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.