bypassing private owners altogether. “The crucial steps in this transition from impressment to government ownership came in September 1864, when Secretary [of War] Seddon put into practice a new law authorizing the Bureau of Conscription, on orders form the War Department, to enroll slaves as military laborers” (p. 138). State governors also increasingly turned “impressment over to the national government whenever possible,” including Vance (p. 143).

In the end,

While slave impressment clearly failed to meet all of the Engineer Bureau’s labor needs, thousands of slaves from Virginia and North Carolina worked on Confederate fortifications over the course of the war. … The success of slave impressment, while incomplete, testifies to the high level of integration between local, state, and national governments during the Confederacy’s four-year life span (p. 158).

  1. She notes that only seven Confederate states passed impressment legislation: Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. This made national legislation necessary to clarify the process and “resolve discpreancies in how slave impressment would proceed in each state” (p. 9).

  2. This seems to have been the case for William F. Weeks in the sources I’ve found. For example.