Weary Clyburn Didn’t Serve the Confederacy, He Survived It

Haley - Clyburn Proclamation

Governor Nikki Haley Statement about Weary Clyburn

It’s been a week of posts about Weary Clyburn and I suspect many of you would prefer that I move on to something else. Many of the usual suspects in the Southern heritage community believe that I am attacking the memory and good name of Ms. Mattie Rice. One person in particular compared my posts this week to the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, which was initially confusing to me since I thought the individual in question was a member. I’ve always found topics like this, where there is a conflict between history and memory, to be ideal grist for this blog mill.

As I understand it, the problem for my detractors is that I don’t accept the narrative advanced by Ms. Rice, which essentially frames the story of her father as that of a slave who fought as a solider in the Confederate ranks. It’s true. Given my understanding of the history of slavery and the Confederacy and access to the relevant archival documents, it is my contention that this narrative is false. There is no wartime evidence that Weary Clyburn served as a soldier in the 12th South Carolina Infantry and postwar documents related to his pension clearly state that he was not a Confederate soldier. It is irrelevant whether Ms. Rice believed such a story. My responsibility as a historian does not begin and end with what any one individual happens to believe about the past.

Both black and white members of the Chandler family have long believed that their ancestor, Silas Chander, served as a soldier in a Mississippi regiment, but we now know that even though he is photographed armed and in uniform that he was a slave. It is irrelevant what any one individual believes. What matters is what you can prove given the available evidence and how it is interpreted. Even as my inbox filled up with hate mail throughout the week not one person was able to offer an actual argument to counter anything that I have written about Weary Clyburn over the years.

My problem has never been with Ms. Rice, but with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, United Daughters of the Confederacy and others who have co-opted this story to support their own warped view of the Civil War, the Confederacy, and the relationship between Southern whites and blacks throughout this period. Right behind them are the countless media outlets, from local news channels in North Carolina to NPR, who have done a poor job of reporting this and other stories involving former slaves and the Confederacy.

Now add to the Weary Clyburn distortion machine South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who issued an official statement acknowledging that Clyburn served as a soldier. That’s right, a sitting governor from one of the oldest slave states in the South acknowledging that a slave volunteered to serve as a Confederate soldier. In one sentence the entire institution of slavery is reduced to a voluntary relationship between owner and property.  This is an insult to the memory of all slaves that were forced to contribute to a war effort that, if successful, would have extended their lives as the property of others.

The sad fact in all of this is not simply that our memory of Weary Clyburn’s has been distorted, along with the history of slavery, but that Ms. Rice didn’t run into better people earlier on to help her sift through her personal memories of her father and the broader history.

11 thoughts on “Weary Clyburn Didn’t Serve the Confederacy, He Survived It

  1. Margaret D. Blough

    It is part and parcel of a series of efforts, with Texas being in the lead, of attempting to rewrite history in order to make it harmonize with their prejudices. It’s trying to rever the Founding Fathers while attempting to deny that they were revolutionaries, bent on overthrowing the existing government which had governed them for over a century. While it’s true that most of the Patriots of the American Revolution started out hoping to resolve their differences with the Mother Country, they came to accept the reality of what they were doing. When the signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, they were not indulging in rhetorical flourishes. Some were old enough to remember the brutal aftermath of the failure of the Second Jacobite Rebellion in the UK. They knew the costs of failure.

    When it comes to the pathetic efforts of whites and a few others, to claim that Blacks, especially slaves, served as soldiers in the Confederacy, they are, in fact, rejecting the beliefs of the ancestors they claim to rever and effectively calling them liars. One need only look at the reaction to Patrick Cleburne’s proposal and the debate over the desperate last minute move to allow blacks to enlist to understand that the Confederate leadership meant something very specific about being a soldier. Howell Cobb, both a civilian and, at one point, a military leader and whose brother T.R.R. (who was KIA at Fredericksburg) wrote the definitive legal treatise (from the pro-slavery position) on the institution of slavery as it existed in the US before the Civil War, was very clear that, in the beliefs of him and many other whites, if a black could be a soldier then the entire theory on which the Confederacy was built was wrong. I can understand Mrs. Rice’s willingness to believe what she was told by people who wanted to coopt her ancestor to meet their agenda. But, as has been said, facts are stubborn things. We honor Weary Clyburn by accepting the truth of his situation: it was irrelevant to the whites who controlled all institutions in the Confederacy, including the army, up until the very end of the Confederacy (and even that on very restricted terms), as to what Mr. Clyburn wanted or believed he was capable of doing. It’s ironic that the people who scream “political correctness” and charge others of imposing current views on those who went before us are guilty of what they falsely claim others are doing. A wise man I knew once asked, as a rhetorical question, “If I call an elephant a giraffe enough times, does that make it turn into a giraffe.” Weary Clyburn will remain an elephant no matter how Gov. Haley, pandering to part of her constituency, proclaims him to have been a giraffe.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I can understand Mrs. Rice’s willingness to believe what she was told by people who wanted to coopt her ancestor to meet their agenda. But, as has been said, facts are stubborn things. We honor Weary Clyburn by accepting the truth of his situation: it was irrelevant to the whites who controlled all institutions in the Confederacy, including the army, up until the very end of the Confederacy (and even that on very restricted terms), as to what Mr. Clyburn wanted or believed he was capable of doing. It’s ironic that the people who scream “political correctness” and charge others of imposing current views on those who went before us are guilty of what they falsely claim others are doing. A wise man I knew once asked, as a rhetorical question, “If I call an elephant a giraffe enough times, does that make it turn into a giraffe.” Weary Clyburn will remain an elephant no matter how Gov. Haley, pandering to part of her constituency, proclaims him to have been a giraffe.

      Well said, Margaret. These people seem to be completely ignorant of even the basic outline of the story surrounding the enlistment of slaves into the Confederate army. They don’t know the very history they claim to be defending.

      Reply
    2. RUDOLPH YOUNG

      As a former African American commander of a SCV camp, I saw the Civil War from the inside. They have always said that the war was not over slavery .If they can transform slaves into soldiers , they change forced labor into patriotism. Then it follows that the slaves willingly fought for the Confederate Cause. When I object to their warped agenda , I was expelled from the SCV for honoring the Confederate Soldiers good name.

      Reply
      1. Jimmy Dick

        The SCV is not interested in actual history. They want to preserve the lost cause version. Note the small size of their organization. They are on the path to extinction.

        Reply
  2. Marian Latimer

    Ah, Nikki Haley, the grand panderer herself. Give her a cause to sell herself to for votes and she is all over it. Madame Haley had her parents audited for not giving up their Sikh faith to her more politically expedient Christianity. Of course, the sweetheart of SC is ever oh, so honorable in public, even getting guns for gifts and showing off her skills with them to the world, but in private, not so much. Seems the good governor has had her share of dalliances and was even named as the cause in a divorce or three. Ah, our good old timey values. Guns, God, and our heritage. Every chance Nikki gets to put on a show (see hubby returning from overseas duty) she goes all Meryl Streep on us and not in a good way. Not that I dislike her or anything…

    Reply
  3. Kevin Levin Post author

    Maybe you have an agenda.

    Yes, to get the history right. If you know of any wartime evidence that shows that this individual fought as a soldier than I would like to see it. Anything else is just empty rhetoric.

    Reply
  4. Stanley clyburn

    I need to learn more about weary clyburn. I’m a distant relative that’s interested in history.

    Reply

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