Jaime Amanda Martinez: Why Exactly are We Commemorating “Confederate Pensioners of Color”?

Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South, by Jaime Amanda MartinezWe welcome a guest post from Jaime Amanda Martinez, author of Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South. Under policies instituted by the Confederacy, white Virginians and North Carolinians surrendered control over portions of their slave populations to state authorities, military officials, and the national government to defend their new nation. State and local officials cooperated with the Confederate War Department and Engineer Bureau, as well as individual generals, to ensure a supply of slave labor on fortifications. Using the implementation of this policy in the Upper South as a window into the workings of the Confederacy, Martinez provides a social and political history of slave impressment. She challenges the assumption that the conduct of the program, and the resistance it engendered, was an indication of weakness and highlights instead how the strong governments of the states contributed to the war effort.

In today’s post, Martinez looks closely at one community’s efforts to commemorate the contributions of African Americans during the Civil War.


Confederate memorial, Old Union County Courthouse in Monroe, N.C. (photo by Jaime Amanda Martinez)

Confederate memorial, Old Union County Courthouse in Monroe, N.C. (photo by Jaime Amanda Martinez)

It was a gray, drizzly Tuesday in June when I parked my car outside the Old Union County Courthouse in Monroe, N.C. The square was largely deserted. A few people hurried past on their way to the shiny new courthouse down the street or a nearby hardware store, but nobody lingered to inspect the many historical markers that ringed the building. A sheet of paper taped to the door proclaimed that the June meeting of the Union County Historic Preservation Society had been cancelled due to lack of a quorum. The scene was a far cry from the gray, drizzly Saturday in December 2012 when a new marker was placed on the courthouse grounds to great fanfare in the local press and among Confederate heritage groups.

The new marker, a marble rectangle placed at the base of the 1910 monument to the county’s Confederate soldiers, lists the names of ten African American men from Union County who received state pensions in return for services rendered to the Confederacy. These men had been body servants, cooks, and wagon drivers for Confederate soldiers; most also spent at least some time digging and building fortifications around Wilmington. Nine of the ten were slaves during the war. The ceremony celebrating their historic marker—an event two years in the making—featured a color guard in Confederate uniforms, a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace,” and black-veiled members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy surrounding Mattie Rice, daughter of one of the ten honorees.

Most historians I’ve talked to have been unsure what to make of this event. Eager to discuss African American participation in the Civil War, we are nonetheless troubled by the aura of Confederate nostalgia surrounding the ceremony, as well as the news coverage that (at least in the Charlotte-area press) seemed intent on calling the ten men Confederate soldiers or veterans. And while the men and women who fought to create the monument, which proclaims its purpose as honoring “the Courage & Service By All African Americans During The War Between the States,” insist that they are simply seeking to tell an untold story, rather than celebrate the Confederacy, the choices they made about which stories to tell perhaps suggest otherwise.

Memorial for Confederate Pensioners of Color, Union County, N.C. (photo by Jaime Amanda Martinez)

Memorial for Confederate Pensioners of Color, Union County, N.C. (photo by Jaime Amanda Martinez)

The ten men listed were among dozens forced to work as Confederate servants or laborers, but they were the only ones who survived long enough to claim pensions in the 1920s. Indeed, in Union County, where slaves accounted for 20% of the population in 1860, nearly all African American men and women also worked throughout the war to sustain agricultural production and other economic activities when most of the white men left for the army. For the monument’s promoters, the ten names inscribed in stone represent them all. The work they put into uncovering  the stories of those ten is laudable. I know from experience that recreating the stories of enslaved men put to work on Confederate fortifications is maddeningly difficult.

Yet it is worth noting that during the two years it took to get the new marker approved by County Commissioners, nobody researched whether any black residents of Union County served in the U.S. Army during the war. A “location” search in Ancestry.com’s archive of Compiled Service Records turns up about 30 men in United States Colored Troops units who listed Union County, N.C., as their birthplace. This quick search is just a starting point. No doubt any number of boys born into slavery in North Carolina in the 1840s and 1850s were sold out of the state before reaching adulthood; others may have run away. Plenty of enslaved men born in Union County would not have been residents in the years immediately preceding the war. But a little digging into census records and other local materials might have uncovered which of the thirty men lived in Union County in 1860, and perhaps even the choices they made that led them to enlist in the Union armies. As Richard Reid described in Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era, the four USCT regiments formed in North Carolina did most of their recruiting among the black men who ran to Union lines in the eastern portion of the state—but some runaway slaves, especially young men, traveled hundreds of miles to reach those lines. With sufficient motivation, black men from Union County could have made their way to New Bern and enlisted in USCT regiments.

If the purpose of the monument truly was to tell untold stories about the history of the community, and to commemorate the contributions of all African Americans to the Civil War, shouldn’t we be paying some attention to black soldiers who served in blue uniforms? Otherwise, as legal historian Alfred Brody noted, the monument is unmistakably tinged with Confederate nostalgia, and perhaps more than a hint of the “faithful slaves” narrative so central to the Lost Cause. Perhaps, as the first anniversary of the marker’s dedication arrives, we can celebrate by sharing a new set of stories, one that further enriches our understanding of how black southerners participated in and experienced the Civil War.

Jaime Amanda Martinez is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Her book, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South, is now available.


One Comment

  1. Greetings Ma’am.

    I found your story here very interesting, well written and somewhat balanced, to which I commend you.
    I agree with what you say in regards to the veterans who were black Union men from the area, they should likewise be remembered with honor just as much as these Confederate men of color were.

    Now that being said, I do have to take some issue with the implication that honoring these men had anything at all to do with “Confederate nostalgia” or any so-called “happy slaves narrative” that no longer exists among Confederate heritage groups in any significant way. Speaking as a 12 member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans I know what I am talking about. I also speak as someone who was in attendance at the laying of that marker and its dedication last December. Several people even presented their own wreaths and flowers for both the marker and the Confederate monument itself.

    What I witnessed was a moving sight, hundreds of Confederate descendants, both white and black, there to honor the services of men who wore the gray. No more and no less. No agenda beyond simply honoring the dead and recognition of services that should have been done much sooner, but then again in America black heroes of US wars have often had to wait years, if not decades to be recognized. I was honored to meet many descendants of these men, including Miss Mattie Clyburn Rice, Real Daughter of Confederate Veterans and pensioner Weary Clyburn, as well as Mr. Earl L. Ijames, curator of the Museum of North Carolina. I doubt either of those people, let alone the 96 other black descendants of those men would have attended if they felt these people were being exploited for some nonexistent “neo-Confederate” propaganda campaign. I myself would certainly have boycotted the event if I thought the memories of those men were being used as props to advance some sordid political or social agenda.

    What I saw there ma’am, and I say this with all sincerity, was nothing more or less than giving veterans their due, no different than say the Hunley Funeral in Charleston 2004 or any other Confederate Memorial Day event or marker dedication. Everyone who attended was respectful to the descendants and to the other guests, even people passing by stopped to witness this event were taken with awe over the respect shown to the honored dead.

    I do appreciate you taking the time to write this story though and to remind everyone that it happened. I hope and pray that all our ancestors who served in that terrible and ugly war on both sides can be so honored in future events, without malice and with only love and respect.

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