One of my biggest complaints about the many stories about so-called “black Confederates” is that the authors in question have almost no interest in doing serious research. Most of the stories that you will find on the Internet are simply cut and pasted from one site to another. Essentially, these men are treated as a means to an end; they are used to reinforce assumptions that the authors themselves have a need to uphold. Such is the case of Bill Yopp, who is the subject of a recent essay by Clint Johnson. The story:
The aging veterans, in the Confederate Soldier’s Home, were proud men who had braved many a battle in the 1860s. One of these men was former Captain Thomas Yopp who saw such battles as that of Fredericksburg, VA, where a cannon shell burst knocked him unconscious. The man who stayed with him until he recovered was his servant who had also joined the 14th Georgia Regiment, Company H. Bill Yopp was more then a servant; he and Thomas Yopp were friends who hunted and fished together. Bill Yopp, a Black Confederate, was sympathetic to the men of Atlanta’s soldiers home who had been his compatriots in arms over fifty years earlier.
During the War Between the States, 1861-1865, Bill Yopp was nicknamed “Ten Cent Bill” because of the money he made shining shoes. He did this for the soldiers at a dime a shine and ended up with more money than most of his comrades. These men, also, cared for him when he was sick. During the Christmas of 1919, Bill wanted to pay back the kindness that was shown to him. He caught a train from Atlanta to Macon, where he was offered help from the editor of a local newspaper [The Macon Telegraph]. He then caught a train to Savannah to raise Christmas money for the old veterans. Bill met many generous people on his trip. Just weeks before the Christmas of 1919, he had raised the money and Georgia’s Governor Hugh Dorsey helped him distribute envelopes of three dollars to each veteran. That was a lot of money in those days. The old Confederates were speechless. Tears were shed because of Bill Yopp’s good heart and kind deed. Many of these men had little or nothing. Bill was invited to come into the home’s Chapel and say a few words. Bill Yopp was later presented a medal of appreciation for his support of the old soldiers and also voted in as a resident of the Confederate Soldier’s Home.
It’s unfortunate that Bill Yopp is irrelevant to this story. Think about it. We learn nothing about this man other than how he fits into those timeless tropes of loyalty and reconciliation. It seems obvious to me that Bill Yopp was owned by Thomas Yopp and yet Johnson continues to refer to him as a “servant” who “joined” the 14the Georgia. Well, that can easily be confirmed.
But beyond that there is so much that we don’t know about Bill Yopp. What did he do after the war? What was his economic situation before 1919? And while it is comforting to believe that Yopp “wanted to pay back the kindness” of former “comrades” we are obligated to ask for evidence. I am always struck by the ease with which writers like Johnson assume the motivation of former slaves during the Jim Crow Era. I am also curious about Governor Dorsey’s involvement in Yopp’s project. What was his motivation? It would be interesting to know how Yopp fits into Atlanta politics during the period following WWI. Perhaps the governor’s archival record might yield some answers. Finally, I am very interested in a more sophisticated analysis of Bill Yopp’s place in the Confederate Soldiers Home. We need to understand more about the culture and social structure of veterans homes and part of the problem is that we still need more research in this area. [I am looking forward to Rusty Williams’s forthcoming study, My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans (University of Kentucky Press, 2010). How common was it for former slaves in the Confederate army to gain admittance into these homes? Were they, in fact, treated as veterans? Did they have equal access to the available resources? The questions are numerous, but if we have any interest at all in better understanding these men than they must be addressed. Unfortunately, organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other writers have no interest in looking into these stories for fear that what they find will complicate and muddy their preferred interpretation.
Better to use the past to make us feel all warm and cozy during the Christmas season.