Tag Archives: Weary Clyburn

“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.

Earl Ijames’s “Colored Confederates”

It looks like Earl Ijames is at it again.  You may remember this past summer that Ijames – a curator at the N.C. Museum of History – was involved in a grave site dedication for Weary Clyburn, who supposedly served as a soldier in the Confederate army.  I covered this story closely and offered a number of reasons to doubt these claims as I have for most of these silly stories about black Confederate soldiers.  Today it is being reported that Ijames will tell Clyburn’s story to 1,500 people later this week at the National Genealogical Society’s annual conference in Raleigh.  The problem is that there is no evidence that Clyburn served in the 12th South Carolina Volunteers, though that should not stop Ijames from making the claim.

The available evidence suggests that Clyburn was a slave who went to war with Capt. Frank Clyburn (12th S.C.) and was the legal property of his father.  In the most recent issue of North and South Magazine (June 2009) historians Thomas Lowry and Rev. Alex H. Ledoux offer a few observations about the difficulties of researching “black Confederates.”  One of the examples they cite is Clyburn.  According to the two there is no listing for Clyburn in Broadfoot’s Roster and there is no record of him whatsoever in the National Archives – even under alternate spellings.  [In fact, every case they cite begins with the usual evidence and ends with no record of service.]  Clyburn did apply for a pension, but this is of no help in determining his status in the army, though without any official military records it points to the obvious.  Though not Ijames’s exact words, it is safe to assume that the reporter captured his overall view:

“The historically accurate term is ‘colored Confederates,’” Ijames says, and thousands of them went to war from Southern states, including North Carolina. Some were slaves sent in place of their masters, or were forced or volunteered to serve alongside them. Others were freed blacks who offered their services.

Notice the lack of clarity in distinguishing between those who volunteered or were forced to accompany an officer.  They are treated as if they all deserve to be interpreted and remembered along similar lines – a complete lack of historic understanding.  How many free blacks openly served in Confederate ranks given the fact that the Confederate government did not allow it and that men in individual units were committed to running non-whites out of the army.

It isn’t clear whether Clyburn went to war just because his friend had gone; or he thought, as some soldiers did, that no matter who won, slaves would be set free; or he believed he could raise his stature by serving; or he fought because the South was the only homeland he had ever known and he was willing to die to protect it.

At some point we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the available evidence doesn’t point to some of the more extravagant (or even modest) claims about thousands of loyal black Confederate soldiers.  Why is there such scant evidence?  Because they were slaves.  Look for their names in the private records of individual slaveholders and businesses, though we should always keep in mind that the vast majority have been forever lost owing to their status.  As I’ve said before, the most disturbing aspect of these stories is the deception of the general public as well as the families who are curious about their history.  History is a dangerous thing when you don’t know how to do it.

Will the Real Weary Clyburn Please Stand Up

I finally got my hands on a copy of Weary Clyburn’s pension application from the North Carolina Department of Archives and History in Raleigh.  You may remember that over the summer I did a series of posts on this Confederate slave who was to be honored by a local SCV chapter for his “service” to the Confederacy.  The posts generated a great deal of discussion surrounding my assertion that the SCV was distorting the past in order to ignore Clyburn’s status as a slave.  The SCV held a ceremony in which they invited descendants of Clyburn and also received quite a bit of media attention.

Now that I’ve had a chance to peruse the pension file it is clear to me that the SCV did nothing less than butcher the history of the war and distort the complex relationship between master and slave.  The certification letter from the pension board describes Clyburn as a “body guard” rather than a servant or slave.  Later Clyburn is cited for carrying  “his master out of the field of fire on his shoulder” and for “personal services for Robert E. Lee”, though the nature of that assistance is not discussed.  The board also mentions his age and that he “has a wife and foolish boy to support[.]”  I wonder if someone can explain that latter reference for me, though my wife just suggested that it must have something to do with his mental health.

On the actual application there is a very telling reference: “that his services were meritorious and faithful toward his master, and the cause of the Confederacy.”  The fundamental problem with all of this is that Clyburn’s voice never appears.  The documents provide us with an example of how a white-dominated government bureau handled a black man during the height of Jim Crow.  Ultimately, these documents are not about Clyburn.  Clyburn’s pension was issued owing to the assumption that he was a faithful assistant, which helped to reinforce a system of white supremacy.

Not once is Clyburn referenced for what he was – a slave.  We are playing a dangerous game when we begin to treat the past in a way that serves our own narrow interests.

Some Final Thoughts About Weary Clyburn and Black Confederates (for now)

531-clyburn.ART_GKK3S99J.1+clyburn_09.JPG.standalone.prod_affiliate.57If interested, you can read this brief article which covers yesterday’s ceremony for the SCV’s new favorite son, Weary Clyburn.  There is nothing in it that hasn’t been discussed already over the course of the past few days.  Earl ljames is cited as an “expert” on the subject of black Confederates; he isn’t .  The guy has a B.A. in history; if ljames is an expert than any schmuck who spends time in an archives is an expert.   Kevin Adkins of the SCV believes that, “Thousands and thousands of African-Americans served under the Confederate battle flag on the field of honor fighting for their Southern homeland, just like their white neighbors were doing.”  I don’t doubt for a second that Adkins believes this.

What emerges in just about all of these cases are overly simplistic generalizations about the relationship between slaves and slaveowners and the sheer paucity of research which goes into these claims.  At times I even doubt that the people who make these claims actually believe what they are saying.  It is high time that we move beyond this silliness to engage a set of questions that are crucial to understanding how the Civil War altered and challenged the relationship between slave and slaveowner.  In other words, we need to move beyond the anecdotal evidence which defines the approach taken by the SCV and others and the overly emotional language of loyalty, bravery, and service.  Let’s define our terms and do the necessary research and analysis to make sense of the presence of thousands of slaves that traveled with the various Confederate armies.  These stories have taken on a monotonous pattern and have left us with little, if any, historical understanding.  I’ve quoted before from historian Peter S. Carmichael’s brief outline of his project on the subject, but it is worth citing once again:

My next book project , “Black Rebels” will explore the experience of slaves who served Confederate soldiers. This unique master-slave relationship within Southern armies has never been examined by scholars, and to date the subject has only drawn the interest of those who write in the romantic tradition of the Lost Cause. My intention to focus on the master-slave relationship will allow me to examine the traditional subjects of living conditions and resistance. But I also intend to explore uncharted territory such as: how the shared experience of battle reconfigured the master-slave relationship, what were the symbolic uses of the “camp servant” in Confederate propaganda, how did lower class whites in the army view slaves, and were camp servants a source of division in white ranks? This project is in keeping with my interest in the construction and exertion of power in the Old South and the Confederacy.

A good friend emailed me yesterday with a few comments concerning the holding of the National Archives which pertain to this subject.  For example, there is one quite large series of slave rolls, consisting primarily of lists of men who worked on fortifications. The series is indexed by name of owner. The problem is that the majority of blacks in Confederate records are listed by first name only. Thus you have many records for “Jim,” “Andrew,” “Pink,” etc. I will leave it to you to interpret what that fact alone means to their status in the army.  Similarly, for servants who have compiled military service records, you can find blacks by looking in Broadfoot’s index to those records for persons shown only with first names.  The available records also seem to show that a few free and enslaved blacks did support the Confederacy in a way that would make members of the SCV smile.  That is not surprising given the large numbers that we are dealing with. Their fundamental problem, however, is that they fail to or are unable to interpret the evidence as connected to a “slave nation” at war.  Over the course of his research of roughly 100,000 Confederate service records, Robert K. Krick admitted that he could find no more than 20-30 men who were non-white.   I don’t know too many people who have spent more time in the archives than Krick.

In conclusion, there is a story here that desperately needs to be told.  Hopefully, at some point in the near future we will hear from someone who is interested in serious history rather than in their own emotional and psychological well-being.

Addendum: The image is from an article in the Charlotte Observer.  It is is a disturbing image on so many different levels.  Notice in the photograph that someone is holding a copy of Black Confederates which is published by Pelican Press and regularly cited as a reliable study.  It is essentially just a compilation of stories.  The story just gets better and better with each news item.  Today we are told documents reveal that Clyburn was a “special aide” to Robert E. Lee

Click here for the first of a series of posts about Weary Clyburn.

Today is Weary Clyburn’s Big Day

Here is another news item concerning the commemoration of Weary Clyburn which will be held today in Monroe, North Carolina.  I am not going to comment extensively as the story is well known to my readers, but here are a few highlights.

Earl L. ljames, who is a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History and who apparently used to be employed at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History believes that, “His is a hero’s service…. Him serving is really an incredible story.”  By the way if ljames and members of the SCV and UDC are truly interested in honoring the service of North Carolina’s slaves than why not recognize the 5,000 plus that joined the Union army which has been documented extensively by Richard M. Reid in his new book, Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

ljames goes on to suggest that “…this whole event vicariously honors the thousands of ‘colored Confederates’ who served in various capacities and never had a voice to express it.”  For someone associated with a museum, and who one assumes has some credentials in the field, this is truly an irresponsible statement.  Even more ridiculous is the claim that Weary Clyburn and the son of the man who owned him were “best friends”, which is “not an uncommon story.”  What does “uncommon” actually mean in this context and what does the concept of friendship mean between slave and slaveowner?

I don’t have the patience to go on.  All I can say is that we can be thankful that ljames no longer works at the NCDAH.  Apparently, Clyburn’s descendants will hold a news conference following the celebration.  I will keep you posted.