Will the Real Weary Clyburn Please Stand Up

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.

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15 comments… add one
  • Robert Moore Oct 29, 2008 @ 8:23

    Chris, Your comment about the pensions in N.C. pretty much parallels mine about those found in Virginia. Clearly the “black Confederate” issue has been and continues to be blown way out of proportion, with the purpose of downplaying the Confederacy “fighting for slavery” issue. For those people, there is no time to pause and examine the facts on this matter. A “black Confederate” is found, reinvented as a “black Confederate soldier,” and honors are hastened along to serve a “purpose.” We are in the midst of yet another tier of “mythification” of the Lost Cause.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 29, 2008 @ 7:26

    Chris, — Thanks for sharing this information. It clearly adds a great deal to understanding the context of Clyburn’s pension application. Clyburn was clearly not a soldier in the Confederate army.

  • chris meekins Oct 28, 2008 @ 22:23

    I dread entering this discussion if only because it is too close to home. For full disclosure I am a former coworker of Mr. Ijames.
    Setting all else aside, I thought this point should be made.
    NC first began assisting the Confederate soldier during the war (widows and orphans money)and immediately after the war the General Assembly [GA] (1866) issued artificial limbs. Petitions on behalf of soldiers began coming to the GA in short order. The first major pension act passed in 1885. It set what soldiers and what disabilities could be awarded pensions – including such things as real property exemptions for those who owned too much. Again petitions to the GA added men who did not fit into the 1885 act categories. Another major revision came in 1901. 1901 opened up the pension to more soldiers and more widows. Minor revisions continued to occur (mostly to favor widows) over the ensuing years until finally in the 1927 revision the law included a section for a class B pension to “compensate former slaves who could prove they had been servants of soldiers, or who could prove they had served in some support capacity.”

    Point would be: if this man were a soldier in the eyes of the government he would have been qualified under some of the previous provisions of the pension act(s). That he did not receive a pension, nor believe himself eligible for a pension, until after the 1927 class B provision should tell us all that neither the government nor WC himself considered that he was eligible for a pension as a soldier.

    Call me simple but that, to me, seems case closed.

  • TF Smith Oct 28, 2008 @ 12:29

    Kevin –

    Sorry, not trying to invoke Godwin here, but merely making the point that oppressed populations (as opposed to proxies like the Sikhs and Gurkhas or those liberated, like the men who made up the USCT) rarely appeal to their oppressors as likely candidates for being armed, trained, and organized as particularly loyal or effective soldiers; hence the lack of Armenian units in the Ottoman army, Chinese/Korean in the IJA, etc…

  • Kevin Levin Oct 27, 2008 @ 15:25

    Anon, — Interestingly, there is no mention of a daughter in the pension file. Thanks so much for pointing that out.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 27, 2008 @ 12:53

    Ed and TF, — Please stay on topic. This is not a post about the relationship between Jews and Hitler’s Germany.

  • Ed Oct 27, 2008 @ 12:49

    To tf smith:

    Your statement, “Black Confederate” is about as historically valid as “Jewish Nazi.”

    Bryan Mark Riggs’ book “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story Of Nazi Racial Laws And Men Of Jewish Descent In The German Military” he estimated as many as 150,000 German soldiers, sailors, and airmen of at least partial Jewish descent.

    Foolish Boy:

    I did a book search with Google and from 1850-1870 “foolish boy” is used 620 times. From 1980-2000 it is used 775 times. Reading some of the passages, it appears the term is used in the same manner today as it was in the past.

  • Anon Oct 27, 2008 @ 8:56

    This article states Weary’s daughter (who was supposed to attend the “Weary Clyburn Day” festivities) was born in 1921 and he applied for a pension in 1926. Any mention of her in the pension application, or just the “foolish boy”?

  • Patrick L Oct 27, 2008 @ 6:56

    Piggybacking on David’s comment, not only does “master” clearly show WC to have been a slave, but the order of the words is significant too. Services to the master come before services to the Confederacy. His service to the Cause was only grammatically and historically possible through his service to his master.

  • David Langbart Oct 27, 2008 @ 6:39

    I think the phrase “that his services were meritorious and faithful toward his master, and the cause of the Confederacy.” The reference to “his master” clearly implies slave status.

  • toby Oct 27, 2008 @ 6:14

    “foolish boy” …. there is an archaic use of “fool” as synonymous with “child”, so “a foolish boy” may mean “a young boy” i.e. he has a family to raise.

    It may also mean “childish” or “simpleton”, and refer to his mental state.

    Clearly, our use of the word “fool” comes from this meaning.

  • tf smith Oct 26, 2008 @ 23:35

    “Black Confederate” is about as historically valid as “Jewish Nazi.”

    The SCV are self-deluded lunatics.

  • Robert Moore Oct 26, 2008 @ 20:31

    “What do the facts say”

    That’s a great question and until it is answered, why is it necessary to jump that gun and celebrate the “service” of the man in question? There is work to be done.

  • Richard Oct 26, 2008 @ 13:36

    I have mentioned in a previous posts that the thought of a slave fighting for the confedracy has never crossed my mind and I have spent my entire life in NC. Never heard it discussed until now. If I were a Union Soldier and a slave was shooting at me what would it matter if that slave was listed on a muster roll. Someone should be able to get a sense of who Mr. Clyburn was.
    Where was he in 1870. Was he living beside his former master?
    What do land records show? Did his former master give him land?
    What were the names of his children? Did he name his children after members of his masters family?
    Was he a slave? free? Pension was written thru the eyes of a white in Jim Crow times.
    I could keep asking question after question. My point is the pension application is only one small piece of the puzzle.
    It seems to me that much of the discussion about this topic revolves around emotion. What do the facts say. I understand that slavery and Jim Crow involved power over the mind but Mr. Clyburns actions after the Civil War should tell something about him.
    As for the SCV, what is the point in all this. To feel good about yourself? Try to look like you have diversity?
    Is pathetic.

  • Robert Moore Oct 25, 2008 @ 20:34

    Kevin – Great job on securing the application and providing more details directly from the app. I’m working on another question regarding pensions and the nature of service in men and hope to have something posted in the near future.

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