And the Lies Continue

No surprise that the recent post on Aaron Perry has led to a spirited discussion.  I expressed concern that the ceremony that took place yesterday to honor this man would not do justice to his true status as a slave nor that the marker placed by the SCV would indicate this crucial piece of history.  I was pleasantly surprised to hear from one reader who attended the ceremony that Perry’s slave status was mentioned more than once.  [Of course, I prefer to read the addresses for myself.]  And what about the marker that will inform visitors to the grave?

Aaron Perry
1840 – Mar. 14, 1930
Served In The Confederate Army
37TH NC Regt.
1861 – 1865

So let me ask: Do you think the average visitor will walk  away with the impression that Perry was a soldier or a slave?  And the lies continue.

While we are at it, what would you include on the marker to properly identify Perry?  Keep in mind, the more letters, the more costly.

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41 comments… add one

  • Roger E Watson Feb 19, 2012

    You can’t get much more misleading than that ! With so very, very few actual BCS, the SCV has to work (lie) as hard as they can to convince people of the thousands they say there were.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2012

      The SCV has a long track record of distorting history for their own purposes. Aaron Perry was enslaved for a good part of his life and now his memory is being manipulated by the descendents of the very men who fought so long and hard in an effort that, if successful, would have left him in bondage.

    • Bernard Feb 19, 2012

      I’m sure you’ll find reason to disagree, but “served in” is far from the worst that could have appeared here. I would have preferred to see the words “former slave” or something to that effect qualifying it, but as has been noted we have no evidence to suggest that they obscured or hid his slave status during the ceremony or any of the press coverage around it.

      In that sense, the SCV is no more “guilty” of deception than the U.S. Census Bureau, which actually attached a survey of living Civil War veterans to the famously lost 1890 Census. As table 124 shows, they collected a detailed accounting of veterans on the Confederate side by state and race. The results showed a not-insignificant 3,723 “black confederates” still living as of 1890 in addition to 542 widows of “black confederates.”

      Granted it is perfectly fair to note that the Census Bureau didn’t identify what capacity they served in and one would expect the majority of these to have been cooks, teamsters and the sort. But those numbers are also telling because it was offered voluntarily by census respondents, indicating that in 1890 over three thousand blacks still self-identified with the Confederate side of the war, whatever their capacity may have been. This bolsters the anecdotal evidence of Civil War veterans events where we know some blacks did indeed show up and self-affiliate with the Confederate veterans groups.

      It also suggests that the SCV’s characterization of people like Perry may not be all that far removed from how Perry would have characterized himself to the census taker or at a turn-of-the-century battlefield reunion.

      • Bernard Feb 19, 2012

        My mistake – the above should read 3,273 living and 542 widows.

      • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2012

        Hi Bernard,

        Thanks for the comment. I will have to check into your census references later, but keep in mind that the 1890 census does not constitute an official military document of the Confederate military. It simply indicates how individuals respond to a particular question. If you want to know who served in a particular unit you need to consult military records.

        I’m sure you’ll find reason to disagree, but “served in” is far from the worst that could have appeared here. I would have preferred to see the words “former slave” or something to that effect qualifying it, but as has been noted we have no evidence to suggest that they obscured or hid his slave status during the ceremony or any of the press coverage around it.

        If in fact Perry was referenced as a slave during the ceremony than I say wonderful. That said, more people are going to visit Perry’s grave without having attended this ceremony. It is a gross distortion of the relevant history, but like I’ve said, it is perfectly consistent with how the SCV has handled these situations.

        I don’t know how Perry would have characterized himself in 1890 nor do I know anything about how he viewed his experience in the war. What I do know is the SCV has no problem speaking for these people in the form of a ceremony, marker, and iron cross.

        • Bernard Feb 19, 2012

          “It simply indicates how individuals respond to a particular question”

          That’s my point. The way that some of these “black confederates” perceived themselves in their own lifetimes is not far removed how the SCV is designating their graves today. We know from anecdotal evidence that quite a few of them showed up at veterans reunions and chose to affiliate with the confederate side. The census numbers confirm that self-designation by showing over 3,000 who still voluntarily identified with the Confederacy as late as 1890.

          While it does not establish them as soldiers on rank with white enlistees, it definitely complicates how we tend to perceive these things looking backward over a century later. Most notably, it suggests that at least some of the black recipients of these SCV markers would have been perfectly happy to have them on their graves based on their own voluntary self-identification with Confederate units for many decades after the war.

          That evidence alone substantially complicates the counter-narrative we often see today where black descendants of these men are essentially portrayed as having been hoodwinked into accepting a marker based on misleading information by an SCV with all sorts of ulterior and nefarious motives at play.

          While would indeed be deceptive to obscure their slave status or portray them as armed enlistees, the SCV at least in this case does not seem to be doing that. The question we should be asking then is “would someone like Perry want this marker on his own grave?” What evidence like the Census survey tells us that there’s a very plausible case that he would.

          • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2012

            That evidence alone substantially complicates the counter-narrative we often see today where black descendants of these men are essentially portrayed as having been hoodwinked into accepting a marker based on misleading information by an SCV with all sorts of ulterior and nefarious motives at play.

            You would have to do substantial research to find out why they identified in certain ways in the census interviews. You would need to know more about the dynamic of the interview process. What did these men believe was at stake in their answers? Who was conducting the interviews? In short, whatever information the census report provides that you think is relevant constitutes the very beginning of a research project and not the end. I for one find it very interesting and I look forward to hearing more from you as you delve in deeper.

            For me, in the end it comes down to the belief that you better know your subject if you are going to single him/her out for such a recognition. There is no evidence that Perry would approve this recognition, but that has never mattered to the SCV. History is irrelevant as indicated on the marker itself.

            • Bernard Feb 19, 2012

              The National Archives entry for the 1890 Census indicates the survey was taken in response to an inquiry from Congress to determine the number of living Union veterans in the U.S. The Census Bureau director decided to take a count of living Confederates as well.

              The surveyors were simply the census takers. It was essentially an 1890’s version of the extra demographic questions they tack on to the census today. As an official product of the census, I think most reasonable people would find the provenance of its data to be sound (and indeed the very same report is frequently cited by historians to estimate the longevity of white Civil War veterans without question of its reliability)

              The real tragedy, of course, is that we lost most of the 1890 census to a fire in 1921. I’m certain several of the entries for those who identified themselves as “colored confederates” would have interesting and valuable information about their self-perception – and coming from a source that had greater scientific consistency than the typical newspaper account or family histories we have today.

              • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2012

                I am simply suggesting that a black man in 1890 may have had any number of reasons to identify as a “colored Confederate” etc just as former servants were likely motivated for any number of reasons to attend Confederate veterans reunions. Again, I am not sure what I am supposed to do with a historical record that has of yet to be interpreted.

                I’m certain several of the entries for those who identified themselves as “colored confederates” would have interesting and valuable information about their self-perception

                Again, you would need to investigate each case on its own, but I honestly don’t know how you would go about doing this given the lack of a written record from these men.

                I have spent some time researching Confederate veterans reunions and I can point to a broad range of reasons why the soldiers welcomed former body servants and other blacks to attend these gatherings. It is an interesting question that tells us quite a bit about race relations at this time.

                • Bernard Feb 19, 2012

                  These are all very valid questions you ought to be asking. My aim is to see the discussion go in a direction beyond (and far more informative than) the two standard and highly misleading narratives of today – both that “black confederates” were gun-toting soldiers AND its flip side – that they were nothing more than slaves held against their will who would have defected to the Union lines at a second’s notice, at which point the discussion ends.

                  The 1890 Census report illustrates that a substantial number of blacks – for whatever reason, in fact probably many different reasons – voluntarily self-identified as Confederates. Since it was the Census they also did so in response to a survey with sound provenance and comprehensive scope. The next obvious task is to start probing for those reasons in the 1890 papers that survived the fire. It won’t ever be a full record, but it’s better than anything else we have to go by and could shed some light on the summary stats.

                  As I said, 3,000+ is not an insignificant number. The next task is to figure out what it means, and on that note I’ll simply observe that it already seems to complicate and blur the lines of the present debate.

                  • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2012

                    My aim is to see the discussion go in a direction beyond (and far more informative than) the two standard and highly misleading narratives of today – both that “black confederates” were gun-toting soldiers AND its flip side – that they were nothing more than slaves held against their will who would have defected to the Union lines at a second’s notice, at which point the discussion ends.

                    I am not sure who you have in mind as representative of the latter. My whole purpose has been to move the discussion beyond these two poles. My recent article with Myra Chandler Sampson is a perfect example of this. Let me be clear that I am interested in challenging any position that oversimplifies the master-slave relationship during the war. Slaves were utilized in a wide range of ways. I wonder how many of those men who identified themselves as “colored Confederates” were impressed slaves and not body servants.

                    In the end I see no reason to abandon my position on how the SCV has handled Aaron Perry’s memory in the form of a marker.

          • Andy Hall Feb 19, 2012

            The question we should be asking then is “would someone like Perry want this marker on his own grave?”

            That’s an important question. The case of Richard Quarls in Florida is one where you could make that case, given that he attended at least one UCV reunion near the end of his life. Yet when he died, he was buried under the name he’d assumed after the war, with no mention on his memorial of his involvement in the war. His family chose not to memorialize that. And of course, in their gung-ho rush to mark him as a black Confederate soldier, the SCV gave him a rank and first initial he’d never had.

            But this goes beyond black Confederates; it really applies to heritage groups’ grave-marking activities generally. The men in question may or may not have wanted their graves marked in that way; their immediate families at that time ended up making those decisions that may or may not have reflected the deceased’s wishes. Generations later, we really can’t know for sure.

            Heritage groups, by contrast, seem to be certain that putting up military service markers is the right and proper thing to do, often in the absence of any evidence in individual cases. Because that serves their mission, irrespective of any other consideration.

            For all that they will talk about grave sites as sacred and inviolable spaces, heritage groups do seem driven to put their stamp on them. They hold themselves out as sole arbiters of how those men’s military service is remembered and exercised (e.g., “The Charge”). But that’s their conceit, not objective reality. I think a good rule for heritage groups to adopt is not undertake such efforts (regardless of the race of the man being so “honored”) unless the project is initiated by the descendants of the man. Otherwise, hands-off.

            • Jeffry Burden Feb 20, 2012

              Andy, that’s a general issue I have struggled with as leader of a citizen’s group supporting a local historic cemetery here in Richmond. We have started a project to mark as many soldiers’s graves as possible with government-supplied markers (mostly CSA soldiers — all white, as far as I know :-) .) Would they have wanted a military marker, or even any mention of their military service at all? What would their families think?

              In our case we tilt toward the importance to the cemetery, and the city, in supporting and historically interpreting this oft-neglected site, as opposed to the risk that we are not honoring a specific soldier’s wishes. The markers state the bare historical fact of their service as citizens of the CSA. We would never presume to “fill in” the record by assuming anything else.

            • Bernard Feb 21, 2012

              “The men in question may or may not have wanted their graves marked in that way; their immediate families at that time ended up making those decisions that may or may not have reflected the deceased’s wishes.”

              I suspect that many of their families at the time were relatively impoverished and depending on when the individuals died, a military marker may not have even been available to them if they wanted one.

              Deferring to the wishes of the modern family is an imperfect solution, but the least problematic one available to us and therefore the one I tend to support. I do think it is troubling that some of these families are having this “honor” foisted upon them by heritage groups, but it is well within their rights to decline it. I also find that far less troubling than the narrative put forth in some quarters, wherein the families are not-so-subtly portrayed as having been “tricked” into it by the SCV and “used” for the SCV’s agenda.

              If the family says no, the SCV should respect their wishes. But if they say yes, everyone else should be willing to respect their wishes as well.

              • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2012

                If the family says no, the SCV should respect their wishes. But if they say yes, everyone else should be willing to respect their wishes as well.

                I certainly respect their right to take part in any kind of ceremony involving their ancestor, but I also retain the right to point out when that ceremony goes beyond or contradicts the available historical record.

                • Bernard Feb 21, 2012

                  Fine by me if that happens. But we’re back to the original point on this one – there’s no evidence that the SCV did anything to conceal the fact that Perry was a slave, and it appears to have been stated several times in the ceremony.

                  • Kevin Levin Feb 22, 2012

                    I guess we just have a different perspective on this. I think it’s great that the SCV mentioned that Perry was enslaved, but in the end they fell short in the usual way. Given what is written on the marker, what do you think most people will walk away believing about Perry’s status in the Confederate army? I believe they will think that he was a soldier and that is a gross distortion of history.

    • JosephineSouthern Feb 20, 2012

      And you and Levin sir have to lie to prove there were not black Confederates!

      • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2012

        Hi Josephine. Nice to see that you are still alive and kicking.

  • Robert Moore Feb 19, 2012

    In lieu of…

    “Served In The Confederate Army
    37TH NC Regt.
    1861 – 1865″

    …this…

    “Slave/Servant to a member of the 37th NC Regt., C.S.A.”

    No balooning of the facts there…

    • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2012

      You nailed it, Robert. It doesn’t take much of an effort to approach the past honestly.

    • Michael Feb 19, 2012

      That’s exactly the sort of thing I meant in another thread when I said that there was a very simple way that the UDC/SCV could present the facts of the matter in a way that no reasonable person should have a problem with. But I doubt they’d ever do it. And if they did there’s a certain element that would raise a hue and cry about how these organizations had caved to “political correctness.”

  • Rob Baker Feb 19, 2012

    Aaron Perry
    1840-March 14, 1930
    Slave to the Confederate Army
    37TH NC Regt.
    1861-1865

    • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2012

      My only problem is that this seems to obscure the legal relationship between Perry and his owner. Such a description would be more reflective of impressed slaves.

      • Rob Baker Feb 19, 2012

        Aaron Perry
        1840 – March 14, 1930
        One man’s slave in another man’s army
        37th NC Regt. CSA
        1861-1865

        • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2012

          catchy.

  • Tom Logue Feb 19, 2012

    Kevin:

    Excellent post, as always.

    There seem to be two concerns in conflict. On one hand, history should be factually true. It should honestly report the facts. And I think you caught the SCV distorting the facts, which is a service.

    On the hand hand, history also serves a purpose like myth, in the largest sense of that word. As Americans, we are still trying to come up with a narrative of the civil war that includes all of the facts, supports the shared vision of American exceptionalism, while also not demonizing the main American players, particularly the Southern Whites. How can we tell the story of the Civil War that honors Northern Whites, Blacks, and Southern Whites? At one time or another, we have had myths that set up one or the other of these groups as the bad guys, usually by suppressing a lot of the truth, the prime example being the myth of the Lost Cause that dominated America’s memory of the war at least from 1880 to 1940. Is there a way to tell the history of the war in a manner that respects all of the players? Once such a narrative is made, it will take the steam out of the the efforts to create fake history by groups like SCV.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2012

      Hi Tom,

      Thanks for the comment. I certainly agree that history often provides fertile ground for myth making, but this is such an easy place to get the story right. As you no doubt agree, there is nothing redeeming about what the SCV has done to the memories of these enslaved men. Fortunately, our narratives 150 years later are in many cases much richer and embrace the complexity of the Civil War past. Unfortunately, within this landscape the SCV is still, on occasion, able to do noticeable damage.

      • Tom Logue Feb 19, 2012

        I agree.

        When I speak of writing a narrative that embraces and honors the experience of all parties, I think the key might be explaining why Southern Whites felt that their economic, but more importantly their cultural and social, existence was tied to slavery. Although they were swimming against the tide of history, there were reasons for their mistaken belief. And certainly, the ideas of racism and white supremacy were not limited in time or place to just the Confederacy. Of course, any such explanations should not minimize the injustice of slavery or trivialize the suffering of the individuals who were enslaved. Much of the fake history that you are exposing appears to be generated by attempts to support indefensible ideas either that (1) the war was not caused by slavery; or (2) slavery was somehow benign. The sooner sympathizers of the South rid themselves of those delusions, the closer we will be trying to write a new narrative of the war that honors all of the parties.

        • Gretchen Adams Feb 19, 2012

          It is a modern manifestation of a pre-13th amendment relationship:

          “We owned X in 1861, and often referred to him as a “servant” or “one of the family.” In 2012, in death? We reserve the right to label our “servant” however we please.”

          At least, it has always had an unpleasant whiff of that perogative of ownership to me…

  • Ray O'Hara Feb 19, 2012

    It’s like playing Whack-a-mole except it seems impossible to win.

    Recently in a different forum evidence of Black Confederates was presented when there were some captured at Forth Fisher listed as Privates in the 2nd NC Regt of Artillery .
    I was able to find that units roster and none of the names mentioned were listed as members of said unit.

    • TF Smith Feb 19, 2012

      This concept of installing markers for AAs who are alleged to have been enlisted in the PACS strikes me as akin to the post-mortem baptism practice of non-LDS members – and equally presumptive.

      • John Buchanan Feb 22, 2012

        Exactly

  • Matt McKeon Feb 19, 2012

    I agree with Gretchen’s comment. That’s what is so slimy about this.

    • Richard Feb 20, 2012

      Aaron Perry
      1840 – March 14, 1930
      Survivor of Slavery
      37th NC Regt. CSA
      1861-1865

  • Dan Weinfeld Feb 21, 2012

    Those 1890 Census numbers Bernard points to are really interesting and open up all sorts of questions. But, while Bernard sees 3,815 individuals (vets & widows) claiming service in the Confederate armies 25 years after the war’s end as significant, can’t the opposite also be argued? Are there any estimates of how many blacks were impressed, labored, “served” or were loaned to the Confederate ranks, as laborers, cooks, musicians, railroad workers, ditchdiggers, burial detail, etc.? I would guess hundreds of thousands were involved with the Confederate military in one form or another (there were about 1 million adult male slaves in 1860). With all that may have been at stake in claiming Confederate service (pensions, ingratiating oneself with one’s neighbors/employers, or, for some, sincere belief in the Confederacy), isn’t it surprising that so few – maybe a 3 or 4% at most of those who entered the lines – claimed to “serve” when given the free opportunity to do so? (I assume that there was no negative consequence for claiming service). Of course this is conjecture, but as speculation it’s just as valid as the argument that the 1890 census demonstrated black identification with Confederate service.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2012

      You are absolutely right. What Bernard has done is point out a road that could be taken, but as you know that will involve a great deal of further research.

    • Bernard Feb 21, 2012

      “With all that may have been at stake in claiming Confederate service (pensions, ingratiating oneself with one’s neighbors/employers, or, for some, sincere belief in the Confederacy)”

      Given that the survey was the federal census, it is difficult to argue that anyone stood to gain any of those things by claiming Confederate service. There weren’t any pensions attached to it and it’s doubtful anyone expected special recognition to come from it as census records are sealed by law well beyond the lifetime of most of their participants.

      You’d have a valid point if this were a survey by the state pension office, but by 1890’s standards the census is as close to a true impartial survey as you get.

      But yes – in a broader sense the 1890 census is an admittedly new direction of research more than anything. It would be genuinely interesting to know why some 3,000 people answered the way they did. And I point it out because it surprises me nobody has taken their research in this direction yet, given all the attention the “black confederates” issue has gotten and the nitpicking that it tends to attract from both sides of the debate.

      • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2012

        It must be nice to be able to place oneself in a comfortable position above the “nitpicking”. :-)

        • Bernard Feb 21, 2012

          Nitpicking goes with the territory. It’s just the absence of the 1890 census from (what I can tell) this entire debate seems like a glaring oversight for a topic that often turns to the minute nitpicky details of what letters, units, and designations appear or don’t appear on an SCV marker. So I honestly hope people on both sides of the debate pursue it and see what it yields.

          • Kevin Levin Feb 22, 2012

            It’s not a glaring oversight until you show that it is through interpretation. You haven’t done that as of yet.

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