A Pension For a Vote

I can’t tell you how appreciative I am of the help that I’ve received over the years from my readers. My Crater manuscript is filled with references shared by readers and my own thinking has been shaped by the rich commentary that follows many of the posts on the subject.  That continues as I begin my next book-length study of black Confederates.  Today I was contacted by NPS historian, John Stoudt, who came across the following reference in Ed Ayers’s book, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 1992).

The following passage comes in a chapter that examines the culture of elections during the postwar period and the manipulation of the black vote.

It usually took far more than such bullying, though to gain the votes of disaffected or apolitical blacks.  One Democrat wrote to North Carolina Senator Matt Ransom to solicit his support for a pension for “a very deserving honest old colored man  He is very destitute and unable to work and he certainly is deserving a pension (if any body is).  He votes the democratic ticket straight out and uses his influence for the democrats, and in the last election his vote and influence with that of twenty or thirty more colored voters saved the democrat party in my county.”  The white Democrat had promised his black ally that he would “do all in my power to get his pension for him.  I want him to have it and I want him to have it bad.” [W.H. Lucas to Sen. Matt Ransom, Jan. 6, 1892, Ransom Papers, UNC-SHC]

My question is whether it is possible to narrow down the type of pension that an elderly black man might have received in 1892.  According to James G. Hollandsworth Jr., former slaves did not begin to receive pensions for their time in the Confederate army until 1927.  Regardless of whether the pension had anything to do with the war itself, this should remind us that “black Confederate” pensions must be interpreted within the context of Jim Crow and white political control.  Black men, who applied for pensions based on their roles as servants/slaves during the war had to maneuver through this structure and the possibility of financial gain surely would have influenced how they responded on the official forms.  This passage also should caution us in drawing a direct connection between a pension form and the war.  It is possible that some pensions given to former slaves reflect the kinds of election practices described above.

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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12 comments… add one
  • Chris Meekins Sep 1, 2010 @ 16:55

    Finally had a chance to do some lunchtime work on this. I took a real hard look at the quote to see if I could pull any solid item from it. I have come to this conclusion – we might well have been a victim of misinterpretation of the quote. And here is why: Matt Ransom served as NC’s US Senator from 1872-1895. At the time the letter was written Ransom was serving in the US Senate. Therefore it is just as logical to conclude that the writer is advocating a pension from the federal government – which would mean the deserving old honest colored man might have been eligible for a US pension, perhaps as a USCT. I have read and reread and reread the quote but no matter how you read the quote it does not indicate which pension the petitioner is advocating for – only that he is advocating for a pension.
    Its only when you bring in things not in the quote do you start asking state or federal pension. I would suggest throwing this one on the scrap pile of interesting quotes but not really enough to go on. I guess you would really need to examine Ayers material around the quote to see context but even then I would question just which kind of pension is being requested. Actually, the more I look at it the more I lean toward a federal pension.
    two red pennies…

    • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2010 @ 3:02


      Thanks so much for following up on this. Unfortunately, the passage is part of a broader discussion of voter manipulation so I don’t think Ayers is even concerned with whether it is a state or federal pension.

      • Chris Meekins Sep 2, 2010 @ 3:11

        Sounds like you need boots on the ground at the Southern then…

        • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2010 @ 3:23

          You are absolutely right, Chris, but I need to get down there at some point to dig around. I am more and more interested in exploring the racial dynamic in the army itself.

  • Graham Aug 28, 2010 @ 17:42
    • Kevin Levin Aug 29, 2010 @ 1:37

      Thanks so much for this link. That’s a very interesting reference to the Confederate flag.

    • Andy Hall Aug 29, 2010 @ 6:02

      That’s an interesting story. I gather that B. N. Duke, Mr. Markham’s benefactor, was the uncle of the late Doris Duke — small world.

      Nostalgia (for lack of a better term) for the days of slavery turns up with some frequency in twentieth-century interviews with former slaves. Like all primary documents, they have to be evaluated in the context of the time they were recorded, the intended audience, the personal attributes of the interviewer, and so on. This particularly turns up in a small proportion of the WPA Slave Narratives recorded during the Depression, when those interviewed were very old, often badly impoverished, sometimes alone, and were recalling events from 70+ years before, when they were either very young adults or children.

      As I read the story, Mr. Markham’s house and small plot were provided by the railroad. Is that correct? He didn’t own it outright, and lived there at the sufferance of Southern Railroad’s local management. That may have figured into this story, and the flag display, in ways that won’t appear in the historical record.

      Finally, the reference in the news story caption to Markham being a “negro of the antebellum type” is similar to phrasing that turns up again and again in late 19th and early 20th century; it seems to be a euphemism for former slaves who, emancipated or not, understood their “place” in the larger culture around them and didn’t make trouble.

  • Chris Meekins Aug 28, 2010 @ 14:30

    I had to check the general statutes during a lunch break but can hazard a partial answer now:
    major revisions in NC pensions in 1885 and 1901 (two major laws); after 1901 there were revisions to extend benefits to widows and then African American ex slaves and or free persons of color (before 1865). However, prior to 1885 folks had their General Assembly people advocate for a pension for them – these were issued as a separate act for each pensioner. Even after the 1885 act and 1901 act you could still go the petition route. I know post 1901 there were several classes of pensions, I think that is true for the 1885 act (but I am a bit fuzzy on it so do not quote me there) as well. If the man received a pension they would have to have determined what class. For instance, in 1927 when the act was passed the pension awarded was a class B pension. That is about all I should hazard with paper in front of me.
    Ironic perhaps is that there is a line of reasoning that suggests such things as Light Houses (federal jobs) and USCT pensions were doled out to garner Republican support – alas, I have not solid quote there – just something you hear now and then.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2010 @ 16:41

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks so much for the information, but I just want to make sure that I am following you. Am I correct in say that the 1885 and 1901 pensions have nothing to do with the Confederate army?

      • Chris Meekins Aug 29, 2010 @ 5:04

        The pension acts were for soldiers who were indigent – the larger qualifier being the indigent part. My take on it is that pensions flow from the perceived responsibility of the government to care for citizens – NC had county poor houses and a long history of count y responsibility (apprentice bonds and bastardy bonds both speak to this – one providing training for a future citizen who might otherwise not learn a trade and the other forcing the mother to name a father who would then be responsible for the child’s welfare – both to absolve the county from having to maintain a child). Attorney General opinions point to this concept of social duty to the poor as the driving force of pensions. The other aspect was a deliminator on that indigence – you also needed to be a soldier. Its why there is not a pension for everyone who was a soldier – many did not need a pension and others refused the stigma of being on social assistance. Both Acts defined which veterans would receive assistance (payment classes often broke along the type of disability for instance – missing an eye, missing an arm, missing a leg, wounded but all parts with you, etc.) and revisions added widows, extended benefits for widows who married their soldier after the war, and former African Americans who worked for the Confederate army. The 1885 actually had a provision to include slaves and freemen who had worked on fortifications, proposed by Hugh Cale who had himself been sent to Roanoke Island as a freeman, but it was defeated and removed from the final bill.
        This is just my opinion but I draw something from the fact that Cale, an African American, lobbied for inclusion of a specific group because he did not believe the pension act, as proposed, covered those folks. The General Assembly must have agreed with his view because when the proposed legislation was defeated those people were not considered eligible under the act. And it took a revision in 1927 to allow for those people to be included without having to have a special appeal.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 29, 2010 @ 5:07

          Thanks Chris. That’s very helpful. I have a hell of a lot to learn.

  • James F. Epperson Aug 28, 2010 @ 12:52

    I think this is an important point, which many advocates of “black Confederates” don’t want to admit or understand.

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