Slaves and free blacks provided even more labor than usual for Virginia farms when 89 percent of eligible white men served in Confederate armies. Enslaved men were sometimes forced into service to build Confederate fortifications, women to serve as laundresses or cooks for troops in the field. At least partly out of fear that they might lose their freedom if they failed to contribute to the war effort, free blacks often worked beside the slaves, for minimal wages.
Enslaved black men made up much of the workforce at Richmond’s Tredegar Ironworks—which produced half of Confederate cannon—and as teamsters unloading trains, longshoreman unloading ships, as miners, and in road maintenance.
The Confederate Viewpoint
Inspired by a poem of the same name, Virginia artist William D. Washington committed the 1862 burial of Confederate captain William Latané to canvas. The painting was exhibited in Richmond in 1864 and its popularity grew when published as a postwar engraving. Mrs. Willoughby Newton serves as the central figure in an image that laments the lonely death of a soldier, extols the piety and resolve of Confederate women, and professes the loyalty of enslaved blacks.
The reality of the Confederate home front was more complex than suggested by this single episode. Although women managed household economies in the prewar South, many were frustrated by the larger challenge of supervising widespread agricultural operations. Also, thousands of slaves asserted their desire for freedom by deserting their mistresses or refusing to cooperate with them, thereby undermining slavery long before Union armies triumphed.
Labor for the Benefit of Others
Slaves and free blacks were called upon to construct breastworks that would impede the advance of the Federal army, particularly at the beginning of the war in the Tidewater and later in central Virginia. Here, payment went to the slave owner, James Gray, and not to "Big Jim," the slave who performed the work. Jim’s labor supported both his owner and the Confederacy.
A Black Confederate Soldier?
Thousands of African Americans were forced to support the operations of the Confederate army as teamsters, cooks, body servants, and laborers. In 1863, more than 6,000 accompanied the 71,000 soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania.