Category Archives: Slavery

Earl Ijames’s Silence is Deafening

I have to admit that I am just a little surprised and disappointed that we haven’t heard from Earl Ijames in response to my most recent post.  If you remember, Mr. Ijames left a spirited comment in response to my critique of his position on so-called “black Confederates.”  One particular comment included a reference to one John W. Venable, who supposedly served in Co. H., 21st North Carolina.  As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, no additional references were given by Mr. Ijames to support the claim.  I must assume that while Mr. Ijames most likely believes that many cases can be debated that this particular example is an open and shut case.

Well, it looks like this is not the case at all.  My post of May 18 offered a detailed overview of a number of documents related to Venable’s connection to the Confederate army and it even included two updates.  All of this information was provided to me by two excellent archivists at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History.  At this point and taken together, the evidence clearly provides a sufficient reason to doubt that Venable served as a soldier in the 21st North Carolina.  Again, additional evidence may come to light and it may even be possible to interpret the available evidence in a way that connects Venable to this particular regiment, but what I find striking is that Mr. Ijames has not added his own voice to this discussion.  After all, Venable is his guy.  It looks like Mr. Ijames conducted another one of his “workshops” on the subject at the Greensboro Country Club on May 19.  I would love to know what he said about Venable and how he supported his preferred interpretation.  Did he do so having read my most recent post on the subject?  I welcome a comment from Mr. Ijames on this issue and I am even willing to feature it as a guest post.  It would no doubt be instructive for all of us.

Until then I want to leave you with one thought.  If this little discussion about Venable has helped with anything it is in reminding us of just how difficult it is to research and confirm the existence of legitimate black Confederate soldiers, as opposed to those who were present with the armies as slaves.  How many times has someone offered a piece of evidence and suggested that it alone demonstrates the presence of a soldier?  Research takes time; it involves knowing what to look for and, most importantly, how to interpret the documents.  For an example of this, take a look at the short essay in North and South Magazine by Thomas Lowry, which focuses on three case studies that involve claims made for the existence of black Confederate soldiers.  All of them begin with a primary source and all of them collapse with a little persistence and attempt to confirm and/or supplement the data.  I think the problem here is that if you want to find black Confederate soldiers you can.  The challenge is doing so in a way that can be analyzed and discussed in a public setting.  This is one of the reasons why it is so important to publish findings in in places that include a peer-review process.

As for Mr. Ijames, the ball is in your court.

Should Barack Obama Place a Wreath at the Confederate Memorial at Arlington?

Update on 5/22: Quoted in Judy Pasternak’s piece at the Daily Beast.

Shistorian ociologist James Loewen and Edward Sebesta (his blog) have written a letter calling on President Obama to discontinue this practice as party of Memorial Day exercises:

Since the administration of Woodrow Wilson, presidents have sent annually a wreath to the Arlington Confederate Monument. Prior to the administration of George H. W. Bush, this was done on or near the birthday of Jefferson Davis.  Starting with George H.W. Bush, it has been done on Memorial Day.  We ask you to not send a wreath or some other commemorative token to the Arlington Confederate Monument during your administration or after.

Their letter, along with a number of signatures by notable historians, was recently published on the History News Network.  The content of the letter outlines the racial and political context of the early twentieth century by citing a number of the speeches that were given at the monument’s dedication, including President Wilson’s.  Yes, the monument is a reflection of the Lost Cause myth, which emphasizes the bravery of the men who fought in Confederate ranks.  It downplays the role of slavery as the cause of secession/war and emphasizes states rights; in addition, the monument gives expression to the myth of the loyal slave both before and during the war.  In that sense, the monument has much in common with most Civil War monuments that were erected between 1880 and the first few decades of the twentieth century.  As interpretation, I have very little problem with the content of this letter, though the tone of it is likely to alienate rather than engage the general public in an open dialog – no surprise there.

While I am sympathetic with their view of this matter, I think it would be a bad idea for Obama to end this practice.  While I do not agree with all of Obama’s policies, the one thing that I have come to appreciate is his willingness to engage constructively with those he disagrees.  The president’s visit to Notre Dame this weekend is a case in point and reflects his enthusiasm for taking on extremely complex and emotionally-charged issues in a mature and honest manner.  There are no doubt moments where the president must be decisive in making specific decisions, and this will no doubt alienate and/or disappoint others, but this man cares what others believe and even seems to be willing to amend his own outlook when presented with a compelling argument.  I value having a president who is thoughtful, who listens, and who makes me think.

My problem with this letter is that it is a non-starter.  It is unlikely to lead to anything approaching constructive dialog and it is likely to lead to increased tension and misunderstanding.  Just check out the comments section of the HNN post for evidence of this.  It’s not simply a matter of picking and choosing one’s battles, but it is also how intelligently we choose to take on certain subjects.  Under extreme pressure, President Obama has already demonstrated that he can intelligently address some of the tough questions, from his Philadelphia speech on race back in May to this past weekend’s speech on abortion at Notre Dame.  I will leave it to Loewen and Sebesta to explain what good a refusal to send a wreath to Arlington would do in the short- or long-term.

Was John Venable a Black Confederate Soldier?

Update as of 5/20: My contact at the NCDAH checked the Adjutant General’s “Roll of Honor” and did not find John W. Venable listed. This was a list (in no way complete) of soldiers serving in NC regiments compiled between 1862 and 1863 or ’64.

Update as of 5/19: So here is where we stand.  First time John Venable is listed in the census he is a free black in his dad’s household – Jeff (which I take it is Jefferson) Venable who is a blacksmith in 1850 and again in 1860 in Surry County.  in 1870, John is listed as head of household and a farmer – his brother is a blacksmith however and they are in Yadkin County.  Ten years later John is listed as head and a blacksmith and living in Yadkin.  Being in Yadkin explains the affidavit from Sawyer who was in Yadkin (explains as in makes sense geographically).

We still have a number of questions that need to be answered.  How do we reconcile the clerk’s statement – no law for this – with the Sawyer affidavit?  My contact at the NCDAH has this to say:

On the one hand the Clerk was obviously wrong in that John Venable, as far as we can track him, is free and not enslaved.  But lets look at the clerk – C M McKaughan in 1920 he is 42 – so born after slavery.  He may have no concept of what a free black man was.  It’s weak but nonetheless plausible, I think.  It might be his only defense – born in a post-slave world, of age at Jim Crow, does he know of such a thing as a free black.  Thus when confronted with a colored woman applying for a pension he thinks “slave” and dismisses the application.  I think it says nothing one way or the other about service – only about what the clerk knew or understood of days before his birth.

Sawyers statement is problematic as well in that we can not substantiate the claim.  The problem is that no records exist that list a John Venable, mullato, as a soldier.  Moore’s Roster includes no listing.  So, what can we reasonably conclude at this point?  For one thing, the clerk is obviously wrong.  The man John Venable (middle initial is H) who has a wife Sarah is a mulatto and is a free person of color in 1850 and 1860.  Sawyers’ statement stands alone and can not be substantiated, which means that we cannot conclude based on the available evidence that John Venable was a black Confederate soldier.

Let me be clear that I am not saying once and for all that John Venable was not a black Confederate soldier, just that the available evidence does not permit us to draw that conclusion.  Perhaps Mr. Ijames has additional documentation in this case.  If so, I urge him to bring it to our attention.  Unfortunately, this is how many of these cases end up.  Primary sources are collected and a conclusion is drawn without corroborating it with other evidence and without giving attention to the obvious, that documents must be interpreted carefully and that often there is more than one legitimate interpretation.  This should be a lesson to all of us.

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In one of his comments Earl Ijames referenced the name of Pvt. John Venable of the 21st Regiment NCST, Co. H as evidence of a legitimate black Confederate soldier.  There was no explanation attached except for the following: “Colored. Enlisted on June 5, 1861.”  Without any additional information it was impossible for me to respond or take part in the kind of discussion that serious historians ought to entertain – until now.  If Mr. Ijames is unable or unwilling to bring about that kind of discourse than I will with a little help from my friends in the North Carolina Department of Archives and History.  I now have four documents related to Venable’s status in the Confederate army and quite a number of questions.

The documents include John Venable’s widow’s pension application. Unfortunately, I could not upload the second page of the pension application, but it does say, “disallowed no law for this” at the bottom.  The 1927 pension law that included former slaves made no provisions for their widows. The second document refers to him as a “good soldier” and the last document refers to Sarah as the “widow of a slave.”  According to my contact, John W. Venable shows up on the 1880 census in Surry County NC.  The census indicates that he was living with his wife Sarah, a daughter, and his occupation is listed as blacksmith. Venable could not be found in NC in the 1870 census and there appears to be no death certificate.

The published troop roster for 21st Regiment NCST, Co. H., lists a John W. Venable (no rank) and says this about his service: “Colored. Enlisted on June 5, 1861. No further records.” In compiling the roster for that company, the editors did consult some muster rolls. My contact spoke to one of the current editors (he was not around when they did the 21st Reg. volume) who suggested that if Venable had been found on one of the muster rolls, his entry in the published book would have indicated him present on that date.  There is a John Sawyers listed in 21st Regiment NCST, Co. H in the published roster, likely the fellow who provided the affidavit.

Here is where it gets very interesting.  There is no Compiled Service Record for John W. Venable on the NARA microfilm.  In addition, there are two other Venables listed in the published roster for Co. H. (A common name in that part of NC and the adjoining area of VA). My contact found them on the 1860 census, both of their families seemed to be on small farms.  The next move will be to look at the slave census and see if either of them had slaves.

This is why we have an obligation to ask questions and those who make claims have an obligation to back them up – nothing more, nothing less.  I don’t know whether this man was a soldier since we now have too many unanswered questions given the frequency of the name in the unit and the fact that there is no service record for John W. Venable.  As soon as I hear something more I will pass it on.

“Negro Pensioners are Not Classed as Confederate Soldiers”

clyburn2_edited-1That’s according to a document in the pension bureau correspondence files under Union County and in the year 1930 – when Wary Clyburn died.  A friend of mine in the North Carolina Department of Archives and History checked the yearly statement of pensioners produced by the Clerk of Court for the Auditor’s Office.  The following information was conveyed.  Clyburn appears in 1926 and is alphabetical in order with other pensioners – however under the remarks column (which is mostly empty) it clearly indicates he is “colored body servant, Capt. Frank Clyburn;” other remarks indicate a pensioner’s transfer between pension levels or between counties (and one hand written remark noting pensioner is deceased).  In 1927, after the addition of former slaves to the pension series, Clyburn is listed with one other man in a separate section titled “Negro Pensioners.”

There can be no denying that the pension bureau saw him as anything but an eligible body servant – it is how they consistently describe him.  In addition, the Attorney General’s ruling that they could not be soldiers suggests that a case for anything other than body servant cannot be made.  Wary Clyburn was a slave in the 1860s and as late as 1930 the state of North Carolina recognized him as a slave during the Civil War.

So, where does that leave the Sons of Confederate Veteran’s ceremony that honored Clyburn as a Confederate soldier this past summer?  More importantly, what does it say about Earl Ijames’s participation in that ceremony?  Why did he not correct the SCV and Kevin Adkins as they acknowledged Clyburn as a Confederate soldier.  Why did he not state specifically in the face of the camera that Clyburn was a slave whose presence in the army and on the battlefield had nothing to do with choice.  Finally, what is so disturbing is that Clyburn’s descendants were included in this charade.  You decide.  Here is a short clip from the Clyburn celebration.  Now you understand why I do not consider the SCV to be an organization that is serious about the history of the Civil War.

The UDC, Black Confederates, and the Manipulation of the Past

Thanks to Betty Baye for a brief, but thoughtful column about a recent phone conversation with a receptionist at the national headquarters for the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.  Apparently, Ms. Baye was invited to their national convention and decided to follow up to see if the organization included any African Americans.  The receptionist noted that somewhere between 60-93,000 blacks “served” in the Confederate army though “many” went to war as “body servants” with their masters.  Well, at least she didn’t suggest that they were soldiers, but one wonders what “many” is meant to denote or why we constantly fail to describe these men for what they were: slaves.

The author goes on to describe recent ceremonies conducted by the UDC and SCV to commemorate the “service” of black Confederate soldiers such as Creed, Cornelius, and Claiborne Holland.  I have no idea whether these men were enlisted as soldiers or just another case of sloppy research and poor analysis.  Of course a representative described their presence in the army as “patriots who loved our Southland and suffered in its defense.” Creed Holland’s great-great grandson called the occasion “a day of unification.”  Of course, I cannot say what primary sources were consulted to justify such a claim, though I am willing to wager that whatever the source it was not penned by any of the three men cited or even from the war years.  The author also cited the case of Henry Nenderson, but you can imagine my surprise when I read the following:

Kevin Levin, who regularly blogs about the Confederacy, upon seeing a photo of two white women dressed in mourning attire decorating Pvt. Henderson’s grave, wrote just last month that the women aren’t “honoring a soldier, they are honoring a slave,” who was forced to join his master and who “must be understood as an extension of a broader life story of coercion.” The United Daughters of the Confederacy and similar groups, Levin argues, “teach us nothing about the complex history of race relations in the Confederacy,” and, in fact, “are completely incapable of commemorating Henderson’s life because they fail to acknowledge him for what he was — a slave.” [Read my post on Henderson here.]

Some of you are no doubt tired of these posts on “black Confederates”, but I want to make it clear that I am not writing them for you.  My goal is to build up sufficient SEO weight to counter these ridiculous stories that hearken back to a naive Lost Cause narrative that emphasizes slave loyalty and, ultimately, the distancing of the Confederate experience from slavery.  The UDC has been distorting the history of slavery and the Civil War since the early twentieth century, but their increasing black membership is what is truly disappointing.  By involving the descendants of these men as soldiers with full military honors they are using these family members for their own aggrandizement.  No doubt, the family members involved simply want their ancestors to be remembered and to identify with a larger historical narrative.  If the UDC and SCV want to commemorate and remember the lives of these men than they should acknowledge them for what they were.  There is no shame in acknowledging these men as slaves.  In fact, in the case of Henry Henderson it only makes his life that much more worthy of remembrance.

I am going to conclude this post with Betty Baye’s own assessment:

When the black Hollands were memorialized, Virginia state Sen. Charles Hawkins, a Republican, said, “We need to come to grips with the ghosts of our past. … We need to understand this history if we are to grow and prosper.” Fine words. But some find it impossible to confront ghosts of beloved ancestors who engaged in the dirty business of buying, breeding and selling human beings — a business made no less dirty by speaking of it with gentle words; for example, calling a slave “servant,” a plantation a “farm,” and implying that slaves willingly, and knowingly, fought for a cause that, had it not been lost, would have perpetuated their bondage and spread the evil to yet more territories of a young nation. Rather, the United Daughters of the Confederacy comfort themselves with the words and imagery of Mary Nowlin Moon, who, in 1915, wrote of “a heritage so rich in honor and glory that it far surpasses any material wealth that could be mine.”  Few members today, I daresay, see any irony either in their group hosting a “silent auction” at its national convention.