Who Was “Ten Cent Bill” Yopp?

One of my biggest complaints about the many stories about so-called “black Confederates” is that the authors in question have almost no interest in doing serious research.  Most of the stories that you will find on the Internet are simply cut and pasted from one site to another.  Essentially, these men are treated as a means to an end; they are used to reinforce assumptions that the authors themselves have a need to uphold.  Such is the case of Bill Yopp, who is the subject of a recent essay by Clint Johnson. The story:

The aging veterans, in the Confederate Soldier’s Home, were proud men who had braved many a battle in the 1860s. One of these men was former Captain Thomas Yopp who saw such battles as that of Fredericksburg, VA, where a cannon shell burst knocked him unconscious.   The man who stayed with him until he recovered was his servant who had also joined the 14th Georgia Regiment, Company H. Bill Yopp was more then a servant; he and Thomas Yopp were friends who hunted and fished together.  Bill Yopp, a Black Confederate, was sympathetic to the men of Atlanta’s soldiers home who had been his compatriots in arms over fifty years earlier.

During the War Between the States, 1861-1865, Bill Yopp was nicknamed “Ten Cent Bill” because of the money he made shining shoes. He did this for the soldiers at a dime a shine and ended up with more money than most of his comrades. These men, also, cared for him when he was sick.  During the Christmas of 1919, Bill wanted to pay back the kindness that was shown to him. He caught a train from Atlanta to Macon, where he was offered help from the editor of a local newspaper [The Macon Telegraph]. He then caught a train to Savannah to raise Christmas money for the old veterans. Bill met many generous people on his trip.  Just weeks before the Christmas of 1919, he had raised the money and Georgia’s Governor Hugh Dorsey helped him distribute envelopes of three dollars to each veteran. That was a lot of money in those days.  The old Confederates were speechless. Tears were shed because of Bill Yopp’s good heart and kind deed. Many of these men had little or nothing. Bill was invited to come into the home’s Chapel and say a few words.   Bill Yopp was later presented a medal of appreciation for his support of the old soldiers and also voted in as a resident of the Confederate Soldier’s Home.

It’s unfortunate that Bill Yopp is irrelevant to this story.  Think about it.  We learn nothing about this man other than how he fits into those timeless tropes of loyalty and reconciliation.  It seems obvious to me that Bill Yopp was owned by Thomas Yopp and yet Johnson continues to refer to him as a “servant” who “joined” the 14the Georgia.  Well, that can easily be confirmed.

But beyond that there is so much that we don’t know about Bill Yopp.  What did he do after the war?  What was his economic situation before 1919?  And while it is comforting to believe that Yopp “wanted to pay back the kindness” of former “comrades” we are obligated to ask for evidence.  I am always struck by the ease with which writers like Johnson assume the motivation of former slaves during the Jim Crow Era.  I am also curious about Governor Dorsey’s involvement in Yopp’s project.  What was his motivation?  It would be interesting to know how Yopp fits into Atlanta politics during the period following WWI.  Perhaps the governor’s archival record might yield some answers.  Finally, I am very interested in a more sophisticated analysis of Bill Yopp’s place in the Confederate Soldiers Home.  We need to understand more about the culture and social structure of veterans homes and part of the problem is that we still need more research in this area.  [I am looking forward to Rusty Williams’s forthcoming study, My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans (University of Kentucky Press, 2010).  How common was it for former slaves in the Confederate army to gain admittance into these homes?  Were they, in fact, treated as veterans?  Did they have equal access to the available resources?  The questions are numerous, but if we have any interest at all in better understanding these men than they must be addressed.  Unfortunately, organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other writers have no interest in looking into these stories for fear that what they find will complicate and muddy their preferred interpretation.

Better to use the past to make us feel all warm and cozy during the Christmas season.

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History Channel Does Reconstruction Right

Our tendency to distinguish between the Civil War and Reconstruction obscures the fact that fundamental questions of freedom, national identity, and citizenship were left unanswered. According to historian, Vernon Burton:

At stake during the Civil War was the very existence of the United States. The bloodiest war in our history, the Civil War posed in a crucial way what clearly became persistent themes in American history: the character of the nation and the fate of African Americans (writ large the place of minorities in a democracy, the very meaning of pluralism). Consequently, scholars have been vitally interested in the Civil War, searching out clues therein for the identity of America. But if the identity of America is in the Civil War, the meaning of America and what we have become is found in Reconstruction, and the Civil War cannot be separated from Reconstruction any more than the sectional conflict can be separated from the war. (“Is There Anything Left To Be Said About Abraham Lincoln?, Historically Speaking, [September/October 2008] p. 6)

Part of the problem is that our tendency to remember Appomattox as some kind of love fest or the beginning of reunion obscures the level of violence that continued into Reconstruction.  Much of that violence was perpetrated against southern blacks to reinforce assumptions of white supremacy and prevent freed slaves from exercising newly-won civil rights.  Such a view has grown steadily among academic historians since the 1960s and in recent years can be seen in a wave of more popular titles.  The pervasiveness of this view can be seen in a recent History Channel documentary, titled, Aftershock: Beyond The Civil War.  Based on only viewing the first episode it looks like this particular documentary is not so concerned with the complex political issues that dominated the period, but with the scale of violence that was used to terrorize blacks into submission.  It suggests that perhaps the war did not end in 1865, but took on a different form in the years that followed.

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“He My Boss, Not My Massa”

This is a deleted scene from the movie, “Gods and Generals”.

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My You Have a Pretty Toe

Battlefield-GettysburgSome of you know that the cover story for the April issue of Civil War Times will feature my article on Confederate military executions.  This is a project that I’ve had in the works for a couple of years, and although I am not finished thinking about the subject, I thought it might be worthwhile to share some of my findings with a general audience.  In addition to the article I am also finishing up a 500 word sidebar on an execution that took place in “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps in August 1862 for the same issue.  December has been incredibly productive for me without the pressure of having to churn out daily blog posts.

In the course of my research I came across an interesting account that I am hoping to follow up on in the near future.  The account comes from the Charles Thurston Papers which are housed at the University of Virginia.  Writing from Centreville, Virginia in November 1861, Thurston promised his family to send home a souvenir from the battlefield and hoped to include the following:

I am only pleased to hear from Mother that you are such a good boy and Edwin, too.  Fine lads both of you, and I shall certainly bring you home something good for sore eyes in the shape of a bomb shell, Yankee toe, a Stone Bridge, or Bull Run Walking Cane.  I cut one out the other day, a soldier on the end of it, and I believe I will send it to Mr. Cooks.

You can see that I am interested in Thurston’s desire to send home a body part.  This is the only such account that I’ve come across, but I am sure there are plenty more.  I would very much appreciate any references (Union and Confederate) that you’ve come across in the course of your reading/research.  It seems to me that this would make for a very interesting essay.  I would also like to know if there are any secondary sources on the subject.  I know that it was quite common during the Jim Crow Era to remove bones from lynching sites to keep as souvenirs.  At first glance it seems to touch on the fascination that soldiers attached to battlefields and their struggle to come to terms with the brutality of war.  That Thurston hoped to send a body part home suggests a need to impress upon loved ones of just what he and others experienced in battle.  Thanks in advance for your assistance.

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My Confederate Soldier Roommate

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