He Survived Slavery

I wasn’t going to say anything when this story first appeared. How many black Confederate induction ceremonies are necessary to share. This is the first one to appear in the news in some time. Last week the United Daughters of the Confederacy welcomed Georgia Benton into the fold based on her great-grandfather’s, presence in the army as the slave/body servant of Lt. Alex McQueen.

As in so many other cases the reporting is so incredibly frustrating as it clumsily moves back and forth between referring to George W. Washington as a slave and soldier. He was a slave. The UDC’s membership guidelines are somewhat vague:

Those eligible for membership are women at least 16 years of age who are lineal or collateral blood descendants of men and women who served honorably in the Army, Navy, or Civil Service of the Confederate States of America, or who gave Material Aid to the Cause.

Where do slaves fit? And if the UDC would like to increase its black membership why not revise these guidelines to make it clear that the descendants of slaves are also eligible. Perhaps they would like to include descendants of body servants and impressed slaves who constructed earthworks throughout the Confederacy.

The problem is that both the UDC chapter president and Benton herself seem to be confused about who it is they inducted.

Elizabeth Piechocinski. “But what they don’t realize is that there were a large number of African-Americans who served in the confederacy. Some were musicians or body servants, but some also fought.”

and

“If you eliminate the history of the black Confederate soldier, than you eliminate the history of the south.  And if you eliminate the history of the south, you eliminate the history of the United States,” Benton said. Benton says her great-grandfather served in numerous battles including the battle of Sharpsburg and the battle of Gettysburg.  He survived the war and later died in 1911.

It’s a subtle shift, but one that makes all the difference and can help descendants like Benton and groups like the UDC steer clear of fundamental historical inaccuracies. Washington’s story is more closely aligned with that of Solomon Northup than a Confederate soldier. This is not to say that Washington experienced the level of violence as did Northup, but that their world was defined by their legal status as slaves. If slavery had ended in 1860 than we would say that that Washington survived slavery, just as Northup had done, but the war came and for various reasons he found himself with his master in the ranks.

The five year difference, however, doesn’t change the fact that George W. Washington survived slavery.

18 thoughts on “He Survived Slavery

  1. Rob Baker

    Where do slaves fit? And if the UDC would like to increase its black membership why not revise these guidelines to make it clear that the descendants of slaves are also eligible. Perhaps they would like to include descendants of body servants and impressed slaves who constructed earthworks throughout the Confederacy.

    That brings up an interesting idea. What if they did clearly state that they accepted the descendants of former slaves that helped, or were forced to help, in the Confederate effort. It would be an interesting concept to see the descendants of those divided by race, coming together now to recognize the wrongs and work side by side in community service.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      That’s right. There is a thread of reconciliation at work in these examples, but in my mind it gets lost in the butchering of the past and the need to see something that just isn’t there in the historical record.

      Reply
  2. BorderRuffian

    “Those eligible for membership are women at least 16 years of age who are lineal or collateral blood descendants of men and women who served honorably in the Army, Navy, or Civil Service of the Confederate States of America, or who gave Material Aid to the Cause.

    Where do slaves fit?”

    They fit well within that description.

    *

    “…why not revise these guidelines to make it clear…”

    Not necessary.

    *

    “…Washington’s story is more closely aligned with that of Solomon Northup…”

    Solomon Northrup again? Really?

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I fail to see what any of this adds to the discussion. If you don’t like Solomon Northup you can substitute any of the other 4 million slaves that lived in the South by 1860.

      Reply
  3. Andy Hall

    “And if the UDC would like to increase its black membership why not revise these guidelines to make it clear that the descendants of slaves are also eligible.”

    That’s sort of the crux of the matter. Unless they make an explicit change in the membership policy, then they leave the question hanging, “why now?” Why hasn’t the Georgia UDC had an African American member in the 100-plus years of its existence before now? Why wasn’t Ms. Benton — or someone like her — a member in 1983, or 1953, or 1913? You can’t chalk it up to new research, since stories like Washington’s were a staple of the old Confederate Veteran magazine which, back in the day, was the official publication of the SCV and UDC as well as the UCV.

    I suppose it’s great that the UDC in Georgia wants to be seen as progressive and welcoming and twenty-first century and all, but highlighting Ms. Benton’s new membership in 2013 — while pretending the UDC really is the same organization that it’s always been — really underscores the complete absence of African American members in the first hundred or so years of the UDC’s existence.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Andy,

      Great comment. Thanks. I have no problem if the UDC chooses to revise its membership guidelines for reasons of inclusiveness, etc. You are absolutely right to note that these stories have always been present, but what is often lost is that this push for “black Confederates” only came on the heels of the re-discovery of black Union soldiers. The timing is, indeed, everything. You are also aware of the fact that camp servants were welcomed at veterans events, but there was no mistake as to their status during the war or their place at the table during the event itself.

      Organizations can evolve, but as in the case of all these stories the UDC, SCV and others are distorting the past to achieve a broader agenda.

      Reply
  4. betty giragosian

    Kevin, my African American friend joined the use on the record of her great grandfather who helped build the earthworks in Gloucester, Virginia. This was giving material to the confederate. Maybe his service was not on the battlefield, but it was service, nevertheless. She told that when she saw the earthworks for the first time. She burst into tears. She proud and happy to be. A member of the use and we are proud to have her. She an asset to our organization. We have never barred African Americans from membership. Someone wonders why there is a push to gain membership of African Americans. I do not think this is, that there is a push. This is a different time and place. Why not give us credit for changing for the better.q

    Reply
    1. Andy Hall

      “We have never barred African Americans from membership.”

      I’m sure that’s technically true. I’m also quite certain that, until recently, the actions of your friend’s ancestor were not considered to be “service” that qualified their descendants for membership in the organization. There was no need to formally bar them, as cases like Ms. Benton’s weren’t even acknowledged.

      I think the UDC has a great opportunity here, to explicitly say that the work of enslaved body servants and laborers like your friend’s ancestor will, going forward, qualify for membership. By blurring the distinction between enlisted or commissioned soldiers under arms and civilian servants or laborers with vague terms like “service,” the UDC is perpetuating a shoddy misrepresentation of history, and they’re fooling nobody but themselves.

      “This is a different time and place. Why not give us credit for changing for the better.”

      It is a different time and place, and I’m glad — very glad — that the UDC of 2013 is a different one that Cousin Katie knew. . But you don’t get credit for “changing for the better” unless you candidly acknowledge what you’re changing in the first place. The Georgia UDC wants props for enrolling Ms. Benton as its first African American member, without having ever to say exactly why, after 119 years, Ms. Benton is its first African American member.

      Reply
  5. Betty Giragosian

    Kevin, i am using a Kindle for the first time and my errors are legion. I am sure you know that I meant to write UDC and not USE. Being too numerous to correct them all, please bear with me. it was sent too quickly.

    Reply
  6. Betty Giragosian

    Andy, I have no idea who Cousin Kate is. Perhaps i was wrong in saying the UDC have changed for the better. Times change. As a people, we have improved. Have you ever considered that maybe no African American women sought membership in the UDC for the first 100 years? The UDC does not need to explain or change anything. Nor do we need to say why there were no African American members for the first 100 years. I don’t know why, other than they did not apply for membership. When the first African American woman joined the UDC in Virginia about 20 years ago, I don’t recall such a furor over it as is shown on this site today. This should give your pen ammunition for the next few days, anyway. ift you had the interest to take the time to learn about our work, you might have a little higher regard for our organization. I can only repeat, and hope you will get it, these men served in different capacities in the CSA, and whatever their service was, it is recognized, whether in battle or as material aid. Why does it seem to bother you that African American women might want to belong to the UDC? They want to be members, we are glad to have them as members. Don’t try to make a problem where none exists. But then, you make your living by writing derogatory articles about the Confederacy. It is too much to expect otherwise from you and other commenters and bloggers.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Betty,

      I think you are missing the point that Andy and I are attempting to make. Speaking for myself, I have absolutely no problem with the UDC welcoming African Americans into the organization. In the end, it’s not for me to decide anyway.

      My primary interest and concern is the way in which history is being distorted to open the door for black members.

      I can only repeat, and hope you will get it, these men served in different capacities in the CSA, and whatever their service was, it is recognized, whether in battle or as material aid.

      Let’s be clear that these men were slaves and not black Confederate soldiers as the UDC representative in the article continues to assert. She is making a false claim pure and simple.

      Reply
      1. Betty Giragosian

        Kevin, I did not read the story of Mrs. Benton’s becoming a member, so I cannot address that. Certainly they were slaves, unless they happened to be freemen. If their service consists of labor, that is still material aid to the Confederacy, no matter that they might not have been soldiers. We have women whose membership is based on material aid by their ancestors, no military service required. Now I am going to find that story and read it.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          If their service consists of labor, that is still material aid to the Confederacy, no matter that they might not have been soldiers.

          No disagreement if by ‘service’ you mean the Confederacy benefited from it. The problem is that it is often interpreted as intended to support the Confederate cause.

          Reply
      1. Betty Giragosian

        Well, Andy, maybe you should read what you write with an open mind. OH, I see what you mean–you write on other subjects, too.

        Reply

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