Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Thomas Tobe and the Limits of Confederate Pension Records

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on January 2, 2011

Note: This post has been updated since it originally went online, to reflect Tobe’s service at a Confederate military hospital. Major changes from the original are marked in blue.

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Corey Meyer, who blogs at The Blood of My Kindred, has been taking a closer look at pension records of individuals who have been claimed to be African Americans who served as soldiers in the Confederate Army. I think this is the right approach, for two reasons. First, it’s a rational way to cut through the routine (and unproductive) back-and-forth shouting of, “no, you’re wrong!”, to get at the actual evidence in specific cases. Second, this sort of methodical, “micro” approach to the evidence is much more likely to identify and confirm the existence of actual, verifiable African Americans who may have served as soldiers. Establishing a half-dozen solid, ironclad examples of such men that can be fully documented in contemporary records will do a better service to Civil War historiography that a thousand unidentified, undated photos of old black men at Confederate veterans’ reunions — let alone the outright frauds that occasionally turn up. It’s hard to find the proverbial needle in the haystack when someone’s throwing fistfuls of straw at you.

Recently, Corey took up the case of one Thomas Tobe (c. 1839 – 1922), a free African American man from Newberry County, South Carolina, who reportedly went to war with Company G of the 7th South Carolina Cavalry, Holcombe’s Legion. Tobe has been identified as a soldier based, it seems, entirely on the content of a 1919 South Carolina pension application where the local board ruled that Tobe had served as a soldier, and includes the notation that Tobe “was a free Negro who volunteered in this company and served to the end of war.” While the claim here is specific, the document (like all Confederate pension records) remains problematic, for reasons I’ll get to shortly.

Before getting into Thomas Tobe’s case in more detail, it’s important to look at Civil War pensions generally and remember how they were handled. This will be familiar ground to some readers, but it bears repeating, because it underscores why Confederate pension applications are not especially reliable sources for determining a man’s status in 1861-65.

Pensions for Union soldiers was handled by a central office within the federal government, where each claimant’s service was checked against official records compiled by the War Department. It was a centralized operation, with objective standards of service verification, with relatively little opportunity for personal influence i determining whether a man’s application was approved.

The situation was very different in the South, where pensions were set up by the individual states. Some states allowed pensions for black servants and other non-combatants, while others did not. Pensions were set authorized at different times, and so on. Generally speaking, each county or district was set up with its own pension board to evaluate and decide local cases. Because Confederate service records were somewhat fragmentary, and were not readily available to the local boards in any case, pensions were generally awarded based on the affidavit of witnesses to the man’s claimed service. Ideally these witnesses were other soldiers who had served in the same unit as the applicant, but often they were not. It was a system inherently weak on verification, capable of being manipulated for both good and ill purposes, with local political appointees issuing state pensions based on the affidavits of men who may or may not have actual first-hand knowledge of the applicants’ claims. Confederate pension records, absent corroborating documentation, cannot by themselves be considered definitive proof of the enlistment status of any individual veteran, white or black.

I should add that the basic primer to understanding the process for awarding Confederate pensions — and their limitations — remains James G. Hollandsworth, Jr.’s manuscript, “Looking for Bob: Black Confederate Pensioners After the Civil War,” in the Journal of Mississippi History.


Thomas Tobe’s name has been cited before as a “black Confederate” in several places, including in the comments section over at Kevin’s place. In every case I can find, the claim directs back to these same pension documents without reference to any other evidence or, for that matter, providing any other information about Tobe at all. Tobe applied for a pension in 1919, under that year’s South Carolina Confederate Pension Act of 1919. Earlier South Carolina pensions had been issued primarily to men disabled by the war, or widows of men who died in Confederate service. The 1919 program included all veterans and widows over the age of sixty who had married veterans before 1890. But it did not include African Americans who had served as cooks, servants or in other non-combatant support roles; those men did not become eligible for pensions until 1923. Note that when one runs the search of South Carolina pensions as Ms. DeWitt suggests, the applications are listed in chronological order; Tobe’s name and 1919 application appear at the head of the list, with the next-earliest that of Wash Stenhouse, dated 1923.

I have been unable to find any contemporary (i.e., generated in 1861-65) military records for Thomas Tobe in the usual places, including the NPS Soldiers & Sailors Database or in the service record files via Footnote. Edit: However, as commenter BorderRuffian notes below, he does appear employed as a nurse on the roster of General Hospital No. 1 at Columbia, South Carolina for July and August 1864, having been attached to the hospital on June 30 of that year. Under “remarks,” the he entry carries the notation of “conscript Negro.” (There are also single-entry mentions of a black man named “Tobe” employed as a laborer in June 1863 at Meridian, Mississippi, and someone with the surname “Tobbe,” raced unknown, on the rolls of Co. C, 17th Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers. It’s not clear whether either of these refer to the Thomas Tobe discussed here; Tobe was a common 19th century nickname for Thomas.)

The term “nurse” here may encompass a wide range of duties. Bell Irvin Wiley, in Southern Negroes, 1861-1865, discusses the role of African Americans in Confederate hospitals during the war:

Slaves and free Negroes were employed as hospital attendants, ambulance drivers, and stretcher bearers. Their duties in the hospitals were the cleaning of wards, cooking, serving, washing, and, sometimes, attending the patients. In some hospitals all this work was done by convalescent soldiers. As the need f men became more acute in the later part of the war, Negroes were used more extensively, that the white men, convalescents included, might be available for fighting.

Wiley goes on to note that in 1864, the year Tobe is carried on the roster of the military hospital at Columbia, black hospital workers (or their masters, in the case of slaves) were authorized $400 annually in compensation.

The hospital roster also contradicts the assertion on Tobe’s pension claim that he served continuously with Holcombe’s Legion from 1861 through the end of the war.

The other factor that must be taken into account, of course, is that most all of the tens of thousands of African American men, slave and free, who were involved in one capacity or another with the Confederate Army served in non-combatant roles, as personal servants, cooks, teamsters, laborers, and so on. This is true for vast majority of men now publicly identified as “black Confederates,” as well, for whom detailed documentation exists. Based on the General Hospital No. 1 roster, I believe this is likely true for Thomas Tobe as well. Indeed, he may have also gone along with the 7th South Carolina as a civilian worker, in any number of roles. Although corroboration is lacking, I can easily see that happening. If this were the case — and it’s a speculative scenario — it would neatly explain both his absence from the regiment’s military roster and his claim, 55 years later, to have served with that regiment.

There are documented cases where African American men used different pension forms at different times to describe their wartime roles. The famous Holt Collier, for example, applied for a servant’s pension in Mississippi in 1906, and again in 1916, before applying as a soldier in 1924 and 1928. That, combined with the wide discretion given to local political appointees in determining who would qualify for a pension, it should be considered at least a possibility that the board in his case did not exercise particular rigor in his case to verify the claim made in the old man’s application. So it’s possible that Tobe, perhaps with the encouragement of someone with influence on the local pension board, encouraged him to apply for a pension. Having served as a nurse, and perhaps with other units as a civilian laborer or conscript, it’s easy to see how he and the pension board might both view him as being entitled to the meagre support it provided, whether he was technically eligible or not.

So was Thomas Tobe an honest-to-goodness Confederate soldier? The vocabulary here is important. I believe very much in keeping definitions as narrow as possible; otherwise terms get tossed around loosely to the point at which they have no real meaning. There’s a real tendency to conflate terms in this area of research so that historically-important distinctions between military and civilian personnel are blurred and confused. To me, the  definition of “soldier” that matters in this discussion is that used at the time: carried on the muster rolls, with military rank and recognized as such by his peers. And while in-the-ranks Confederate solders were sometimes detailed off from their units to work in hospitals, there’s no indication that that’s the case here. By those lights, then, and based on this evidence, I’d argue that the evidence does not fully confirm Thomas Tobe’s claim as a Confederate soldier, but clearly did serve as a nurse in a military hospital, most likely as a civilian but under military orders. Confederate service? Yes. As a soldier? I’m dubious, but open to further research findings.

As Kevin often points out, the lives of alleged “black Confederates” rarely get any attention at all apart from their supposed status as Confederate soldiers; those who cite them typically don’t dig much further beyond the one document that, to them, makes their chosen point. So while I retain some skepticism about whether Thomas Tobe was recognized as a soldier in the 7th South Carolina Cavalry during the war, I would like to share what else I have found out about him.

I was able to trace Thomas Tobe through most of the U.S. Censuses from 1850 to 1920. I could not find him in the 1860 Census, and the 1890 Census was destroyed in a fire, but he shows up in the others. The pension record gives his birth date as 1835, but various censuses indicate a birth date as late as 1839. His gravesite gives a birthdate of February 6, 1833, but I’m more inclined to trust the the early censuses, including the 1850 census, that reflect a birthdate of around 1839. It appears that, apart from the war years, he spent his entire life in central South Carolina, in Newberry and Lexington Counties, just west of Columbia.

In 1850 Tobe is lasted as being age 11, the son of William and Mary Tobe of Hellers (now Hellers Creek?), Newberry County, ages 50 and 35 respectively. William Tobe is listed as a farmer. Thomas has three siblings — Mary (15), Young W. (5) and Lucy (3). Thomas Tobe is described here as “Mulatto,” while in all following censuses he’s described as “Black.”

In 1870 Thomas Tobe is listed as a farm laborer in Newberry County, his age given as 31 He is married to Elizabeth, age 25, and they have four children residing with them — Delia (12), Thomas Jr. (9), William (7), John ( 4), and Samuel (1). Also living with them is a black farm laborer, George Wadsworth, age 23. Other records indicate Elizabeth’s maiden name was Wadsworth.

In 1880, Thomas is still in Hellers, now giving his age as 44. Elizabeth — giving her name as Betty — gave her age again as 25. Living with them are their children Thomas (17), William(15), John(14), Samuel (13), Garibaldi (12), Julius (10), Ebenezer (9), Hayes (8), and Florence (6). In that year’s agricultural census, Tobe is a renter on a 64-acre farm.

In 1900, Tobe is still in Hellers, giving his age as 60. He provides his birth date as July 1839. Elizabeth, given as Bettie, gives her age as 55, with a birth date of January 1845. They indicate they’ve been married 35 years. Living with them are two grandsons, their names listed as Lon (12) and Kite (10). He is still renting a farmstead.

In 1910, Thomas and Elizabeth Tobe are still in Hellers, giving their ages as 75 and 68, respectively. Living with them is a grandson, Thomas, age 21. The elder Tobe now owns his farmstead, with a mortgage. Elizabeth reports that she is the mother of 17 children, 10 of whom are still living. (It’s not clear how many of their children died young, and were not noted by the census, but at least one died as an adult during Thomas and Elizabeth’s lifetimes — Delia in 1915, of unknown causes — and their sons Julius (1898) and Hayes (1904) were critically injured in violent encounters; it’s not clear if either son survived.

In 1920, Thomas and Elizabeth Tobe are living in Broad River, Lexington County, with their ages given as 84 and 73 respectively. Although the two of them comprise a single household, the next household in the census is their son John, age 52, and his family, so it appears the elder Tobes either lived next door, or perhaps in an apartment adjacent to John.

Thomas Tobe died on August 1, 1922, and Elizabeth followed on March 29, 1923. Both are reportedly buried in the cemetery at Fairview Baptist Church, near Newberry.

Taken together, these decennial snapshots suggest a man whose life was stable but very linear. He and Elizabeth never learned to read or write, but were married for at least 55 years and raised a large family. He was, in his last years, able to purchase his own farm. It’s possible that, apart from his travels during the war, Thomas Tobe did not travel much beyond the region of central South Carolina where he grew up.

Thomas Tobe’s case is a fascinating one. It warrants further research, both to further illuminate Tobe’s specific circumstances and, more broadly, to illustrate the complexities of the role the African Americans played in the Confederate military effort. While there’s still no separate documentation to confirm Tobe’s service in the 7th South Carolina Cavalry, a little digging (in this case by commenter BorderRuffian) does reveal Tobe’s service as a nurse at a military hospital, and perhaps may even hint that he went with them into the field as a civilian laborer with the Seventh. It’s a complex story, one that doesn’t fit easily into simple interpretations of the conflict.

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21 Responses

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  1. Kevin said, on January 2, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    This is exactly the approach that needs to be taken. Thanks for taking the time to dig further into Tobe’s past. You have no idea how much your site has helped me to better understand this subject.

  2. Marc Ferguson said, on January 2, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Andy,
    This is a very thoughtful portrait of Thomas Tobe, illuminating his actual life but also demonstrating the limitations of the known evidence. I really enjoyed reading it!

  3. BorderRuffian said, on January 2, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    …from Footnote.com (Miscellaneous Confederate records)-

    “Thos. Tobe [unit not stated]

    appears on a Hospital Muster Roll of General Hospital No. 1 at Columbia, SC, for July & August 1864.

    Attached to hospital…June 30, 1864. Employed as Nurse.

    Remarks: Conscript Negro.”

    This does not rule out service in Holcombe’s Legion. He could have been with that unit prior to or sometime after June 30, 1864.

    *******

    There is also a “Tobbe” that appears on a receipt roll dated June 17, 1864 that lists him in Company C, 27th SC Infantry

    • Andy Hall said, on January 2, 2011 at 7:09 pm

      Thanks for that, BR. It helps fill in some of the gaps.

  4. Larry Cebula said, on January 2, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    What about the white soldiers of Company G of the 7th South Carolina Cavalry? Can their service be documented?

    • Andy Hall said, on January 2, 2011 at 9:24 pm

      Yes, they can. I saw several service records listed in files at Footnote, and the NPS Soldiers & Sailors Database, I pulled up the alphabetical listing for the regiment. In the first five screens (100 names), there were fifteen members listed from Company G.

  5. TheRaven said, on January 2, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    who reportedly went to war with Company G of the 7th South Carolina Cavalry, Holcombe’s Legion.

    If Tobe was a real soldier – a gun-in-his hands, march with the troops, fight-in-the-woods & trenches soldier, he’d have been a remarkable and likely controversial sight to every other member of Company G. Since Tobe served in some capacity throughout the war, he’d have interacted with every soldier who cycled through Company G, and perhaps other units. A black confederate soldier would have sparked comments in diaries and letters home. Those comments would have specifically mentioned a black man who was armed and fought alongside white confederates, with a fair amount of editorializing. If surviving letters and diaries from Company G soldiers are known & accounted for, and if such material doesn’t mention Tobe in the traditional context of “soldier”, then he was not a “black confederate”.

  6. Dick Stanley said, on January 2, 2011 at 11:49 pm

    I suppose you could say the authorities were being generous after the war in calling him a soldier. But whatever does “conscript negro” refer to?

    • Andy Hall said, on January 3, 2011 at 7:19 am

      The Confederate national government authorized the impressment of African Americans as laborers for all sorts of tasks relatively early on, and continued through the war. There was a lot of pushback from individual states, whose legislatures were often filled with men whose own slaves were subject to impressment by the government. This was authorized at east as early as March 1863. But opposition by the states got so bad at one point that Jefferson Davis suggested that the Confederate government flat-out buy 40,000 slaves, just to not have to deal with the difficulties of conscripting laborers from recalcitrant owners.

      Free blacks like Thomas Tobe was in a particularly precarious position regarding this sort of conscription, as they had no one to speak for them. Wiley notes that an addendum to the Confederate conscription law passed in February 1864 included the instruction that “impressment of slaves was to be made only after the impressment of free Negroes had failed to meet the needs of the government.” In short, free blacks like Tobe were more in danger of being pressed into Confederate service than most plantation slaves, whose masters would generally find ways to obstruct their conscription and the loss of labor that would entail.

      • George Purvis said, on March 26, 2011 at 11:46 pm

        Actually I believe the discussion was about arming the slaves and had nothing to do with laborers in the field.

        • Andy Hall said, on March 27, 2011 at 10:34 am

          Prior to March 1865, the laws passed by the Confederate Congress authorizing conscription of free and slave African Americans into strictly non-combatant roles, such as laborers, hospital attendants (like Tobe), and a variety of other roles. They were “in government service” in the general sense, but not formally enlisted, and not considered at the time to be soldiers. Indeed, the CS Army regulations issued throughout the war was explicit, that only free white men could be enlisted.

          • George Purvis said, on March 27, 2011 at 11:06 am

            That may be true as far as the official policy goes but history tell s that “rules were made to be broken.” There is just much documentation to say that policy was strictly followed

            • Andy Hall said, on March 27, 2011 at 11:33 am

              I understand that well. And I’ve never said that there was never a black man enlisted, only that they must have been exceedingly rare, and that what’s usually offered in the way of evidence for specific cases is almost always either badly flawed or, so fragmentary that a real assessment cannot be made, or, in a few cases, outright dishonest.

              Making judgments about historical events is just that — making a judgment, based on the evidence available, which includes assessing how reliable that evidence is. Given the weight of contemporary, Southern documentation against the premise generally, the evidence supporting a specific case needs to be very strong.

  7. George Purvis said, on March 26, 2011 at 11:44 pm

    If he was employed by a Confederate military branch he was a soldier. If they received pay for service for service in a military installation, they were a soldier. I sit and read these comments and wonder who gave any of you the right to determine a persons service? The Confederate states felt these negroes service gave them a right to a pension, that is good enough for me. using the criteria of being in an honest to goodness fight would eliminate a good portion of the USCT.

    • George Purvis said, on March 26, 2011 at 11:49 pm

      I should have added if 1,000 black free or slave men and women were working in various duties for the Confederate government, that freed 1,000 ablebodied men to man the lines.

    • Andy Hall said, on March 27, 2011 at 10:21 am

      You’re welcome to define “solider” any way you wish. Your chosen definition, or mine, are irrelevant to Tobe’s status as it was understood in 1861-65. The only definition that matters is that applied by the Confederate government and military at the time.

      There’s no contemporary evidence of Tobe’s service, except as an impressed free black man working as a hospital steward in Columbia. He may well have accompanied a military unit in the field as he claimed on his pension application, as a cook or servant or in similar capacity, but there’s no record of that so it remains an open question.

      Pension programs were handled by individual states, and cases were assessed by local pension boards. As a result there was little consistency from state to state. Some states, like Mississippi, awarded pensions to men who were explicitly not not soldiers, identified as personal servants on their applications. In Richard Quarls’ case, it looks as though he received a pension he was not eligible for at all, on the basis of a mixup between his name and that of a man who’d been dead for decades. The existence of a pension record is not definitive evidence of a man’s status in 1861-65.

      Your analogy about USCTs is disengenous. Many USCT units were shunted off into labor battalions or other non-combat roles, certainly. But whatever action they saw, or did not see, is immaterial to their status under the law. They were formally enlisted, sworn under oath, with rank and a service record. Not the same thing at all, as I’m sure you’re aware.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      • George Purvis said, on March 27, 2011 at 11:28 am

        Actually I don’t have to define anything relating to Tobes service. The Confederate government took care of that task for me. I notice you have Footnote. Type in Thos Tobe and when the card comes up it is listed as “Civil War Soldiers – Confederate – Misc”

        His card does not say “steward” it plainly states “nurse.” Granted the nursing profession of the 1860s was in it’s infancy and would not meet today’s standards, but he is still a nurse.

        I am aware of the pension boards, two of my uncles served on such a board. Doesn’t matter what they were called soldier, musician, servant, teamster, whatever when the shooting started there was no such thing as a non-combatant. There are a lot of mixed up names, the CWS&S is good solid proof of that. If Quarles pulled one over on the government, so be it, I am sure he is not the only one Union or Confederate.

        The absences of a pension or a record is not definitive evidence of a man’s status in 1861-65.

        Nope not so, if the measure of a soldier is combat., then most USCT fail to meet that standard.

        I notice that you are all over the web posting against the possibility of Black Confederates, in fact I would say you go above and beyond to prove there was no such thing as a Black Confederate soldier. I would love to know what is your agenda? Are you trying to prove some race point? Surely your efforts are not in the for historical accuracy category.

        • Andy Hall said, on March 27, 2011 at 11:36 am

          Thanks again for stopping by.

          • George Purvis said, on March 27, 2011 at 12:23 pm

            Answering two replies at once and a couple of comments.

            “I understand that well. And I’ve never said that there was never a black man enlisted, only that they must have been exceedingly rare, and that what’s usually offered in the way of evidence for specific cases is almost always either badly flawed or, so fragmentary that a real assessment cannot be made, or, in a few cases, outright dishonest.”

            Really this statement just proves to me you have done little or no actual research into the issue of Black Confederates. I am currently working on a website where I will offer plenty of good documentation. No I do not expect you, Kevin Levin or some of these other “deniers” to accept it as fact. Really I will be surprised if the lot of you agree with any of it

            “Making judgments about historical events is just that — making a judgment, based on the evidence available, which includes assessing how reliable that evidence is. Given the weight of contemporary, Southern documentation against the premise generally, the evidence supporting a specific case needs to be very strong.”

            I make no judgments on way or the other, other people do, I just present the historical fact.

            **********************************************************

            Above in another post you mentioned in the “government service.” Those citizens who were in the service of the government are filed under “Confederate Citizens File.” They are described as —-

            Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, 1861-65
            National Archives Catalog Title: Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, compiled 1874 – 1899, documenting the period 1861 – 1865

            Short Description: NARA M346. Known as the “Citizens File,” these original records pertain to goods furnished or services rendered to the Confederate government by private individuals or business firms.

            That is quite a difference in what we have been seeing.

            Try Jasper Craig, negro conscript. Note there is only one man ion the CWS&S by that name?? Do you really think Negro jasper served in a Missouri Cav. Unit? See that is the problem with blindly taking the CWS&S as a last word tool.

            I know you didn’t ask but my agenda– correct some of the lies we have been told for the last 145 years or so.

            I see you have no comment for my last post. To bad, I thought your were an honest researcher. At any rate I do appreciate the fact you let me post an opposing view.

            Best regards.

  8. Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on January 14, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    Thomas Tobe and his wife are indeed buried in the graveyard of Fairview Baptist Church in Newberry County. I came across both graves today, and found your blog entry on his service when I entered his name into a search engine. Very interesting and informative post.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 14, 2012 at 7:28 pm

      Thanks. If you have any pictures, I’d be happy to see them.


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