Weary Clyburn and Black Confederates: Where Do We Go From Here?

Like many of you I am also troubled by the pervasiveness of stories about black Confederates and the irresponsibility and ignorance of those who perpetuate these myths.  This morning I received an email from someone familiar with the North Carolina Department of Archives and History who took the initiative to pull Weary Clyburn’s pension application.  Documents include a form from the Probate Judge and Clerk to the Pension Board which states that Clyburn “served in the Confederate Army.”  Other documents refer to him as a “slave” and “body guard” to Captain Frank Clyburn.  Another document, written by the Pension Board, tells of him saving his master’s life and performing personal service for Robert E. Lee.  The author of the email noted that many of the pension files have blacks listed as “body servants” and speculates that body guard “is a little more exciting way to say the same thing.”  Given the paucity of information available about Clyburn and that the information was compiled by whites it is easy to conclude pretty much anything about his Civil War/slave experience.  And this is exactly where serious historians part company with the heritage folks.  The goal of scholarship is not to reinforce prior assumptions nor is it the servant of wishful thinking; it is to consider all of the relevant evidence and go where that evidence takes you.  Often times, the amount of evidence available is insufficient to conclude much of anything.

This takes us to the question of what, if anything, can be done to more forcefully challenge these myths.  Historian and fellow blogger, Larry Cebula, has an excellent suggestion:

To effectively push back against the myth of black Confederates someone needs to dig into stories like these and do some basic fact-checking. When did the story of Weary leaving the plantation to fight with the Confederates first arise? Is there any contemporary Civil War era evidence? What other information can we dig up about Weary from census records, newspapers, oral histories, plantation records? What was the Reconstruction era history of the community? What were the circumstances at which this photograph was taken? I strongly suspect that this sort of research would debunk most or all of the “black Confederates” being touted by the SCV.

This would be a great graduate seminar for someone teaching at a research university in the south–“Black Confederates: Myths and Memories.” Assign each grad student one of these men and set them loose. And make sure that the results of their research are disseminated. A web publication would actually have the greatest impact, so that whenever someone googles “Weary Clyburn” they get some solid research instead of press releases from the SCV.

I can’t think of a better idea.  Larry’s suggestion that such a project would debunk most of these stories is probably true, but his further point about the power of google is well taken.  I touched on google’s page-ranking a few months ago in reference to a post about why scholars should consider blogging.  Since that post this site has risen even further in the rankings when searching for certain subjects such as black Confederates.  As much as I respect the work of historians such as Bruce Levine on this subject the real fight must take place on the Web.

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17 comments… add one
  • R. E. Morris Jul 13, 2010 @ 17:47

    I do not understand how anyone can discount the stories of Weary Clyburn’s own daughter. He may have been in his seventies when he fathered this child but that does not mean his memory was not clear. She related that her father told her stories as a child and she has also passed them on. Why is it so hard to believe that Frank Clyburn and one of his father’s slaves were best friends who grew up together and Weary felt the need to protect him as an adult.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 13, 2010 @ 18:04

      Thanks for the comment. No one is suggesting that his stories should necessarily be discounted. At the same time historians do not have the luxury of every oral history that comes down the pike. On what grounds should these stories be accepted? Are all oral histories equally valid? My family has a very rich history, but I do not accept every story handed down by parents and grandparents.

      • R. E. Morris Jul 14, 2010 @ 5:45


        Thanks for taking the time to answer personally.
        I see your point and agree that every effort should be made to verify oral history before presenting it as truth. I have been working on my own family history for the last 10 years. A lot of leads I started with were stories from the oldest members of the family. Some have been handed down from generation to generation. Most have been verified, some have not but without them I would have had a much more difficult time.

        Stories such as Weary Clyburn’s are not uncommon. I live in the low country of SC and I remember talking to a 95 year old black man, I considered a friend. When I was in high school. (1985) he allowed me to hunt his property. We would sit on his front porch and he would tell me stories from his childhood. His father was a slave who became a sharecropper after the war. I was intrigued by the relationship of the two families. I have also found information in church minutes from that time period in this county. Prior to the “War between the States” and during the war slaves went to church with their masters. They were accepted as members much the same way as people of today. “Through profession of faith” was the most common way and then the members of the church would vote.

        I’m sure there were some slaves who were mistreated and slavery was immoral in my opinion but it was a fact in those days. It was a legal way to keep a large farm or plantation running smoothly. The reason I say mistreatment or abuse happened less often than a lot of people believe is this;
        A farmer of today would not buy a new tractor or combine, drive it to a field, then cut the tires, and pour sugar in the gas tank. The machine would be of no use to the farmer if he could not use it on the farm. Slaves were expensive and were considered an investment. They were no good to the owner if they could not work. Many of the slaves became attached to members of the family who owned them and vice versa. I have read a good number of accounts locally where slave children the same age as the plantation owners were best friends growing up.

        The worst case of slave treatment I have read so far occurred less than 50 miles from where I live. A slave named William Ellison was educated by his master as a boy. He was also taught several skills and he was freed through a court preceding in Sumter county SC. He became one of the richest men in this part of the state and held more slaves than most if not all of his neighbors.
        There are several accounts of advertisings in local papers for William Ellison offering a reward for his runaway slaves. His slaves were said to be poorly taken care of; Their cloths were no more than rags. They were fed just enough to keep them going and he was illegally selling the babies of the slave women that he owned. ( It was illegal to sell a child slave until he reached the age of 12 or 13 I think.). Two of William Ellison’s sons fought for the Confederacy and William donated materials from his farm to a local military unit. This was a very intriguing story. You can find William Ellison in many records of the day. Most are kept at the Sumter county archives and some at the Clarendon county archives.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 14, 2010 @ 6:13

          Mr. Young,

          Thanks for the response. You said:

          “Prior to the “War between the States” and during the war slaves went to church with their masters. They were accepted as members much the same way as people of today. “Through profession of faith” was the most common way and then the members of the church would vote.”

          I don’t understand what you mean here. White people who went to church before the Civil War were accepted as free individuals. Slaves were not. That they went to church did not, in any way, alter their status. In fact, it was the church which provided the justification that slaveowners used throughout the antebellum period. I find it very interesting that during the height of Jim Crow you will find the largest number of stories suggesting that slaves were friends with their masters. Very interesting indeed.

          In addition, I make it a point not to get into discussions about the horrors of slavery. Slavery by definition is a sufficient condition for me to assume the worst. Thanks again.

          • R.E. Morris Jul 14, 2010 @ 10:24

            Sorry about the confusion. I was only making the point that the slaves attended church with their owners, in the same building. A lot of people believe that slaves were not even permitted to attend church at all, much less attend with white people. Some believe that they had to pray and read the bible in secret or maybe around bed time. (for those that could read) You are right. This did not change their status as far as being slave vs. being free but it does relate that the owners felt a since of responsibility for their spiritual well being as well as their physical well being. I also agree that one person owning another was immoral but they were not all abused and harshly treated as some people would have you and I to believe.

            ” the church which provided the justification that slaveowners used throughout the antebellum period.”
            I take it you are speaking of several passages in the old testament which list how slaves are to be treated etc.?
            My thoughts on this subject are the following. Since the period after the crucifixion, Christians live under grace not under law. Most Christian ministers of that day would probably agree with that, unless you were talking about slavery.

            Thanks again

            • Kevin Levin Jul 14, 2010 @ 11:11

              Mr. Morris,

              I highly recommend that you read Charles Iron’s recent book _The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia_ (UNC Press). It will help to think through the role of Christianity in the maintenance of slavery as well as the complicated patterns of interaction between whites and blacks that ensued.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 28, 2008 @ 17:51

    Gordon, — Thanks for taking the time to write. I will consider your advice.

  • Gordon Jul 28, 2008 @ 17:20

    Perhaps you should check on the authenticity of this with Mattie Rice, Weary Clyburn’s daughter, or Mr lJames who is the archivist that discovered many black Confederate pension files, including Mr. Clyburn’s file in the State Archives. lJames just happens to be an African American. There is also documentation from Union soldiers of Blacks armed with muzzle loaders and bayonets attacking them. Perhaps you should just get the chip off your shoulders and accept it.

  • Mark Stoneman Jul 22, 2008 @ 0:45

    @Jamey B Creel Myths (and ahistorical thinking) result from imposing modern day assumptions about what participation in the war means to Confederate patriots today onto these men in the past, whose lives, motivations, and attitudes we do not know enough about. The mere fact of participation in the war only scratches the surface of historical reality. It raises questions, but it does not in itself say anything conclusive. I’ll leave it to Civil War experts like Kevin Levin to get the details right, but that much is clear to me. I see such errors in historical thinking all the time in other contexts.

  • Mark Stoneman Jul 22, 2008 @ 0:11

    I agree about the fight needing to be carried to the web. Too bad historians can’t afford to buy good domain names, such as the kind that pops up in first place if you google “black confederates” without quotation marks.

  • Jamey B Creel Jul 19, 2008 @ 16:52

    I am amazed at these so-called “myths.” What part of black Confederates is a myth? They existed. They fought. The first monument to the black soldier is Confederate (see Arlington National Cemetery). The pension records show they were paid when in their old age along with their “white” compatriots. Their sons and daughters told of their stories. Even Fredrick Douglas witnessed them and could not – or refused – explain it.

    Men like Dallas Moses died defending “his” Southland. Yet you claim they didn’t exist?

    Yet the claim of your site is “Southerners” are re-writing history? Looks more as if people like you are ignoring truth.

    You deny it because it doesn’t fit with “your” version of history as you try to sweep under rug the honor of our Confederate ancestors.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 17, 2008 @ 6:10

    Thanks again Larry. I am going to use the issue of black Confederates as a case study for my talk on blogging at the SHA.

  • Larry Cebula Jul 17, 2008 @ 0:39

    Thanks Kevin. Really, I am fairly brimming with ideas of what other people should do! Maybe someone at the Southern Historical Association Meeting will be interested.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 16, 2008 @ 17:34

    Lisa, — Thanks for sharing and please do consider forwarding some of your research along. In fact, consider doing a guest post at some point. That would give you the opportunity to go into a bit more detail in terms of how you went about your research and arrived at your conclusions.

    I look forward to meeting you in New Orleans. Remember that if you are interested in attending the SCWH panel you have to register for the luncheon.

  • Lisa Jul 16, 2008 @ 17:24

    This is kind of what I’ve been doing. Everytime I run across a “black Confederate” in my research, I try to save the info. Then when I have time I try to verify the story with more info from sources such as pension applications, slave narratives, newspaper articles, etc. They seem to come up a lot in WPA records (not just the slave narratives). I don’t have a whole lot at the moment but I do have a little. The best two are Frank Childress and Nathan Best which I have referenced before. I’m thinking this may even eventually become my thesis in the future since I’m a little frustrated with USV/SCV/UDC history/research at the moment and I have quite a few thoughts on the subject.

    Anyhow, I think you are right about the power of the internet. Nearly everyone I know who isn’t an SCV member or a professional historian, gets their info on the subject from the internet. Regardless, if anyone is interested and serious, I’ll be glad to share my info and keep working on what I have.

  • Marc Ferguson Jul 16, 2008 @ 14:06

    Larry Cebula’s suggestion for how to confront these “black Confederate” claims is an excellent description of how to go about doing historical research to lay the groundwork for solid historical analysis. Furthermore, it provides an excellent contrast to the shoddy approach taken by politically motivated pushers of heritage. It would indeed make for a great research seminar.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 16, 2008 @ 13:42

    Tom, — The question of motivation is central to this issue, but seems impossible to answer given that we don’t even know the basic facts that would have shaped that motivation in addition to not having any account from Weary himself.

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