A Pension For a Vote

I can’t tell you how appreciative I am of the help that I’ve received over the years from my readers. My Crater manuscript is filled with references shared by readers and my own thinking has been shaped by the rich commentary that follows many of the posts on the subject.  That continues as I begin my next book-length study of black Confederates.  Today I was contacted by NPS historian, John Stoudt, who came across the following reference in Ed Ayers’s book, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 1992).

The following passage comes in a chapter that examines the culture of elections during the postwar period and the manipulation of the black vote.

It usually took far more than such bullying, though to gain the votes of disaffected or apolitical blacks.  One Democrat wrote to North Carolina Senator Matt Ransom to solicit his support for a pension for “a very deserving honest old colored man  He is very destitute and unable to work and he certainly is deserving a pension (if any body is).  He votes the democratic ticket straight out and uses his influence for the democrats, and in the last election his vote and influence with that of twenty or thirty more colored voters saved the democrat party in my county.”  The white Democrat had promised his black ally that he would “do all in my power to get his pension for him.  I want him to have it and I want him to have it bad.” [W.H. Lucas to Sen. Matt Ransom, Jan. 6, 1892, Ransom Papers, UNC-SHC]

My question is whether it is possible to narrow down the type of pension that an elderly black man might have received in 1892.  According to James G. Hollandsworth Jr., former slaves did not begin to receive pensions for their time in the Confederate army until 1927.  Regardless of whether the pension had anything to do with the war itself, this should remind us that “black Confederate” pensions must be interpreted within the context of Jim Crow and white political control.  Black men, who applied for pensions based on their roles as servants/slaves during the war had to maneuver through this structure and the possibility of financial gain surely would have influenced how they responded on the official forms.  This passage also should caution us in drawing a direct connection between a pension form and the war.  It is possible that some pensions given to former slaves reflect the kinds of election practices described above.

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Mac Wycoff on Richard Kirkland

[Part 1, Part 2, and John Hennessy’s assessment of the evidence]

Not too long ago I featured a guest post by Michael Schaffner on the subject of Richard Kirkland.  Mr. Schaffner did extensive research on Online sources related to the Kirkland story which left him with a number of questions re: the veracity of the story. I thought it was well documented so I decided to feature it on Civil War Memory.  I’ve also written a bit about our fascination with the Kirkland story.  In the end, while I’ve expressed skepticism about the story based on the available evidence I am much more interested in our continued attraction to this particular story.  It’s a wonderful case study for understanding how we, as a nation, have chosen to remember our Civil War.

Former National Park Service historian, Mac Wycoff, has done extensive research on the story and has written up his findings for a series of posts at Mysteries and Conundrums.  This is a must read for those of you who are interested in this story.  I suggest that if you have comments that you leave them with Mac’s post so that he can address them directly.  Finally, let me just reiterate that my goal in writing about Kirkland has never been to “debunk” or use the story to “attack” the South.  Such a suggestion is silly and not really worth acknowledging.  I use this site to ask questions.  If you are uncomfortable with the questions that I ask than you really need to find yourself another blog.

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The National Park Service’s Black Confederates

[Hat-tip to Keith Muchowski]

Update #2: The information sheet has been removed.

Update: I just got off the phone with an NPS employee at Governors Island.  It turns out that the document was published just this month and was written by an undergraduate at Columbia University.  The woman I talked to was very nice and encouraged me to contact the individual in question as well as her supervisor.  It looks like the student used titles by Barrow and Rollins and other books that you can find on SCV websites.  In fact, I stated specifically that if I did not know anything about the document’s origin, I would have guessed that it was written by the SCV.  I will keep you updated.  This is a perfect example of why I am so focused on this subject.

Many of you know that I am a big supporter of the National Park Service and their commitment to battlefield preservation and interpretation/education.  Unfortunately, it appears that the quality of historical scholarship that exists at many sites is not uniform throughout.  At least that is the feeling I am left with after reading the following handout from Governors Island in New York City.  I am going to quote the document in its entirety, which includes a section, titled, “Black Confederates”:

Some black Americans in the South left to fight for the Union army, but 65,000 black men served as Confederate soldiers.  The Confederate States Colored Troops were officially organized in 1865, just months before the war ended.  However, many officers ignored rules banning black soldiers and allowed blacks to fight in biracial units.  Other black soldiers fought in state militias.  Free black soldiers were generally paid equally to white soldiers, unlike the disparate pay rates received by white and black soldiers in the North.  Eligibility for pensions differed by state, but black soldiers often did not receive pensions or received pensions much later than white soldiers.  In South Carolina, for example, black soldiers were considered ineligible for old age pensions until 1923. Black men also built entrenchments and fortifications and served as cooks and teamsters.  People fulfilling these jobs for the Army today would be considered soldiers, but at the time these sorts of tasks were not considered real soldiering.  This contributed to the perceptions of many white Southerners that blacks in the Army were more like servants than soldiers.

Black Southerners had many reasons for fighting for the Confederacy.  Like white Southerners, many held strong loyalties to the particular states in which they resided.  Some slaves were offered freedom for serving in the Confederate Army, while other slaves were required to fight or serve in support roles.  Many black Southerners desired the pay offered by the Confederate Army, as well as the new experiences, adventure, and pride that being a soldier entailed.  Other black Confederates were defending their homes from invading Northern troops, who would sometimes capture large groups of slaves to punish white secessionists, as well as rape black women.

I don’t really know where to begin in critiquing this narrative.  I have no idea how they arrived at a number of 65,000.  The author apparently missed the fact that in South Carolina the pensions were given to former slaves and not to black Confederate soldiers.  There are no documented biracial units in the Confederate army that I know about.  At times there is a failure to clearly distinguish between soldiers and slaves.  In addition, it is news to me that a significant number of white Southerners were confused about the status of the presence of black men with the Confederate army.  I am going to try to find out more about this through some friends in the NPS.  Unfortunately, this is as bad as anything you will find on the Internet.

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John Tenniel’s Black Confederate

A brief analysis of this cartoon is available here.

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Civil Warriors

Additional information about this movie can be found here.

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