Correction: One of my readers noticed some very sloppy writing in this post that I wish to acknowledge and correct. I wrote that the SCV did not reference Clyburn as a slave, which is untrue. Interviews with members do include such a reference. What I should have said was that there was no clear reference to his status in the brief clips that show the actual ceremony. Even Earl Ijames references Clyburn as a slave, but like the SCV their language is unclear and inconsistent, which was the point I was trying to make. The crucial distinction between a soldier and slave has all but been lost in all of this. Thanks to the reader for keeping me honest and I apologize for the confusion.
I wanted to share some thoughts with you about last week’s talk by John Stauffer on black Confederates. I had a number of problems with his presentation, which you can read here. One of the questions I’ve had since the talk is why the W.E.B. DuBois Institute would be interested in such a subject and then I remembered that you have had some exposure with this narrative, most recently while filming your PBS documentary, Looking For Lincoln. As a former high school history teacher I want to thank you for this series. At the time I was teaching a course on the Civil War and historical memory so the show fit in perfectly. My class was able to watch individual segments as a basis for further discussion or other activity. We all thoroughly enjoyed it.
During Professor Stauffer’s talk you referenced the series and your surprise at finding yourself in the middle of a ceremony to honor an African American as a Confederate soldier. Your brief comment, however, did not indicate that you were aware of the history that went into the verification of this individual as an enlisted soldier. If you are then I apologize, but for what it’s worth I thought it might be helpful to review this case. [You can watch the video by clicking here. Scroll down to "Lincoln and the Beginning of the Civil War" and begin at the 4:22.]
The individual who was honored was Weary Clyburn. Clyburn was a cook for his master, Frank Clyburn, who served in the 12th South Carolina. He was one among thousands of slaves who were forced to follow their owners into the army. There is no evidence that Clyburn ever held the rank of soldier. There is no evidence that he ever thought of himself as a soldier and there is certainly no evidence that any white soldiers believed him to be a soldier. His obituary makes this perfectly clear. We also have a pension application from the North Carolina Department of Archives and History, which was submitted by his wife after Clyburn’s death. It makes clear that he was not a soldier.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans chose to honor Clyburn as a soldier and not once referenced his true status. This is nothing less than a gross distortion of the past that unfortunately involved his descendants and it is being repeated on an alarming basis. The fruits of their work can be seen in the controversy surrounding the inclusion of a reference to an entire division of black Confederate soldiers under the command of Stonewall Jackson in a Virginia 4th grade textbook.
In attendance that day was an archivist from NCDAH by the name of Earl Ijames. He has claimed to have done extensive research on this subject, but to this day has failed to publish anything in a scholarly journal. Ijames carried out the “research” for Clyburn, but because he has not published his findings it is impossible to pin down where he stands and I suspect this created sufficient room for the SCV to conduct their charade in Raleigh. I was sorry to see that you referenced Mr. Ijames in a footnote in one of your recent books. Imagine my surprise when I was asked to respond to this fn in a recent interview on The Takeaway radio show. I have followed up on many of Ijames’s claims by going to the archival sources with the help of his fellow employees at the NCDAH, who are also frustrated by his public statements. Not one case has pointed to the existence of an enlisted soldier. As I tried to point out to Professor Stauffer last week – definitions matter. White southerners were very clear in defining the proper scope of what it meant to be a soldier. They were consistent from the beginning to the end of the war and their public debate over the recruitment of slaves as soldiers in 1864-65 underscores the cultural importance of that definition.
Finally, I want to state that the dismissal of some of the more extravagant claims about black Confederates by Civil War scholars such as James McPherson has nothing to do with not wanting to soil an emancipationist narrative of the war. The insinuation smacks of an ad homenim attack and fails to acknowledge the amount of work that McPherson and other scholars have done in this particular field. Ask anyone who has spent considerable time in the records of Confederate armies (Gary Gallagher, Robert K. Krick, Ken Noe, Peter Carmichael, J. Tracy Power, John Hennessy, to name just a few) and they will tell you pretty much the same thing.
The only question I really have is whether your understanding of this subject goes beyond the work of Ijames and an SCV ceremony. If so, I would love a reference list of primary and secondary sources. I don’t mind admitting that right now I am operating under the assumption that the best Civil War scholarship has shown that apart from a few exceptions African Americans did not serve as soldiers in Confederate armies.
In the end, Professor Stauffer failed to add anything new to this field of study.