One of the most disturbing aspects of so called accounts of “black Confederates” is the almost complete absence of the voice of the individuals themselves. All too often these men are treated as a means to an end. Accounts all too often reduce complex questions of motivation to one of loyalty to master, army, and Confederate nation. Organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy [see here and here] now routinely publicize the discovery of what they believe to be black Confederate soldiers and in some cases even involve the descendants of these men, who almost always turn out to be slaves. What is so striking is the failure on their part to acknowledge their roles as slaves even in the face of overwhelming evidence. It is important that we see this as little more than the extension of the faithful slave narrative that found voice before the war and reached its height at the turn of the twentieth century. Apart from the ability to influence the general public through websites, blogs, and other social media formats there is really little that is new in the more recent drives to rewrite black Confederates into the past. The war, in the end, had little or nothing to do with slavery and slaves remained loyal throughout.
The extension of this faithful slave narrative in recent years can be clearly discerned in the case of Weary Clyburn. I’ve talked quite a bit about Clyburn over the past few years and in recent weeks. He seems to be the darling of heritage groups like the SCV as well as a favorite of curator Earl Ijames. Consider the recent SCV ceremony that acknowledged Clyburn for his loyal service to the Confederacy and resulted in a military marker. Sadly, this ceremony involved the descendants of Clyburn and gave them the false understanding that he had served in the army. Clyburn was, in fact, a slave; however, that little fact is never mentioned during the ceremony and it is rarely mentioned in most modern accounts. In the midst of all the flags, bagpipes, and praise by SCV speakers and Earl Ijames we learn absolutely nothing about Clyburn himself. What we, along with Clyburn’s descendants, learn is what falls within the boundaries of the faithful slave narrative that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Consider Clyburn’s obituary, which appeared in the Monore Journal on April 1, 1930 under the title, “Old Colored Man Is Buried in the Uniform of Gray.” He was given this “honor by reason of having been in the Confederate ranks and a life time of faithfulness to the men and their descendants who made up the Confederate armies.” The obituary is clear to point out the distinction between being “in” the Confederate ranks and serving as a soldier. Later in the notice the writer does note that Clyburn went to war to “cook for his master, Col. Frank Clyburn of the 12th South Carolina Regiment.” The story of Weary saving Frank on the battlefield is referenced, which fits perfectly in the overall emphasis on faithfulness.
Had Uncle Weary been a white man he would have been a Confederate hotspur. Being dark of skin and born a slave he could approach his ideal by being as near as the fighting white folks that he grew up among as his skin and lack of education would allow. All his life he was a white man’s darkey and his principle did not change when came back from the war. He went with his white folks and became a Democrat.
It’s a remarkable passage and tells us quite a bit about what white North Carolinians chose to remember about Clyburn’s life. At every point, beginning with a reference to “Uncle” is the man himself ignored. He was worth remembering because his actions could so easily be interpreted in a way that would not upset a well-established Jim Crow society by 1930 and at the same maintain their belief in loyal blacks both before, during and after the war. After the war Clyburn was best known for his participation in Confederate veteran reunions; however, he apparently was never acknowledged as a soldier. Rather, he played the fiddle at these events and around area hotels to bring in money.
The tragedy in all of this is that Weary Clyburn’s past did not have to be distorted for it to be recognized and honored. The point that needs to be made is that Clyburn is a hero. He survived the horrors and humiliation of slavery and war and even managed to make it through the height of the Jim Crow South. If that is not worthy of remembering and commemorating than I don’t know what is. Unfortunately, we may never be able to fill in the details of Clyburn’s life, which is itself part of the legacy of slavery and racism in this country. Sadly, Clyburn is still playing the fiddle for various groups and individuals who for one reason or another choose to distort the past.