UDC Uses and Abuses the History of Slavery

In my last post on “black Confederates” I wondered whether the two women dressed in mourning attire were white.  Well, I have no doubt that the women in  these images are indeed white.  And…yes, they are decorating the grave of “Pvt. Henry Henderson, a black Confederate soldier.” This article is so poorly reported that it is impossible to know for sure the status of Henderson without going to the archives.  That said, I have an idea.  According to the article:

Henderson was born in 1849 in Davidson County, NC. He was 11 years old when he entered service with the Confederate States of America as a cook and servant to Colonel William F. Henderson, a medical doctor. Records show Henry was wounded during his service, but he continued to serve until the war’s end in 1865. He was discharged in Salem, NC, age 16.

As Peter Carmichael notes in his essay, Confederate officers often brought their slaves with them as camp servants as a reflection of their social status and for their services.  And many were even outfitted with uniforms.  After noting that 60-90,000 “black Confederates served” in the Confederate army the author notes that Henderson’s sons received their father’s one and only pension check from the state of Tennessee in 1926.  Of course, as many of you know the receipt of a pension check does not tell us much of anything about the status of black men in the Confederate army.  [Consider the case of Weary Clyburn and see a recent post by Robert Moore, here]

Like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy teach us nothing about the complex history of race relations in the Confederacy.  Henry Henderson deserves to have his story told as well as have his life recognized and honored by his descendants.  Based on the skimpy evidence provided in this article we should conclude that Henderson was a slave who happened to find himself with the army as a young boy.  That this boy was forced to join his master in the army at such a young age, and was eventually wounded, must be understood as an extension of a broader life story of coercion.  I often wonder what Henderson himself would say about such a spectacle.

The women in these images are not honoring a soldier, they are honoring a slave.

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11 comments… add one
  • Marc Ferguson Apr 18, 2009

    I would say that these women are not actually honoring a slave, but continuing to exploit that slave a century and a half after then end of slavery.


  • Sherree Tannen Apr 18, 2009

    “The women in these images are not honoring a soldier, they are honoring a slave. ”

    I would say that these women are not actually honoring a slave, but continuing to exploit that slave a century and a half after then end of slavery.”

    Marc has it right. Eleven? So not only were adult black men who were slaves forced to be camp servants; children were forced to be camp servants, too. That puts it all in perspective.

    Marc has it right.

  • Crystal Marshall Apr 18, 2009

    I could really care less about what these women are doing…it’s their dresses that scare me :0) I’ll stick with jeans and a t-shirt, thank you.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2009

    I also agree with Marc, which is exactly what I was trying to point out in the post. The women pictured here are completely incapable of commemorating Henderson’s life because they fail to acknowledge him for what he was – a slave. It is even worse given that the individual in question was a young boy, which only works to compound the tragedy of the story and the extent of the exploitation.

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 18, 2009

    I knew you agreed with Marc, Kevin. And you did make your point. And you made it well. When modern men and women exploit the memory of an eleven year old child born into slavery who was forced to be a camp servant in a bloody war, there is nothing more to be said about what is wrong with this type of ceremony. It is disgraceful. And no argument about whether there were “black Confederates” or not, or if there were “black Confederates”, how many? can make it otherwise. In fact, all arguments are moot. You have honored Henry Henderson here today on this blog by telling his true story. I hope that serious research into this subject is conducted so that all of the Henry Hendersons of the Civil War are remembered in a way that is worthy of who they actually were, and of how they actually lived their lives.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2009


    Well, I don’t think I’ve told Henderson’s story. I would like to think that taken together these posts help to put us in a position where we can begin to take their stories seriously. Thanks.

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 19, 2009

    Yes, that is a more accurate description, Kevin, but it seems that it is a good start to me. Thank you as well.

    This comparison won’t hold for many reasons, and it is not historical analysis, but it may provide another view. If black men who were slaves who were forced to be camp servants in the Confederate army, were further forced to bear arms and fight the Union army, their experiences as soldiers, whether the Confederate officers and regular soldiers validated that experience or not, gave those men fleeting moments of autonomy, and they may have found themselves working against themselves, much like the British soldiers in the film “The Bridge over the River Kwai”. I understand the complications with the comparison, starting with the fact that the film does not accurately portray a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Also, the British were soldiers and the black men who were slaves forced into the Confederate army remained slaves. In addition, the comparison will be denounced from both sides. Yet, it is still conceivable that a black man who was a slave and who was forced to fight acted bravely and died fighting the very men who were coming to free him, not because he wanted to remain a slave, but because he had become a soldier for those moments and hours when he was in battle, and that is a possible part of the narrative of the American Civil War that is not being told (to my knowledge) because we are locked in a battle over memory that centers around the tenacious hold the Lost Cause myth has on our memory, and a battle for memory that is necessary. I don’t quite understand what I am trying to say myself, Kevin, so I will cease and desist. I will leave this to historians. Thank you. Sherree

  • Lee White Apr 19, 2009

    This is interesting, I have looked up Henry’s pension and it states that no regiment was given, and I have just checked Bruce Allardice’s Confederate Colonels, Clark’s North Carolina Regiments, A Biographical Roster of Davidson County Confederates, Crute’s Units of the Confederate States Army, as well a thorough search of the internet and cant find Colonel William F. Henderson, Ive come across several privates, but no high ranking officer or surgeon. So, Im really wondering about this now.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2009


    Thanks for taking the time to do a little research. I can’t say I’m surprised by your lack of findings as most of these examples involved dubious research methods or no research at all. Perhaps his name will turn up, though that would constitute just the beginning of a detailed research project to uncover Henry Henderson’s story.

  • Robert Moore Apr 20, 2009

    Kevin… please adjust the reference to my post. That should read “Robert” not “Richard” Moore. Thanks.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 20, 2009

      Sorry about that.

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