Marker rejected for slaves in South's Army
Union County says plan poses an inconsistency.
Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011
Proposed marker wording:
In memory of Union County's Confederate Pensioners of Color
Wilson Ashcraft, Ned Byrd*, Wary Clyburn, Wyatt Cunningham, George Cureton, Hamp Cuthbertson, Mose Fraser, Lewis McGill, Aaron Perry, Jeff Sanders (Free person of color)
In honor of courage & service by all during The War Between The States (1861-1865)
*At time of death, last surviving male pensioner in the county
MONROE Union County is refusing to approve plans for a marker to commemorate slaves who served in the Confederate Army, raising questions of how to appropriately honor men virtually ignored by history.
On the eve of the Civil War's 150th anniversary, amateur historian Tony Way led the push for a granite marker to be placed at the Old County Courthouse in Monroe next to a 1910 Confederate monument. The new marker would be for 10 black men, nine of whom were slaves, who served the Confederacy during the war and eventually got state pensions.
It would probably be one of a few public markers of its kind in the country, experts say.
Way, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member from Monroe, says he and some friends sought to highlight a little-known facet of county history and make commemorations more inclusive.
But county officials recently recommended the marker not go on the 1886 courthouse grounds, saying it would be inconsistent with other monuments. The existing Confederate monument cites regiments, not individuals. Other war monuments on the grounds name only those who died.
Earl Ijames, curator of community history and African-American history at the N.C. Museum of History, worked on proposed wording for the marker.
"A tremendous opportunity has been lost to have this outreach for black and white people to understand a facet of history that has been swept under the rug," he said. "It re-enslaves them all over again" by not recognizing their service.
Slaves in the army
So how would a slave end up in the Confederate Army?
Armies need vast amounts of labor, and slaves provided a plentiful source, said David Blight, a Civil War expert at Yale University.
Nearly all of the work that blacks did for the Confederacy was support and logistical, from building latrines to working in armories. Some slaves could have been hoping for more favorable treatment back home because of their service, James said.
Almost no black men fought in battle for the Confederacy, Blight said. He added that though it's impossible to know how many slaves went willingly, many bolted for the Union lines the first chance they got.
Still, there have been occasional commemorations of the South's slaves. At Tyrrell County's courthouse in Eastern North Carolina, a 1902 Confederate statue includes the words, "To Our Faithful Slaves."
In the 1990s, stories about "black Confederates" seemed to pick up traction, Blight said.
"For neo-Confederates, it was a way of legitimizing the Confederacy in the popular memory: 'Look, the blacks supported us, too,'" he said. "If they were there, they were impressed or ordered into service. They were not soldiers."
After the Civil War began, Wary Clyburn ran away from his plantation to join his master's son, Frank Clyburn, acting as his cook and bodyguard for his old friend.
Wary's daughter, Mattie Rice, was fascinated to hear her father's stories when she was a young girl in the 1920s. She remembers him describing a battle where Frank was shot. "He crawled up a hill on his stomach, like a snake, and pulled Frank to safety."
In later years, Wary moved to Monroe, played his fiddle at reunions and got his Civil War pension. He was buried in a Confederate uniform in 1930 at about age 90. Rice, an 88-year-old High Point-area resident, is proud of her father's service.
The city of Monroe and a Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter honored him in 2008.
The next year, Way, the historian, got to wondering about other pensioners. He and several friends began research with a county librarian's help. They found records for 10 black pensioners, including a free man, Jeff Sanders.
All were described as "body servants" or bodyguards, even Sanders. Some hauled supplies, carried water or cooked. At least two were wounded.
Hamp Cuthbertson helped build Fort Fisher near Wilmington in 1863, his pension application stated, "under the direction and command of his masters, and enduring severe privation, hunger, illness and punishments, and being returned to the home of his owner about one year later."
Southern states began providing Civil War pensions in the 1880s; only Mississippi did not exclude blacks. In 1927, N.C. law finally let people of color seek pensions -but only if they went to war as laborers or servants.
"They essentially got pensions by being loyal slaves," Blight said.
Fewer than 200 sought N.C. Civil War pensions, Ijames said. They got annual pensions of $200, about $2,550 today.
In Union County, most of the 10 men had an average age of 90 when their pensions began.
Last May, Way asked county commissioners to approve a marker honoring the men.
Commissioners sent the request to the county Historic Preservation Commission, which recommended that no new marker go on the courthouse grounds unless there was a major new conflict to commemorate.
A Civil War room in a future museum at the courthouse would be the best place to memorialize the 10 men, the preservation group said. No money has been budgeted for a museum, nor is there any timetable to create the center.
The county manager agreed with the group's assessment. Staff told county commissioners they did not recommend the marker be added and recently told Way of the decision.
He isn't sure what he will do next. Way said he felt the historic commission did not want to see a monument to African-Americans at the courthouse.
County Manager Cindy Coto and preservation commission Chairman Jerry Surratt said they did not think the historic commission's actions were based on race.
Surratt said all of the other monuments at the site, except for the Revolutionary War marker where records were hard to come by, honor those who died in service. No marker mentions a person's race.
About 552 Union County soldiers died in the Civil War, Surratt said, but only their regiments are on the monument.
"If you go back 100 years later and put up a supplement to the monument, with names, it elevates the 10 people by name above the 500 other people who died," Surratt said. "(It) would turn a race-neutral monument to be racially a step backwards."
Ijames called it disingenuous to think a monument erected in 1910 at the height of the Jim Crow era would have been intended to honor contributions by black residents.
Until Way contacted Greg Perry, he knew little about his great-great-grandfather, pensioner Aaron Perry, who toiled at Fort Fisher.
"To find out he fought for the Confederacy was mind-blowing," said Perry, 48, of Monroe.
Perry said he understands but disagrees with the reasons the marker was rejected.
"It's really sad," he said. "One thing about history, it can be divisive or it can be healing."
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