Some Final Thoughts About Weary Clyburn and Black Confederates (for now)
If interested, you can read this brief article which covers yesterday’s ceremony for the SCV’s new favorite son, Weary Clyburn. There is nothing in it that hasn’t been discussed already over the course of the past few days. Earl ljames is cited as an “expert” on the subject of black Confederates; he isn’t . The guy has a B.A. in history; if ljames is an expert than any schmuck who spends time in an archives is an expert. Kevin Adkins of the SCV believes that, “Thousands and thousands of African-Americans served under the Confederate battle flag on the field of honor fighting for their Southern homeland, just like their white neighbors were doing.” I don’t doubt for a second that Adkins believes this.
What emerges in just about all of these cases are overly simplistic generalizations about the relationship between slaves and slaveowners and the sheer paucity of research which goes into these claims. At times I even doubt that the people who make these claims actually believe what they are saying. It is high time that we move beyond this silliness to engage a set of questions that are crucial to understanding how the Civil War altered and challenged the relationship between slave and slaveowner. In other words, we need to move beyond the anecdotal evidence which defines the approach taken by the SCV and others and the overly emotional language of loyalty, bravery, and service. Let’s define our terms and do the necessary research and analysis to make sense of the presence of thousands of slaves that traveled with the various Confederate armies. These stories have taken on a monotonous pattern and have left us with little, if any, historical understanding. I’ve quoted before from historian Peter S. Carmichael’s brief outline of his project on the subject, but it is worth citing once again:
My next book project , “Black Rebels” will explore the experience of slaves who served Confederate soldiers. This unique master-slave relationship within Southern armies has never been examined by scholars, and to date the subject has only drawn the interest of those who write in the romantic tradition of the Lost Cause. My intention to focus on the master-slave relationship will allow me to examine the traditional subjects of living conditions and resistance. But I also intend to explore uncharted territory such as: how the shared experience of battle reconfigured the master-slave relationship, what were the symbolic uses of the “camp servant” in Confederate propaganda, how did lower class whites in the army view slaves, and were camp servants a source of division in white ranks? This project is in keeping with my interest in the construction and exertion of power in the Old South and the Confederacy.
A good friend emailed me yesterday with a few comments concerning the holding of the National Archives which pertain to this subject. For example, there is one quite large series of slave rolls, consisting primarily of lists of men who worked on fortifications. The series is indexed by name of owner. The problem is that the majority of blacks in Confederate records are listed by first name only. Thus you have many records for “Jim,” “Andrew,” “Pink,” etc. I will leave it to you to interpret what that fact alone means to their status in the army. Similarly, for servants who have compiled military service records, you can find blacks by looking in Broadfoot’s index to those records for persons shown only with first names. The available records also seem to show that a few free and enslaved blacks did support the Confederacy in a way that would make members of the SCV smile. That is not surprising given the large numbers that we are dealing with. Their fundamental problem, however, is that they fail to or are unable to interpret the evidence as connected to a “slave nation” at war. Over the course of his research of roughly 100,000 Confederate service records, Robert K. Krick admitted that he could find no more than 20-30 men who were non-white. I don’t know too many people who have spent more time in the archives than Krick.
In conclusion, there is a story here that desperately needs to be told. Hopefully, at some point in the near future we will hear from someone who is interested in serious history rather than in their own emotional and psychological well-being.
Addendum: The image is from an article in the Charlotte Observer. It is is a disturbing image on so many different levels. Notice in the photograph that someone is holding a copy of Black Confederates which is published by Pelican Press and regularly cited as a reliable study. It is essentially just a compilation of stories. The story just gets better and better with each news item. Today we are told documents reveal that Clyburn was a “special aide” to Robert E. Lee
Click here for the first of a series of posts about Weary Clyburn.