I am not surprised that public officials in Union County, North Carolina have finally authorized the inclusion of a marker/monument on courthouse grounds to honor its local slave population. [I've followed this story for quite some time.] Given everything I know about the folks involved in this project I am not optimistic that the final wording of the marker will do justice to what we know about the history of free and enslaved blacks and the Confederacy. The history will be distorted.
This is unfortunate since slaves like Aaron Perry and Weary Clyburn deserve to be remembered. The final wording of the marker will likely reference their service in the Confederate army and their having been awarded pensions late in life. This interpretation will satisfy the self-serving agenda of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who are committed to remembering the Confederacy as some kind of experiment in civil rights. It will also satisfy the descendants of these men, who wish to see their ancestors remembered.
These men deserve to be remembered, but not for living a life that falls outside of the historical record. They deserve to be remembered because they survived slavery. We can only imagine what hardships and humiliations these men suffered as chattel. How many experienced the lash or the pain of separation from loved ones? How many suffered from the intense desire to be free?
On top of all of this these men were forced to endure the hardships of a war that, if concluded in favor of their owners, would have ensured their continued enslavement. Tens of thousands of slaves were impressed by the Confederate government as laborers, while thousands more accompanied their owners to serve their individual needs. The presence of slaves in the army did not mark a change in their legal status. They were not brought to war to place them any closer to freedom. Quite the opposite. Now, in addition to the hardships experienced at home these men were forced to negotiate a new set of challenges and dangers. Violence was anything but foreign to the nation’s slave population by 1861. Separation from families was anything but new for these men.
And yet these men survived. They even went on and managed to eke out an existence during very difficult times that perhaps filled them with pride in knowing that their lives were finally their own.
Yes, we should honor these men. Honor them not for serving the Confederacy, but surviving it.
One of the things that jumps out at you when you look closely at the profile of the African Americans celebrated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans as “black Confederate soldiers” is that they were all body servants. The best examples include Aaron Perry, Weary Clyburn, and Silas Chandler.
They “followed” their masters to war
Identified closely with the Confederate cause
Rescued their master on the battlefield (dead or wounded) and brought body home
Were awarded pensions for their “service”
Remained life long friends with their former owners
I’ve suggested before that this narrative owes its popularity to its close connection to the mythology surrounding the loyal slave that took hold even before the war. What is interesting, however, is that body servants were not representative of how the Confederacy utilized slave labor during the war. In fact, we know that the number of slaves brought into the army with their masters as servants dropped by the middle of the war for a number of reasons.
As I wait for my flight back to Boston I wanted to share a little bit about my experience this weekend in Richmond at the ASALH. First and foremost, I was self conscious throughout of the fact that for the first time I was in the racial minority at an academic conference. A good friend of mine jokingly remarked, “Bottom rail on top”. We shared a good laugh over it, but it left me with questions about what it must be like for African Americans, who are usually in the minority at most academic conferences focused on American and Southern history.
As I mentioned in the last post, the range of participants also adds a unique quality to this gathering. I heard talks from academics, a USCT reenactor, amateur historians, genealogists, and public historians. The quality of the presentations definitely covered a wide spectrum, but that was far outweighed by the enthusiasm by both the presenters as well as the audience. I would also say that the presentations leaned heavily toward the narrative as opposed to analysis. The discussions were incredibly animated. There was a buzz in the audience that I have not experienced before. It was so nice to engage in conversation with people with so many interests and backgrounds. I was especially struck by the emphasis on the recording of names. No doubt, some of this comes back to the genealogist presence, but I suspect that the interest is much broader within the African American community to record names that in many cases can only be uncovered through a great deal of archival work.
Correction: One of my readers noticed some very sloppy writing in this post that I wish to acknowledge and correct. I wrote that the SCV did not reference Clyburn as a slave, which is untrue. Interviews with members do include such a reference. What I should have said was that there was no clear reference to his status in the brief clips that show the actual ceremony. Even Earl Ijames references Clyburn as a slave, but like the SCV their language is unclear and inconsistent, which was the point I was trying to make. The crucial distinction between a soldier and slave has all but been lost in all of this. Thanks to the reader for keeping me honest and I apologize for the confusion.
I wanted to share some thoughts with you about last week’s talk by John Stauffer on black Confederates. I had a number of problems with his presentation, which you can read here. One of the questions I’ve had since the talk is why the W.E.B. DuBois Institute would be interested in such a subject and then I remembered that you have had some exposure with this narrative, most recently while filming your PBS documentary, Looking For Lincoln. As a former high school history teacher I want to thank you for this series. At the time I was teaching a course on the Civil War and historical memory so the show fit in perfectly. My class was able to watch individual segments as a basis for further discussion or other activity. We all thoroughly enjoyed it.
If you want a sense of the growing level of acceptance of the black Confederate myth look no further than this NPR story. NPR has now confirmed that the oldest living “Daughter of the Confederacy” is Mattie Clyburn Rice, who is the daughter of Weary Clyburn. That name should ring a bell for many of you because I discussed his story in detail not too long ago. This is not the first time that a major news outlet has fallen victim to this story and it won’t be the last. I applaud Ms. Rice for working so hard to uncover a history that deserves to be told and that for far too long has fallen outside the boundaries of our national memory, but it is unfortunate that she fell victim to this narrative.
If you did miss those earlier posts, I highly recommend the following: