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

Military archives reveal the brutal history of slavery in the U.S. Army.

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.