Life in the Confederate Army

This is a book by William Watson, a Scotsman living in the United States when the Civil War began and who enlisted in the confederate army. You can download and read it for free here or here. Born in Great Britain in approximately 1825, Watson retained his British citizenship while he lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He enlisted in the 3rd Louisiana, participating in battles in the Western Theater, such as Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, and Corinth. He mustered out at the end of his one-year enlistment, but was unable to find work so he reenlisted. He later captained a blockade runner, and after the war returned to Scotland, and he wrote this book in the 1880s, with it being published in 1888.

While Watson purports to be antislavery himself, his writing on the subject makes me question that:

“But the great ruling power and interest was centred [sic] in the ‘peculiar institution,’ which was regarded or had at least to be acknowledged as paramount to all other interests—the ‘institution of slavery.’ There has been a great deal said and written on this ‘institution’ for and against it, -though I cannot see that on either side much has been said or written from a truly authentic or dispassionate source. Those who have written condemnatory of it have generally been actuated by a spirit of prejudice against those who maintained it without having any practical or personal experience, or observation; but have based their criticisms on testimony sought for and selected from prejudiced sources. These have portrayed shocking outrages and horrible cruelties which may have been mere tales of tradition or may have been illustrative of something which actually did occur, but of which the accounts were generally so much overdrawn as to show too plainly that they were intended to create a sensation rather than to set forth the actual truth. If these writers had, with earnest philanthropic motives, sought truly authentic information or taken a temporary sojourn in a slave State where they would have witnessed personally the working of the system, they could have produced irrefutable arguments against slavery of a more practical, plain, and reasonable kind, and which, properly used, could with the general advancement of modern sentiments have had greater effect towards producing a steady and gradual reform, culminating not only in its abolition but also in obtaining a means whereby the negro might have been provided for either by colonisation [sic] or by being trained in the habits befitting an industrious freeman, and without being demoralised [sic] by a sudden transition brought about by revolution. On the other hand those who wrote or spoke in favour of slavery were equally extravagant in the opposite direction, and were either prejudiced by personal interest or in endeavouring to please a party, by meeting fabulous reports and extravagant arguments by reports as fabulous, and arguments equally extravagant. It might be supposed that any person of ordinary observation and common judgment, residing in a slave State, without having any connection or interest directly or indirectly with slavery, and in every way neutral both in interest or opinion, but having every opportunity of looking on and dispassionately observing the system, would be likely to give an unbiassed [sic] opinion. There were plenty of such men, and among them men of sound judgment and independent minds, well qualified to give straightforward and unbiassed [sic] views on the subject, and it seems strange that so many of them were averse to doing so. The general response to any suggestion of this kind was that the subject had become distasteful and disgusting to all calm-reasoning and moderate-minded men, and had already gone into the hands of extremists on both sides. At that time any production on the subject to be patronised [sic] must be extreme on the one side or the other. Any honest and truthful statements or calm and dispassionate views would not have been sufficiently sensational to meet the wishes of the extremists on either side. Men of moderate views had got satiated and disgusted with the subject, and took little interest in the matter, and refused to take the field against opponents with neither of whom any sensible man could wish to have any controversy.” [pp. 22-24]

Regarding Republicans and their relationship with abolitionists, Watson says, “I have often heard it questioned—and I believe it is open to question—whether, when the abolition movement sprung up in the North, it arose out of pure sympathy for the negro, or whether it was more of a political move for party purposes. If it arose from the former motives, their personal regard and affection for the negro were certainly not always strictly in keeping with their professed sentiments. If from the latter motives, it effected its purpose, though at a fearful cost. I believe it originated from the former motives, but the true sentiments were confined to a very limited number. The vote of this sect, however, became (like the Irish vote) a bid for political parties, and when the Republican party was originated just sufficient of the principle was cautiously ingrafted into its platform to secure the vote of the abolitionists without endangering the support of the greater body who had no sympathy with abolition.” [p. 25] This shows Watson either didn’t understand the Republican Party or he’s just not being honest.

Regarding the argument over slavery, and specifically African-Americans, Watson wrote, “It was an argument of long standing and strongly maintained, not only in the South, but over the whole of the United States, that the negro race were unfitted for any other position than that of the slave. There were undoubtedly some who expressed themselves otherwise and who were no doubt sincere in their convictions, but I question much whether even at the present day there are not a very large number who look upon the negro at least as an inferior race. If there is any ground for this opinion I have often thought that it is not so much that the negro is unfitted for any other position than that of a slave, as the undoubted fact that there is not in the whole world any other race that is so fitted for the position as the negro. I believe that to take any other race of the most rude and savage nature and place them under the same bondage even with good care and treatment, they would never thrive, and, if they could not revolt against it, would give way to wretched despondency, pine away, and die. The negro can suit himself to the occasion, thrive under it, be contented and happy, ‘laugh and grow fat,’ and, under certain circumstances, show some pretensions to polish and even an attempt at gentlemanly manners. All this, of course, is of a kind.” [pp. 25-26]

We now come to Watson’s defense of slavery as it was practiced in the American South: “Other or finer sentiments were no doubt trampled upon, but these were blunted by long usage, and the condition seemed to be accepted as a part of their heritage, and to this state of things their natures had become hardened. The slave was born to the position, he was educated for it, he knew he could not make better of it, and he yielded resignedly to it. The idea of being bought and sold seemed to be a part of his nature, inherited from his earliest origin in Africa, and trans- mitted with him and to his posterity wherever he might go. There is certainly not in existence any other race of mankind that could so well have made the best of the unfortunate position, and the way in which they seemed to turn a life of bondage and misery from which they could not extricate themselves, into a life of comparative happiness, showed a certain amount of philosophy of no ordinary kind. The Southern slaveowners were undoubtedly, of all men who ever had been slaveowners, the most humane, kind, and considerate in the treatment of their slaves, and especially the real old Southern families who had been settled in the South for generations. If there were cases of cruelty or oppression they were generally to be found among those who had come from the North and other places, with a view of enriching themselves in a short time and returning to their native country, and then, perhaps, becoming pillars of some philanthropic society or institution. But the real old settlers, who had no ambition beyond making their plantation their home, and maintaining a comfortable independence, regarded their slaves as their families and it was a cause of considerable grief to a family if any of their negroes became such bad subjects as to require to be severely punished or sold. These planters and their negroes were born together on the plantation; they had played together in childhood. Surplus sons of the planter might branch off to follow some profession, the others as they grew up fell into their respective positions of master and slave (or negro, as it was more popularly termed). Both were contented, and, like many others, they saw themselves and their position in the light of their own eyes and not as others saw them, and they did not understand why any outsiders should interfere with them. I certainly believe that the Southern planters in general, and particularly the class I have referred to, did not uphold the institution of slavery out of a cruel and heartless design of enriching themselves. They were, I believe, sincere in the belief, however erroneous that might be, that they were the benefactors of the negro in thus taking charge of and compelling him to labour honestly, and to maintain habits of morality in a class which they considered were unable to take care of themselves, and who would if left to themselves soon give way to indolence, immoral passions, and relapse into barbarity. With regard to the more speculative class of slaveowners who had more recently settled, most of them were from the Northern States, a good many from New England, the seat of the abolition movement, and I have heard it naively insinuated that some of them had come as abolition agents; but thinking that slaveowning would be a better paying business, they became converted to Southern ideas and thought they would try a ‘spec’ in the ‘peculiar institution.’ Of course such things were said in joke, though there might be some slight grounds for the insinuation. Be that as it may they were not considered the kindest of masters, though in general by no means harsh or cruel, still the negroes did not like the idea of being sold to a Yankee master.” [pp. 26-28]

If that weren’t bad enough, he continues, “But let the agitating self-styled friend of humanity stir up his passions, set before him his great wrongs, his rights as a freeman, the glorious liberty which he, the agitator, has obtained for him, and means to defend him against those who now seek to rob him of his rights ; and thus feed his vanity with a consciousness of his own importance, no ear is more open to such seductive flattery. He immediately thinks that he is wronged in having to work at all, and no class of men can so completely set aside all reason and carry their imaginative ideas to such an incredible extent. I am well aware that from this cause chiefly arose all the evils which followed the emancipation in the British West Indies when the disgusting indolence, the unreasonable pretension, and the bearding swagger and insolence of the negroes disgusted the civilised [sic] world, took away much sympathy, and cast a stigma upon the name of the negro race, which tended to degrade the negro as a freeman, and added force to the belief that he was fitted only for a slave, and to a great extent neutralised [sic] the generous act of the British people in their gift of twenty millions to emancipate the slave, by demoralising [sic] him at the same time. Thus his pretended friends were his greatest enemies, and did more injury to the negro race than many years of slavery.” [pp. 28-29]

Watson gives us a little lost cause mythology when he denies the centrality of slavery to the war. He starts by creating a strawman argument and ends by dishonestly trying to diminish the extent of slavery’s presence in southern society: “If we are to accept the theory which some have presumptuously sought to advance that the South was fighting to maintain the institution of slavery, while the North was fighting to abolish it, it would be reasonable to suppose that the institution must have been very generally popular in the South and of universal benefit to all classes. That this was not the case it is easy to show, for it was but a small minority of the people who derived any benefit directly or indirectly from the institution of slavery.” [p. 32]

Watson is very critical of the Buchanan administration’s weak response to the secession crisis, arguing the administration should have reacted strongly to the situation and forced a conclusion. “There would no doubt have been a howl of indignation from blatant politicians about coercion, violated rights, and suppression of the freedom of the people by force of arms. But a very large proportion of the people—I believe a considerable majority of them whose freedom was suppressed by a less legitimate power—would have approved of the action of the Federal Government, and would have hailed with gladness some appearance of a sovereign power, and felt a sense of security, and realized that they were living under a government that would enforce the laws, and protect the true liberties of the people. For, even allowing the right of the State to secede from the Union to be admitted, the Federal Government was bound by the constitution to provide in each State a Republican form of Government, and it was considered their duty in such a question to see that the will of the people was freely and clearly expressed. In any case the Federal Government would have been justified in resenting what might be called an outrage, and in immediately enforcing the restitution of the forts, arsenals, arms, and property. Had this been done, secession could have made no headway.” [p. 82] He wrote, “Had the Federal Government repudi- ated the right of secession, followed up Major Anderson’s movement, sent a war vessel into Charleston harbour before the Secessionists had time to mount a gun, and supported Major Anderson in Fort Sumter, secession would have been checked where it begun and gone no further. It could not have been called an excessive warlike demonstration, as it would only have been a movement in the army and navy, such as is often done in ordinary times of peace. It was therefore considered obvious that they did not consider it politic to make any such movement. They had before them an easy and simple method of checking secession if they had considered it unconstitutional and unlawful. As they did not do so, it was to be supposed that they recognized the action as legal.” [p. 83]

In keeping with his earlier statements about slavery, he is completely unreliable when it comes to the Emancipation Proclamation. He claims, “This proclamation was said to have been issued by the authority of Congress as a ‘military necessity,’ and I use the words of a Federal officer who stated to me that it would have been more correct to say, ‘By command of Congress and the Cabinet,’ and that Mr. Lincoln, when he assented to it, had failed to observe the different ways in which it might be construed.” [p. 426] Watson claims, “It might be supposed that the Southern slaveowners would have tried to keep the proclamation from becoming known to their slaves, but they did the very opposite. They produced the proclamation and read it to their slaves. I was present on one or two occasions when this was done. One, a Mr. L, of West Baton Rouge, called all his slaves up and asked me, in their presence, as a foreigner, a neutral and disinterested party, to read the proclamation, which I did. He explained to them the construction he put upon it, putting it in the extreme sense, and asked them if they had any desire to rebel, in order to obtain their freedom; for if they had, they need not endanger their own lives or stain their hands with bloodshed, for they were now at liberty to go if they pleased. The negroes very emphatically, and I believed sincerely, repudiated any desire for any change, and begged of him to retain them under his protection as formerly, and they would be as faithful to him as ever. Of course, I thought at the time that it was not to be expected that they were likely to make any other reply, whatever might be their inward thoughts. But afterwards I began to joke with some of the more intelligent and leading men among them, and asked them why they did not avail themselves of the opportunity which was offered to them to obtain their freedom so easily. The reply was : — ‘Master, I see no use of us going and getting ourselves into trouble. If so be we are to get free, we get it anyhow. If we not to get it, we no get it; and we think it more betterer to stay home on the plantation, and get our food and our clothes; and if we are to get freedom, dare we are! But, if we run away, and go to New Orleans, like dem crazy niggers, where is we?’ ” [pp. 429-430]

As a source, the book has to be used with great care, especially as it was published 23 years after the confederate surrenders. Where it is useful is in giving views of life inside the confederate army in the western theater. He gives anecdotes of individual common soldiers that are amusing and heartwarming. That is why I recommend the book, but view his claims regarding historical events and politics with a skeptical eye.

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5 comments

  1. Watson left the Confederate army when his original enlistment was up; as a foreign citizen, he was not subject to the Conscription Act that locked in most Confederate soldiers for the duration of the conflict. By that time his former home and business in Baton Rouge were in Union-occupied territory, so he set about blockade-running, mostly under sail, between Texas, Cuba and Mexico. He published a second memoir about those adventures, which is really invaluable when it comes to laying out the fine details of the business.

    1. Thanks, Andy. I’m going to have to take a look at it. Hopefully it has more practical information about blockade running than Wilkinson’s book, The Narrative of a Blockade Runner.

      1. It’s a how-to guide, really.

        1. Already downloaded. Thanks, Andy.

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