I finally got my hands on a copy of Weary Clyburn’s pension application from the North Carolina Department of Archives and History in Raleigh. You may remember that over the summer I did a series of posts on this Confederate slave who was to be honored by a local SCV chapter for his “service” to the Confederacy. The posts generated a great deal of discussion surrounding my assertion that the SCV was distorting the past in order to ignore Clyburn’s status as a slave. The SCV held a ceremony in which they invited descendants of Clyburn and also received quite a bit of media attention.
Now that I’ve had a chance to peruse the pension file it is clear to me that the SCV did nothing less than butcher the history of the war and distort the complex relationship between master and slave. The certification letter from the pension board describes Clyburn as a “body guard” rather than a servant or slave. Later Clyburn is cited for carrying “his master out of the field of fire on his shoulder” and for “personal services for Robert E. Lee”, though the nature of that assistance is not discussed. The board also mentions his age and that he “has a wife and foolish boy to support[.]” I wonder if someone can explain that latter reference for me, though my wife just suggested that it must have something to do with his mental health.
On the actual application there is a very telling reference: “that his services were meritorious and faithful toward his master, and the cause of the Confederacy.” The fundamental problem with all of this is that Clyburn’s voice never appears. The documents provide us with an example of how a white-dominated government bureau handled a black man during the height of Jim Crow. Ultimately, these documents are not about Clyburn. Clyburn’s pension was issued owing to the assumption that he was a faithful assistant, which helped to reinforce a system of white supremacy.
Not once is Clyburn referenced for what he was – a slave. We are playing a dangerous game when we begin to treat the past in a way that serves our own narrow interests.