Category Archives: Lost Cause

“All His Life He Was a White Man’s Darkey”

One of the most disturbing aspects of so called accounts of “black Confederates” is the almost complete absence of the voice of the individuals themselves.  All too often these men are treated as a means to an end.  Accounts all too often reduce complex questions of motivation to one of loyalty to master, army, and Confederate nation.  Organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy [see here and here] now routinely publicize the discovery of what they believe to be black Confederate soldiers and in some cases even involve the descendants of these men, who almost always turn out to be slaves.  What is so striking is the failure on their part to acknowledge their roles as slaves even in the face of overwhelming evidence.  It is important that we see this as little more than the extension of the faithful slave narrative that found voice before the war and reached its height at the turn of the twentieth century.  Apart from the ability to influence the general public through websites, blogs, and other social media formats there is really little that is new in the more recent drives to rewrite black Confederates into the past.  The war, in the end, had little or nothing to do with slavery and slaves remained loyal throughout.

The extension of this faithful slave narrative in recent years can be clearly discerned in the case of Weary Clyburn.  I’ve talked quite a bit about Clyburn over the past few years and in recent weeks.  He seems to be the darling of heritage groups like the SCV as well as a favorite of curator Earl Ijames.  Consider the recent SCV ceremony that acknowledged Clyburn for his loyal service to the Confederacy and resulted in a military marker.  Sadly, this ceremony involved the descendants of Clyburn and gave them the false understanding that he had served in the army.  Clyburn was, in fact, a slave; however, that little fact is never mentioned during the ceremony and it is rarely mentioned in most modern accounts.  In the midst of all the flags, bagpipes, and praise by SCV speakers and Earl Ijames we learn absolutely nothing about Clyburn himself.  What we, along with Clyburn’s descendants, learn is what falls within the boundaries of the faithful slave narrative that has been passed down from generation to generation.

Consider Clyburn’s obituary, which appeared in the Monore Journal on April 1, 1930 under the title, “Old Colored Man Is Buried in the Uniform of Gray.”  He was given this “honor by reason of having been in the Confederate ranks and a life time of faithfulness to the men and their descendants who made up the Confederate armies.”  The obituary is clear to point out the distinction between being “in” the Confederate ranks and serving as a soldier.  Later in the notice the writer does note that Clyburn went to war to “cook for his master, Col. Frank Clyburn of the 12th South Carolina Regiment.”  The story of Weary saving Frank on the battlefield is referenced, which fits perfectly in the overall emphasis on faithfulness.

Had Uncle Weary been a white man he would have been a Confederate hotspur.  Being dark of skin and born a slave he could approach his ideal by being as near as the fighting white folks that he grew up among as his skin and lack of education would allow.  All his life he was a white man’s darkey and his principle did not change when came back from the war.  He went with his white folks and became a Democrat.

It’s a remarkable passage and tells us quite a bit about what white North Carolinians chose to remember about Clyburn’s life.  At every point, beginning with a reference to “Uncle” is the man himself ignored.  He was worth remembering because his actions could so easily be interpreted in a way that would not upset a well-established Jim Crow society by 1930 and at the same maintain their belief in loyal blacks both before, during and after the war.  After the war Clyburn was best known for his participation in Confederate veteran reunions; however, he apparently was never acknowledged as a soldier.  Rather, he played the fiddle at these events and around area hotels to bring in money.

The tragedy in all of this is that Weary Clyburn’s past did not have to be distorted for it to be recognized and honored.  The point that needs to be made is that Clyburn is a hero.  He survived the horrors and humiliation of slavery and war and even managed to make it through the height of the Jim Crow South.  If that is not worthy of remembering and commemorating than I don’t know what is.  Unfortunately, we may never be able to fill in the details of Clyburn’s life, which is itself part of the legacy of slavery and racism in this country.  Sadly, Clyburn is still playing the fiddle for various groups and individuals who for one reason or another choose to distort the past.

“The Tough Stuff of American History and Memory”

Registration for the second “Signature Conference” sponsored by the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission opened this week.  This year’s conference will take place at Norfolk State University on September 24, 2010 and will focus on the issues of race and slavery.  Norfolk State is an ideal place given its location.  It was one of those places where the war changed on the ground as scores of slaves made their way into Union lines.  Like last year the commission has assembled a dynamite team of scholars for the various panels.  They include, James O. Horton, who will chair the event, James McPherson, Ira Berlin, David Blight, Dwight Pitcaithley, among others.  Perhaps our friend Earl Ijames should attend to hear Bruce Levine discuss the myth of black Confederates.

This promises to be another entertaining and educational experience and I encourage all of you to register as soon as possible.  I have been asked to live blog the event, which I agreed to do. Given my experience last year I have a much better idea of how to go about it.  Hope to see you there.

Remembering Alabama’s Secession and “Lincoln bin laden”

You gotta love these commemorative events that on the surface seem to be about the Civil War, but are little more than forums for folks to complain about what they perceive to be our own oppressive government.  They always seem to bring together a true cast of characters.  In this case there is John Eidsmoe, Professor Emeritus of Constitutional Law Emeritus at the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law, who goes on and on about the compact theory of government and states rights as an explanation for Alabama’s secession without ever mentioning slavery, as well as a woman who wears a t-shirt with Frederick Douglass, who she believes was an advocate for limited government.   All of them were brought together as a result of one Patricia Godwin who believes that the decision on the part of Confederate forces to fire on Fort Sumter was carried out because “Lin­coln bin laden had fortified the fort with arms and sup­plies.”  By the way, you won’t find one black person in the audience.  I guess they don’t remember secession as a crucial moment of freedom from an oppressive government.  The best part of this video is the end when a few of the participants are asked what would have happened if the southern states had never seceded.  Their responses are priceless.  I guess I just find it funny that people who believe in limited government would identify so closely with the Confederacy.  They must not know their history.

By the way, just in case you are interested in why the state of Alabama seceded, you will not find it in this video:

WHEREAS, the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to the offices of President and Vice-President of the United States of America, by a sectional party, avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama, preceded by many and dangerous infractions of the Constitution of the United States by many of the States and people of the northern section, is a political wrong of so insulting and menacing a character as to justify the people of the State of Alabama in the adoption of prompt and decided measures for their future peace and security; therefore,

Be it declared and ordained by the people of the State of Alabama in Convention assembled , That the State of Alabama now withdraws, and is hereby withdrawn from the Union known as “the United States of America”, and henceforth ceases to be one of said United States, and is, and of right ought to be, a Sovereign and Independent State.

Were Slaves Soldiers?

I have enjoyed following the debate over at Richard Williams’s blog re: my handling of Earl Ijames’s research.  Much of the give and take relates to my decision to publicly request Ijames’s presentation as well as my decision to Cc: the director at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.  I’m still not sure why the gang over there is making such a big deal of this given that there is nothing offensive about the letter.  It simply requests the materials in question and nothing more.  What I do find funny is that no one seems to have anything to say about Ijames’s response, which he decided to Cc. to that same director.  Anyway, I will leave this to the vultures to sort out.  I want to move on to something that I find much more interesting and that actually relates to history.

In a number of places Mr. Williams suggests that slaves in the Confederate army ought to be acknowledged as soldiers.  Here are a few quotes to consider:

And, as I’ve pointed out before, it is disingenuous to suggest that these men should not be honored for their service – as soldiers – simply because they may have been forced to serve – in whatever capacity. An analogy I’ve used before: During the Vietnam war, many who opposed it were drafted. Many no doubt would have fled to Canada or simply refused to go had it not been for the influence and pressure of family, society and the legal ramifications of refusing service. So they went with no emotional or intellectual support of their own for “the cause.” However, many of these same men, once on the field, bonded with their comrades and were exposed to the same dangers as those who volunteered. They served honorably. Should their service be discounted because they were drafted? I think the answer is clear.

I’ve not delved into Mr. Ijames’s specific research either. I do agree with Ijames’s contention, however, that blacks – whether slave or free – should have their service in the Confederate Army honored where appropriate and that there is nothing improper referring to these men as “soldiers.”

In the recent post about Nelson Winbush’s grandfather, I said, “Private Nelson was a slave.” I do not believe the term “soldier” and “slave” are mutually exclusive.

Mr. Williams arrives at this conclusion via analogy with soldiers in the Vietnam War.  The basic problem with his claim is to confuse two distinct meanings of “forced to serve.”  Americans who are drafted to go to war ought to be understood as a function of their legal standing as a citizen.  As citizens we are obligated to register for the draft and under certain circumstances may be forced to honor that obligation.  Again, the salient point is that draftees are citizens.  It is our status as free men which places us in this relationship to the government.  In contrast, slaves were not citizens of the United States or the Confederacy.  That this distinction even needs to be acknowledged is troubling.  In short, the analogy does not work.  Finally, it should be pointed out that USCTs were not citizens at the time of their service in the army, but it also must be remembered that they were not drafted either.  Many of them expressed the hope that their service would eventually lead to the rights of full citizenship.  That, of course, is another sad chapter in our history.

I am closer with Mr. Williams on the issue of honoring and commemorating those free and enslaved blacks who were present with the Confederate army.  If it can be demonstrated that a black man (regardless of status) enlisted or was drafted as a soldier than he should be honored as such.  I have never said otherwise.  That said, as historians distinctions should matter.  As I make my way through the letters of Capt. Winsmith from South Carolina (which I am editing for publication) I can’t help but be impressed with his commentary on his “servant” who accompanied him to camp.  Winsmith writes glowingly about this man as well as his various activities in camp and on the march.  This man actually procured a uniform by performing functions for other officers.  I have no doubt that this slave endured many of the same hardships along with the rest of the army and I have little doubt that he bonded with his master and others as well, even though I don’t have access to one word from this individual.  He eventually escaped to the Union navy off the coast of South Carolina in the summer of 1862.  That said, there is nothing that indicates that his owner or anyone else for that matter viewed this man as anything other than a slave.  Nothing about his relationship with his master or his experience changed his legal status.

These distinctions matter because as historians we are trying to better understand how the war affected the master-slave relationship and race relations generally.  As historians we should do our best, with the limited evidence available, to understand how the realities of war brought whites and blacks in the army closer together on occasion and further apart at other times.  However, in order to do so we must be sensitive to the distinction between soldier, slave, conscript and other designations.

It goes without saying that if we were to accept Mr. Williams’s analysis we would have a number of fundamental questions to grapple with.

  • What exactly was the Confederate government referring to when it explicitly denied slaves and free blacks the right to serve in the army?
  • How are we to understand the debate during the war over whether to arm slaves as soldiers?
  • What exactly was the Confederate government doing when it finally authorized the enlistment of a limited number of slaves as soldiers in the final weeks of the war in 1865?

In other words, how did the Confederate government as well as the rest of the white South define a soldier during the war?  How would they respond to Mr. Williams’s analysis?

We Have a Responsibility to Take Care of the Past

That includes the North Carolina Museum of History and the Office of Archives and History.

Earl Ijames on Weary Clyburn:

Weary Clyburn was one of thousands of slaves who served in the Confederate Army, Ijames said. There’s no way to quantify the number of slaves who served. “But it’s in the thousands, easy.” People today often wonder why slaves fought for the Confederacy. Ijames said the only course they had to freedom was through the Confederate Army. “Why not go and defend what they know versus running away and going to the unknown,” Ijames said.

Mr. Ijames has a responsibility to explain these statements to the North Carolina Museum of History, Office of Archives and History as well as the rest of the historical community.