Research Project: Dr. Lewis H. Steiner’s Account

In the continuing discussion over black Confederates, one piece of evidence that receives much attention is Dr. Lewis H. Steiner’s account of events in Frederick, Maryland in September 1862.  An inspector for the US Sanitary Commission, Steiner witnessed the passage of Confederate forces through the town, and left us with a description of their appearance and composition.

His entry of September 10, 1862, has received especial attention, because of his report that some 3,000 blacks were part of the Confederate force that day.  Steiner estimated that the Confederate force he saw that day numbered at most 64,000 men (including the 3,000 blacks); most discussions overlook the fact that the next day Steiner claimed to see another division of some 8,000 pass through the streets (he does not specify if the Hill in question is Daniel Harvey Hill or Ambrose P. Hill).  So that’s a Confederate force of 72,000 men, which seems to be a lot more than the size of the force that fought at Antietam on September 17.

It occurred to me that not many people have read the entire document, and they have not weighed its value as historical testimony.  The link offered above offers a gateway to a PDF of Steiner’s account.  Here’s your chance to be a historian.  Tell us in the comments what you find.

14 thoughts on “Research Project: Dr. Lewis H. Steiner’s Account

  1. Kevin January 30, 2011 / 1:15 pm


    You may want to explain what is involved in being a historian. Perhaps a few tips on how to go about analyzing a primary source would help.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 30, 2011 / 1:19 pm

      What I find interesting is learning what people think is involved in weighing evidence in the first place. I don’t want to talk to people about how to be a historian before I find out what they think is involved. I see value in the conversation. Different people will come to this with different ideas.

      • Kevin January 30, 2011 / 1:36 pm

        Well then, enjoy. I will inform my fans.

  2. David Rhoads January 30, 2011 / 3:32 pm

    Steiner also refers in his September 6 entry to a Confederate “advance force” of 5000 men that moved through Frederick and camped north of town. It’s not clear whether he includes these men in the up to 64,000 that he states moved out of Frederick on September 10, though.

    Overestimates of the numbers of rebel infantry aside, one striking thing about Steiner’s account is that it comprises a thorough indictment, with only one or two exceptions, of the character of the Confederate soldiers, both rank-and-file and officers. Steiner characterizes the rebels almost uniformly as filthy, boorish, stupid, and vindictive. So repulsive are the rebels, Steiner observes, that even those citizens of Frederick who sympathize with or support secession are embarrassed by the rebel troops and are glad to see them leave. In this context, the way Steiner describes the blacks–undoubtedly slaves–he sees among the Confederate troops is perhaps not so surprising. He sees little difference between the condition of the Confederate soldiers and the condition of the blacks “promiscuously mixed up” among them. Indeed, he expressly equates the “high state of discipline” and “implicit obedience” that he notes in Jackson’s troops–a discipline occasioned by a “constant fear of their officers”–with “a slavish obedience unsurpassed by that of Russian serfs”.

    All of this Steiner reports in stark contrast to the forebearance and charity of the citizens of Frederick–Union- and secession-minded citizens alike–and to the nobility of the Union troops whose arrival delivers the people of Frederick “from a bondage more debasing than that of the African slave.”

    If nothing else, Steiner’s observation of blacks moving among the Confederate soldiers affords him yet another opportunity to castigate the Confederates: “The fact [that blacks were “mixed up with all the rebel horde”] was patent, and rather interesting, when considered in connection with the horror rebels express at the suggestion of black soldiers being employed for the National defence.”

  3. Craig Warren January 30, 2011 / 4:58 pm

    A report like Steiner’s demonstrates the need for a Confederate account of slaves serving as combatants. Without such an account (and one doesn’t seem likely to emerge), we must conclude that northerners represented slaves as CSA soldiers less to record fact than to criticize southern values. The irony is that neo-Confederates might use an anti-southern account to promote the idea of an inclusive, egalitarian Confederate army. But I feel like I’m just stating the obvious.

  4. Ned January 30, 2011 / 5:14 pm

    The enumeration of civil war armies is a tricky business. What is being counted? Effectives? Does that include officers or just men? Present for duty (PFD)? Aggregate present? Total people in the camp/moving body including noncombatants, etc.?

    As far as I am aware, the current conclusion about the PFD for the ANV at the beginning of September 1862 is about 75,000 (see Joseph Harsh’s books). It seems to me that Steiner is estimating total numbers of people including all logistical support personnel, regardless of their status, so the count will obviously be higher than a PFD number and higher than an effectives in battle, which is what is usually talked about for Antietam.

    In his report after the campaign, DH Hill talks about how his division went from around 10,000 around Richmond to under 5,000 by South Mountain to 3,000 at Antietam, a large part of it being due to straggling. These numbers would also be effectives. So 8,000 for a total nose count on September 11 might be a little high, but its not outrageous.

    • David Rhoads January 30, 2011 / 5:52 pm

      Steiner also seems to buck the conventional wisdom when it comes to Confederate straggling durign the Maryland campaign: “One thing that may be said with perfect truth of the Rebel army, and that is, but few stragglers are left behind as they march through the country.”

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 30, 2011 / 10:26 pm

      The numbers issue is an interesting one. So is the role and status of those blacks who were with the ANV.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 30, 2011 / 10:22 pm

      The challenge involved with that number, as you know, concerns the number of Confederates who straggled and went AWOL during the September invasion. Those soldiers would have rejoined by month’s end.

  5. Lyle Smith January 31, 2011 / 3:12 pm

    My general reading of Dr. Steiner’s report is that Dr. Steiner is unequivocally hyperbolic in his report, especially in regards to what the Confederates were actually doing in Maryland and what they were like as an army… due to the personal bias against the Confederates he acknowledges his report. This makes some of what he wrote, arguably, unreliable (like much of the hearsay he reports).

    However, there are some objective statements given by Dr. Steiner. Like his statements with regards to the time and place of Confederate troop movements, and his reporting on the burning of stores preceding Lee’s movement in to Frederick. So the report, in toto, is not entirely unreliable.

    As far as the blacks he noticed marching with the Army of Northern Virginia, his report is interesting. He totally fails to distinguish them as chattel property. However, he does observe that there were no colored only units in the ANV, because he talks of the 3,000 blacks being “promiscuously mixed up with up with all the rebel horde”. This suggests they weren’t soldiers, but slaves following their masters as help, because black soldiers would have been segregated from white soldiers… as they were in the Federal armies, and almost so in the Confederate armies.

  6. Charles Lovejoy January 31, 2011 / 3:50 pm

    Interesting reading terms like “Aged Crone” and “multiforms “. “Aged Crone” is sometimes used as a title of respect given to older witches. “An old mother crone” ritual 🙂 If Dr. Lewis Steiner was incorrect in his numerical assessment of the Confederate force, he wasn’t the only one during the Civil War to make such a miscalculation. My question is, how did he come up with the number of ” 3000 Negros”? He did indicate they were mixed in among the other troops. So did he keep a running count with a pad and paper? Were there any battle reports of Negros engaged in battle? I don’t ever remember reading any. Its more of a gut feeling but I just don’t believe those “Negros” were standing in lines firing volleys on the Antietam battlefield. I believe there were many “Negros” that was with the Confederate armies as support , but not in the full sense of an infantry solder. Keeping in mind mismatched uniforms were something Confederate units were famous for . I can see why an on looker seeing “Negros” with a Confederate army ,wearing some type of military garb would use a term like Dr Steiner did, “were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederacy Army”. Support is an integral part of any army, just not in the same way as a solder firing a rifle. Why would “Negros” be intermingled in the Confederate army as Dr Steiner indicated ? Another topic for and other blog topic.

  7. mike O'Malley March 11, 2011 / 10:08 am

    I’m a historian and have written a blog post on this document. I often use it to teach how to read historical sources, and I usually read it for the evidence it gives about black confederates, since that’s a hot topic.

    Steiner is interesting because he’s a trained medical man of considerable distinction, and he holds a job with the Sanitary Commission, charged with inspecting and trying to clean up and modernize union camp facilities. The Sanitary commission is itself a really interesting subject, but it positions Steiner as a very respectable and “scientific” source.

    As other have noted, though, the tone is hyperbolic and contemptuous of the South. Steiner was a strong Union partisan and wanted to make the South and southern soldiers look bad. One of the ways he did this was by saying, effectively “look, those hypocrites even used black men as soldiers while claiming they would never do such a thing!”

    The key piece of info for me is the presence of Howell Cobb at the head of a column of soldiers. This is the same Howell Cobb who, in January of 1865 called the use of negros as soldiers “the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began,” continuing, “you cannot make soldiers of slaves or slaves of soldiers. . . . The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

    Cobb wrote in 1865 as if the experiment of arming black men had never been tried and should never be tried. And yet Steiner has him marching in an army with 3000 armed black soldiers.

    My conclusion, based on a larger reading of other evidence, is that Steiner is untrustworthy on this point because he’s mostly out to make the South look bad.

  8. karl December 28, 2016 / 1:22 pm

    He saw “Tigers” from Taylor’s troops, out of NOLA. Yall wont believe Douglas, George W Williams, HARPERS WEEKLY, That is not history, that is Truthspeak

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