The Social and Cultural Significance of Black Confederate Pensioners

confederate veteran, black confederateAs we all know one of the most misunderstood aspects of the debate surrounding the existence of black Confederate soldiers is the existence of pensions that were given by former Confederate states to qualified black citizens at various points during the postwar period.  For the uninformed or those working primarily from a narrow agenda the existence of these pensions is proof positive of the existence of black soldiers and the fantasy of a multiracial army.  The pensions have been used on numerous occasions by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other heritage types to justify new grave markers and other monuments to these men.  I am not interested in returning to this debate. My position is clear.

What I am interested in doing is posing a few questions about these pensions, which is the subject of chapter 3 in my manuscript on the history of camp servants and the myth of the black Confederate soldier.  My goal is to use the pension records and other sources to explore how white Southerners chose to remember the Civil War and specifically the role of camp servants at the turn of the century.  The questions posed clearly assume that the applicant was present as a non-combatant; in other words they are not classed as soldiers.  Regardless of the state the vast majority of black pensioners were servants and cooks.  What is even more revealing is that pension applications make no inquiry as to whether the individual in question was wounded on the battlefield.  This does not mean that such information never made it onto an application, but that it did not change the status of the applicant.  This is a crucial point given the emphasis that black Confederate advocates place on battlefield prowess.  Again, it apparently made no difference to how white Southerners viewed these men during the postwar period. 

I may focus on one state or take a comparative approach.  Mississippi is very attractive since it was the only former Confederate state to include black non-combatants in its initial pension program for white veterans in 1888.  The program from the beginning included camp servants of Mississippi officers, who had been wounded during the war.  The next states to offer pensions to former servants include.  It might be interesting to explore Mississippi along with one of the following states.

  • Tennessee, 1921
  • South Carolina, 1923
  • Virginia, 1924
  • North Carolina, 1927

This raises a whole host of questions in my mind. Why was Mississippi the only state to make this allowance early on?  Why was there such a time lapse before another former Confederate state passed legislation that included black non-combatants?  Most importantly, how should the inclusion of former camp servants, both in 1888 and in the 1920s be interpreted?  I have some ideas, some of which are pretty straightforward such as the symbolism of the loyal slave. In 1921 the Confederate Veteran reported on Tennessee’s revision to its pension system by noting the following:

Doubtless other states of the South will make similar provisions for their old negroes, whose loyalty under the circumstances showed a fine sense of honor not apparent in later generations of the race.

While the reference to the ‘loyal negro’ is clear and might help to explain Mississippi’s program, what I find interesting is the concern about the lack of ‘honor’ among blacks in the 1920s.  There were relatively few former camp servants/black non-combatants still alive in the 1920s.  Perhaps the flurry of activity in the 1920s has little to do with these elderly men.  What is it about race relations in the post-WWI South that might have led to the granting of these pensions?  Given that the pensions themselves were filed on a county level, what did local officials hope to accomplish with this program?

As you can see, I have questions, but no answers.  So, what do you think?

14 responses... add one

A cynic might say that the 1920s pension laws were passed precisely because there were so few left alive—it wouldn’t cost much. Other than that observation, I don’t have a lot to add this afternoon. Sorry.

Just thinking aloud here. One difference between Mississippi and the other states is that it was the generation that fought through the war that was responsible for the pension program. By the 1920s we are talking about a younger generation born after the war that is in the power. That is something that needs to be taken into consideration. Early and later pension programs for blacks would have been framed around different agendas.

Hey, nice to hear from you again.

“A cynic might say that the 1920s pension laws were passed precisely because there were so few left alive—it wouldn’t cost much.”

There’s no need for a modern cynic to conjecture that, because they said exactly that at the time — “there are not so many old negroes [sic.] who saw this kind of service in the war that the expense would be heavy.”

As always, it’s worth examining what real Confederates wrote at the time, because it serves as a useful (if not very pleasant) corrective to the brothers-in-arms nonsense put forward by make-believe Confederates today. <a href=From the Confederate Veteran, October 1913, p. 481:

PENSION SLAVES WHO SERVED IN THE WAR.

The South loved and revered the old darkies who formerly were servants in the homes and on the plantations of the white people. They will ever occupy a sacred place in the memory of the people of the Old South and their sons. If people ever deserved to be so revered, it is the old darkies.

The people of the South should, do something material for the benefit of a particular class of old slaves. The servants who faithfully followed their young masters to the front during the War of the States and served as loyally as if they had been enlisted white men, doing their particular duties well and never tiring, should be allowed to draw pensions paid by the white people of the Southern States.

Behold the picture: Black, ignorant, yet faithful, the servant of the sixties, at the call of his master, was quick to leave the old plantation and go to the front to bear the burdens of the master, forage for him, and nurse him while sick or wounded, and in death lifted the body of his beloved master, bore it from the battle field, and took it back to the old plantation and family burying ground. The negro slave delighted in serving his white folks.

Consider the irony of the situation. The darky knew that the first consequence of the war in case of victory for the enemy would be bis immediate “freedom.” He knew it because his master told him so. But no soldier in gray ever fought with greater vengeance than was felt in the heart of the black man with him. Administering to his every want in sickness and in health, seeking food for bis hungry body, and bearing him home in death — in every way the servant was loyal and faithful to his master.

He cannot live much longer, and we should pension him. There are not so many old negroes who saw this kind of service in the war that the expense would be heavy. We are sure that not a normal human bring in all the South would begrudge the old darkies who served their masters at the front a pension commensurate with their great services and the capacity of the State to pay.

Keep in mind that this magazine was not only the official publication of the UCV, but also of the UDC and the SCV. The times, they do change.

Thanks for referencing this entry in its entirety. I’ve got in my files as well. What I want to know is how these accounts functioned in a “New South” that continued to utilize the past to “manage” race relations during a time of social, political, and racial unrest.

I am particularly interested in the 1920s given the concentration of pension programs geared to former servants. Did the presence of black soldiers in the war fuel concerns in the South? Again, what else was going on at this time that may have led to such a program? Should the pension program be situated among other steps taken at the state level at this time?

I think you will find it helpful to consult Leon Litwack’s “Trouble In Mind,” which extensively discusses race relations in the periods relevant to your inquiry. In summary, race relations took a terrible turn for the worse (from the already not so great) from the 1900s on into the 1920s. One of the reasons was a supremacist stereotype of the “new generation” of African Americans as being insufficiently subservient.

Hi Mary Ellen,

Thanks for the reference. I’ve got the book on a shelf next to me. That makes sense. So the pension program reinforces what whites expect from blacks, but also signals that it will be rewarded with state financial support.

I am also going to review J. Douglas Smith’s Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia.

Hey everyone, please suggest additional readings.

There was also quite a bit of voting rights activism among local NAACP chapters hoping to use women’s suffrage as an opportunity to refocus attention on disfranchisement. Paul Ortiz discusses the Florida chapters in Emancipation Betrayed–they sent people out in massive numbers to vote and then catalogued the disfranchisement during and widespread violence after the elections in the hope that Congress would enforce the 14th amendment in the redistricting process after the 1920 census. I wonder if a surge in black political activism right around 1920 could have prompted states to wax nostalgic about the “loyal” slaves, thus leading to the new pension laws.

I’ve been reading about race in the 1920s/30s in NC and the author (Malinda M. Lowery, “Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South”) makes a point to link racial categorization of that particular period to modernity and industrialization. Makes sense because that is the period (not really the 1880s New South boosterism of Grady, et. al.) during which an industrial order is truly consolidating it’s social power in the region. Modernity, after all, does like to categorize people. Not to say racial categorization hadn’t happened before–obviously it did. And not to say that sacrilizing “loyal servants” was an invention of the industrial project, or that it was even a particular interest of modernists. But it might be useful to think about as an inconsequential eddy in the current of industrial change in the south.

I wish I had known more about this when trying to figure out the reasons the Hawfields Presbyterian Church in Alamance County placed a “faithful slave” plaque in its graveyard in 1922. Nothing of real consequence in that year, but the plaque was part of a church renovation funded by Stephen White’s family… White being the founder of the prosperous White Furniture Company in Mebane. Faithful slaves, industrialization, 1920s… it comes together.

Anyhow, I’ll straight up and steal Professor Lowery’s footnote for this.

James C. Scott, “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.”

Mark Schultz, “The Rural Face of White Supremacy: Beyond Jim Crow.”

Grace E. Hale, “Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South.”

William Link, “The Paradox of Southern Progressivism.”

I’m sure you are already familiar with most of these.

Thanks for the suggestions, Chris. I am reading Michelle Gillespie’s new book about R.J. Reynolds, which is also quite helpful on this score.

It may be worthwhile to tie the Confederate servants’ pensions into the broader Ex-Slave Pension movement, ca. 1892-1922, viewed varously as callous scam or enlightened proposal.

That’s an excellent suggestion, Mike. Thanks so much. I have a copy of Mary Frances Berry’s biography of Callie House, who as you may know was at the center of this movement. Great to hear from you.

So many things come to mind here: There was a resurgence in Klan activity which, of course, insisted on compliant and dependent African-Americans. As someone else pointed out, there was an upsurge in black activism. Marcus Garvey, while mostly associated with New York City, had some influence in the South and UNIA chapters were noticeable. Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South fom Slavery to the Great Migration is really helpful on this score. This is also a time when the South seemed to be under siege for being “backward.” The Scopes Trial is just one example. As other people noted, the emphasis on petitions (black people literally having to beg for something) was a nostalgic look back at the days of slavery when race relations were certain.

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