Creating A Usable Past One Gravesite At A Time

Over the past few years I’ve come to appreciate the relationship between historical memory and the control of our public/historical spaces.  The simple act of commemoration can shape the way individuals think about and pass on their collective pasts to future generations.  More importantly, there is a close relationship between those who control history as well as exert political control and vice versa.  I’ve written extensively about this in reference to the way white Virginians commemorated the battle of the Crater and how its particular form both set the boundaries for those who would be welcomed and others who were to be ignored or forgotten.  [For an excellent example of this process see the recent article by Caroline E. Janney titled "Written in Stone: Gender, Race, and the Heyward Shepherd Memorial" in Civil War History (June 2006).

I know I’ve harped on this issue of black Confederates way too much, but it does provide a wonderful case study of how groups create a workable past that satisfies their preferred historical narrative and a narrow set of values that are contained within.  What makes this particular case study of black Confederates so interesting is the complexity of the issue and the failure on the part of its advocates to define their terms.  Take the recent commemoration of a so-called black Confederate soldier’s grave in Tennessee:

On Sunday afternoon at Old Union Cemetery in southern White County, over
180 people gathered to pay a debt owed nearly 80 years. The group included
members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Sons of Confederate
Veterans, family and friends, all there to memorialize the service of Pvt. Henry
Henderson, a black Confederate soldier.

Henderson was born in 1849 in
Davidson County, NC. He was 11 years old when he entered service with the
Confederate States of America as a cook and servant to Colonel William F.
Henderson, a medical doctor. Records show Henry was wounded during his service,
but he continued to serve until the war’s end in 1865. He was discharged in
Salem, NC, age 16.

How does a servant or slave enter the service?  Notice that no attempt is made at telling the story from Henderson’s perspective.  And the reason is because his view is ultimately irrelevant as the ceremony has nothing to do with him.  Claiming that he "served" provides a sufficient reason to believe that the U.D.C. is engaged in the invention of a past that it finds comforting or worth commemorating.  Forget about analysis here and any pretense to trying to uncover a richer surrounding this individual.

How far does this distortion go?  U.D.C. officials used the event to offer their own estimates of the number of black Confederates:

The 60,000-90,000 black Confederate soldiers are often called "the forgotten
Confederates," but through the concerted efforts of the Capt. Sally Tompkins
Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy along with the Sons of the
Confederate Veterans, several graves have been found in the Upper Cumberland and
have been or will be marked.

How exactly was this estimate arrived at?  Even the low end of the estimate is almost impossible to belive given that few white Southerners were even willing to consider the issue of black recruitment until very close to the end of the war in 1865. What we do know is that "[s]ons Dalton and Lee received Henderson’s first and last Tennessee Colored
Confederate pension check upon their father’s death in September 1926."  He is in fact listed as having received a pension though his unit is unknown.   What were the reasons behind the decision to issue such pensions?  We do know is that the on April 9, 1921 the Tennessee State Legislature passed an act which allowed those who served as cooks or servants (i.e., slaves) to file for a pension.  The application needed to include a signature or note from the former owner. 

So, what we have here is a ceremony commemorating a former slave who was brought into the army by his owner.   My guess is that many of the stories referencing black Confederates involve such individuals.  More disturbing is the blurring of the all important distinction of voluntary service and forced participation.  I am actually surprised that this practice isn’t more controversial given that so many Americans place such a high value on military service. 

What I find most disturbing about this story is the involvement of Henderson’s own family whose sincere intention to honor their ancestor has been appropriated for dubious purposes. 

"We’re here to honor him," said his great-grandson, Oscar Fingers, of
Evansville, IN. "I think he would be proud his family has come this far and to
know all we have done." Several other family members made the trip with Fingers
from Indiana for Sunday’s ceremony.

The less than smooth transition from slavery to freedom and continued legal discrimination that involved millions of African Americans that lasted well into the twentieth century is a story that needs to be told.   And the courage displayed along the way is worth celebrating as a quintessential American story.  There is, however, something disturbing about blurring history to create a past worth celebrating that is easier for some to swallow. 

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