It looks like Earl Ijames is at it again. You may remember this past summer that Ijames – a curator at the N.C. Museum of History – was involved in a grave site dedication for Weary Clyburn, who supposedly served as a soldier in the Confederate army. I covered this story closely and offered a number of reasons to doubt these claims as I have for most of these silly stories about black Confederate soldiers. Today it is being reported that Ijames will tell Clyburn’s story to 1,500 people later this week at the National Genealogical Society’s annual conference in Raleigh. The problem is that there is no evidence that Clyburn served in the 12th South Carolina Volunteers, though that should not stop Ijames from making the claim.
The available evidence suggests that Clyburn was a slave who went to war with Capt. Frank Clyburn (12th S.C.) and was the legal property of his father. In the most recent issue of North and South Magazine (June 2009) historians Thomas Lowry and Rev. Alex H. Ledoux offer a few observations about the difficulties of researching “black Confederates.” One of the examples they cite is Clyburn. According to the two there is no listing for Clyburn in Broadfoot’s Roster and there is no record of him whatsoever in the National Archives – even under alternate spellings. [In fact, every case they cite begins with the usual evidence and ends with no record of service.] Clyburn did apply for a pension, but this is of no help in determining his status in the army, though without any official military records it points to the obvious. Though not Ijames’s exact words, it is safe to assume that the reporter captured his overall view:
“The historically accurate term is ‘colored Confederates,'” Ijames says, and thousands of them went to war from Southern states, including North Carolina. Some were slaves sent in place of their masters, or were forced or volunteered to serve alongside them. Others were freed blacks who offered their services.
Notice the lack of clarity in distinguishing between those who volunteered or were forced to accompany an officer. They are treated as if they all deserve to be interpreted and remembered along similar lines – a complete lack of historic understanding. How many free blacks openly served in Confederate ranks given the fact that the Confederate government did not allow it and that men in individual units were committed to running non-whites out of the army.
It isn’t clear whether Clyburn went to war just because his friend had gone; or he thought, as some soldiers did, that no matter who won, slaves would be set free; or he believed he could raise his stature by serving; or he fought because the South was the only homeland he had ever known and he was willing to die to protect it.
At some point we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the available evidence doesn’t point to some of the more extravagant (or even modest) claims about thousands of loyal black Confederate soldiers. Why is there such scant evidence? Because they were slaves. Look for their names in the private records of individual slaveholders and businesses, though we should always keep in mind that the vast majority have been forever lost owing to their status. As I’ve said before, the most disturbing aspect of these stories is the deception of the general public as well as the families who are curious about their history. History is a dangerous thing when you don’t know how to do it.