Marker Rejected for Slaves in South’s Army

Adam Bell, Charlotte Observer, February 16, 2011

Union County [North Carolina] 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.

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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

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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, Ijames said.

Almost no black men fought in battle for the Confederacy, Blight [David Blight, a Civil War expert at Yale University] 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.”

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“For neo-Confederates, it was a way of legitimizing the Confederacy in the popular memory: ‘Look, the blacks supported us, too,'” he [Blight] said. “If they were there, they were impressed or ordered into service. They were not soldiers.”

Eventual pensions

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. . . Way, the historian, {snip} and several friends {snip} 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.

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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.

County concerns

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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.

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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.

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“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 [County preservation commission Chairman Jerry 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.

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