Setting the Records Straight: U.S. Officers’ Pay Claims Vouching for Slavery

Yoav Hamdani

My recent JER article “Servants not Soldiers: The Origins of Slavery in the United States Army, 1797–1816” explores the bureaucratic contingencies, political circumstances, and legislative maneuvers that first introduced and later institutionalized enslaved servitude within the U.S. Army. Here, I would like to elaborate on the post-1816 reality, in which thousands of enslaved people were forced into military life as officers’ personal servants and waiters. A good entry point to this discussion is the story of Dred Scott.

Portrait of Dred Scott, from the Library of Congress

Century Company, Publisher. Dred Scott. Harriet, wife of Dred Scott. , 1887. [New York: Century Co., June] Photograph.

The 1857 Dred Scott case is one of the best-known decisions in the United States Supreme Court’s history. While it is well known that Dred and his wife Harriett sued for their freedom based on residence in a free territory, few have paid attention to the couple’s circumstances: They were the enslaved military servants of a U.S. Army officer. They were not the only ones. Thousands of enslaved people served as officers’ servants, becoming an integral part of the U.S. Army. In 1816, Congress authorized allowances, rations, and clothing for officers’ private servants while prohibiting the former custom of taking soldiers as servants. By reimbursing officers who held or hired enslaved servants, Congress not only sanctioned enslaved servitude but subsidized and incentivized it. An analysis of military pay claims reveals that over three-quarters of officers, southerners and northerners alike, employed enslaved people at some point during their military careers. Over nine thousand enslaved people were forced into the army, nearly three times more than the number of officers. Thirteen percent of all officers’ pay expenses went directly to subsidize slavery. Officers brought enslaved servants wherever they went, regardless of local laws forbidding it—in the continental United States, Mexico, and even Europe. In other words, with the federal government’s encouragement, the military became a slaveholding institution.

Enslaved people’s absence from the narrative of the American military experience is directly opposite to their vivid presence in military bureaucracy. Their sporadic appearances in officers’ memoirs, biographies, and other documents caused historians to refer to them as anecdotes, if not ignore them completely. Yet, scrutinizing the paperwork of the military pay system reveals the vast and rich archive of servitude. From 1816 forward, officers collected their salaries using a singular, preprinted account form, which included servants and their full descriptions. These forms were made by army officers, signed by paymasters, and validated by Treasury Department accountants. They represent actual money exchanges between the government and its military personnel.  They are stored in hundreds of boxes in the Records of Settled Accounts of Army Paymasters at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  Estimated at 180,000, these vouchers not only hold the figures, i.e., the numbers behind military slavery and its funding mechanism, but also retrieve the figures, i.e., the forgotten, enslaved human beings, who made up the world of military servitude. Most importantly, these documents provide concrete evidence of slavery’s tenacious hold on the operation of federal institutions.

Box of Officer Account Records in Records of Settled Accounts of Army Paymasters (RG217, E516) at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

An illustration of the storing conditions of officers’ accounts in Records of Settled Accounts of Army Paymasters (RG217, E516) at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. This box is in relatively good condition. Photo taken by the author in July 2019.

Officers’ pay vouchers are not the most accessible documents: They are tightly packed with other military pay documents in almost two thousand boxes. Each pay voucher included information regarding the officer, the servant, the location, and all sums paid. See above, for example, Captain Henry Bainbridge’s voucher from May 1845, which describes a servant named “Eldred” as a “slave.” This is, of course, a description of Dred Scott.

Aspiring to supply a clear overview of this daunting number of raw materials, I have sampled and digitized thousands of officers’ payrolls and built a database of over two million data entries containing all available information regarding military servants from 1815 to 1861. The only one of its kind, the database offers an overview of the phenomena of military slavery and enables us to track down individual servants’ and enslavers’ trajectories. The database includes nearly 15,000 pay vouchers, estimated at 8 percent of the total number of vouchers. It has 17,573 servants’ descriptions. By employing several digital tools to tag and refine the data, I was able to conclude that it has vouchers for 2,946 officers, 85 percent of all officers who served in the army in these years. All in all, the database has nearly 11,000 distinct free and enslaved servants. I am currently working to make the database accessible to the public and make it easier for descendants of enslaved people to identify their ancestors.

1845 voucher describing Dred Scott. Box 645, RG217, E516, NARA, Washington, D.C.

An 1845 voucher describing Dred Scott. Box 645, RG217, E516, NARA, Washington, D.C. Photo by the author, July 2019.

Creating the database, refining the metadata, developing the proper approach to tag, analyze, and present my analytical categories, and finally identifying and gathering meaningful statistical samples has been an intensive exercise in the growing field of digital humanities. The prolonged process made me reflect on my methodology, as I came to realize that what initially seemed like “hard evidence” was, in fact, an open-ended body of equivocal documents, triggering an array of complex questions otherwise obscured by the historian’s tendency to stick to chronological causation. Employing quantitative methods on allegedly neutral, banal documents—payrolls—promised to produce “objective” arguments. Instead, the digital historian’s craft unveiled itself as a reflexive process, rich with ambiguities, interpretational decisions, and biases. I will not enter the process of categorization and interpretation here, but eventually, my strategy to deal with gaps and absences in the data was to present the scope of enslaved servitude as a range. I will refer here to what I define as the maximum range. That is all servants of African ancestry without supporting evidence for being free.

Jefferson Davis 1833 Pay Claim. Box 375, RG217, E516, NARA, Washington, D.C

Lt. Jefferson Davis’ 1833 pay claim, collecting subsidies for his enslaved servant James. Box 375, RG217, E516, NARA, Washington, D.C

According to the maximum range, nearly 70 percent of servants were enslaved, amounting to over 9,000 people. As many as 89 percent of the officer corps held, employed, or hired enslaved servants at some point during their military careers. Nearly 13 percent of all officers’ pay expenses went directly to subsidize slavery. The data shows that officers brought enslaved servants wherever they went, regardless of local laws. A macro analysis of the ratio of enslaved people from the general population of military servants in each state between 1816 and 1861 shows, not surprisingly, that the highest percentages were in the South. But even in Vermont and other so-called “free states,” we see a significant presence of enslaved servants. Lastly, from 1816 to 1861, there were no substantial changes in the ratio of enslaved servants, demonstrating that the bureaucracy and funding mechanisms that evolved before 1816 kept enslaved servitude stable. This issue is the subject of the article “Servants not Soldiers.”

For half a century, U.S. Army officers brought free and enslaved servants into the army and received compensation for all associated costs. Congressional legislation mandated that, unlike any other form of military labor in which salaries and subsistence went directly to the laborer, servants’ pay, clothing, and subsistence went to the officer-master. This “outsourcing” encouraged many enslavers to pocket their allowances by utilizing enslaved labor and even hiring out their enslaved servants to other officers. Further, military law specifically said that officers’ servants, under no circumstances, are to be armed or to wear any military uniform, and must carry with them, at all times, a certificate signed by the officer to which they belong. These regulations are highly similar to southern slave codes.

Permitting and subsidizing slavery in the army made the federal government complicit in its brutalities, including forced removals, human trafficking, and the separation of families. As the pay vouchers show, federal officials knew of military enslaved people being taken to free territories—they signed and approved it!  The government sponsored slavery even in violation of the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise. The circumstances of military servitude encouraged Dred and Harriett Scott, and others before them, to sue for their freedom, eventually bringing them before the U.S. Supreme Court. In this context, the Dred Scott decision was a seal of approval on the existing federal policy of enslaved servants, ending the possibility of challenging military slavery through the court system.

2 January 2024

About the Author

Yoav Hamdani is a postdoctoral fellow at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he teaches American history.

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