Weary Clyburn Redux

clyburn2_edited-1Dear Mr. Vanderburg,

Thanks for taking the time to read yesterday’s post and for your comments. As I stated in my response this is a subject that I’ve written and lectured on extensively over the past five years.  The popularity of the black Confederate narrative highlights both the extent to which history has become democratized and the increased use of the Internet as a research tool.  Many people first learn about this subject through the print and/or online newspaper, which offers a non-critical and often flawed account of the complex history involved.

This article out of North Carolina that appeared today offers another textbook example of what is wrong with the way this subject is often analyzed and presented to the public.  The story of Weary Clyburn is one I’ve been following for a couple of years.  He is arguably one of the most popular examples of a black Confederate soldier that never existed.  Maddie Rice is sincerely interested in the story of her father, but over the years she has been aided by heritage organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who have publicly distorted the history of Clyburn to serve their own needs.  Continue reading “Weary Clyburn Redux”

Confederate Pensioners of Color Day

That’s a euphemism for slaves who were forced to work for the Confederate government during the war or who accompanied a master into the army.  Of the ten men who will be recognized today in Union County North Carolina, nine were slaves.  All received pensions after the war, but not for their service as soldiers.  The marker reads: “In Memory of Union County’s Confederate Pensioners of Color,” and lists their names: Wilson Ashcraft, Ned Byrd, Wary Clyburn, Wyatt Cunningham, George Cureton, Hamp Cuthbertson, Mose Fraser, Lewis McGill, Aaron Perry and Jeff Sanders.  I have the pensions for most of these men, including Clyburn’s whose file includes a letter confirming that his pension was not a recognition of service as a soldier – just in case there was any confusion.

It will be interesting to see whether event organizers, including speaker Earl Ijames, will mention that these men were indeed slaves.  It is nice to see that at least one newspaper includes a reference to these men as slaves.  That inconvenient fact is almost always ignored, but without it the history of these men makes absolutely no sense.

As I’ve said before, there is nothing wrong with remembering these men, but Confederate slaves ought to be recognized for surviving the Confederacy.

Confederate Pensioners of Color Day

Aaron Perry Did Not Serve in the 37th NC

The date has been set.  On December 8, Union County, North Carolina will dedicate a privately-funded marker on the Old County Courthouse honoring area slaves who performed various functions for the Confederate army.  This has been a long time coming and many of you have followed this story here at Civil War Memory.  Despite the reference to slaves in this article, the reference to these men as “Confederate Pensioners” does not bode well for an event that supposedly intends to recognize the role and place of slaves in the Confederate war effort.  Both Wary (Weary) Clyburn and Aaron Perry are included in the list of men to be honored and have been discussed on this site at length.

As for the article itself, I would love for someone to explain this sentence to me.

While it’s impossible to know how many of the men willingly followed their masters into war and how many were forced, supporters of the plan called it an appropriate, if overdue, recognition of their service.

What does it mean to willingly follow your master to do anything?

Costumed Civil War re-enactors, national and state leaders of the SCV, and a color guard also will be on hand.

Will that include reenactors, who will play the role of camp servants?  Will the audience get a glimpse into the world of slaves, who accompanied their masters to war or are we going to get the black reenactor in Confederate uniform routine?  Will those attending and the many more who will read the marker later understand that we are talking about slaves?
As I’ve said all along, these men deserve to be recognized, but we should do so with a critical eye toward getting the history right rather than distorting it for our own self-serving reasons.  I look forward to having my fears proven wrong.  Oh, and Earl Ijames will deliver the keynote address.

Honor Slaves For Surviving the Confederacy

Aaron Perry

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.

Celebrating a Certain Kind of “Black Confederate”

Impressed Slaves Working on Fortifications

[Cross-Posted at the Atlantic]

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.

Click to continue