Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

An Update on the “Last Confederate Reunion”

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on January 23, 2011

A couple of months ago I did a post on a 1944 event in Montgomery, Alabama that was billed as the “Last Confederate Reunion.” In late 2009, the blog Confederate Digest had posted the image above, under the triumphant headline “Black Confederate, Dr. R. A. Gwynne, among the last Confederate Veterans of Alabama.” As I posted in November, it’s a dubious claim. A long, contemporary account of the reunion in the Alabama Historical Quarterly (Vol. 06, No. 01, Spring Issue 1944) mostly ignores Gwynne’s presence relative to the seven white attendees, but also mentions that he was 90 years old at the time. If that were true, he could not have been more than 11 at the end of the war — an child even by 19th century standards. Confederate Digest apparently overlooked this detail, in its intent to establish what one commenter referred to as “the indisputable fact that thousands of blacks, both slave and free, willingly served in the Confederate armed forces, defending their homeland against a brutal, invading northern army.”

I couldn’t find much more about R. A. Gwynne at the time, but last week I reposted my November piece at The Atlantic, and in response got a lot of very interesting and helpful comments. One regular commenter there, Alabama_Girl, noted that Guinn was a common name in north-central Alabama, and asked if I’d tried alternate spellings for the name. I hadn’t, but having now done so, I think we may know considerably more about Gwynne’s personal history. It also casts further doubt on Gwynne serving in any military capacity, given that he may in fact have been even younger at the time than previously suggested. He likely had not seen his tenth birthday by the time the war ended.

The key lies in two primary source documents. The 1930 U.S. Census for Birmingham identifies an R. A. Guinn, age 74 (i.e., birthdate c. 1856) living in that city. He is married to Sallie Guinn, age 38. This is the only black man I can find in Birmingham with the name R. A. Guinn, or a variety of alternate spellings (Gwynne, Gwinn, Guinne, etc.) who would be about the right age to be the man identified in the photo. The second critical element is a record in the Alabama Death Notices Index, 1908-1959 (vol. 26, certificate no. 12721, Roll 4), found by Alabama_Girl, of Ransom A. Gwynn, of Jefferson County (Birmingham) on May 27, 1945, several months after the event in Montgomery. I believe very strongly that both these records document the “R. A. Gwynne” in the image, and the census entry in particular is important, as it opens the door to tracking Gwynne/Guinn/Gwynn back for half a century.

Apart from the 1890 U.S. Census, which was destroyed in a fire, it’s possible to track Gwynn — I will use that spelling henceforward except when referring to entries on individual primary source documents — it’s possible to trace him from the 1930 Census, the must recent available, back through 1880. Although there are lots of inconsistent responses from roll to roll, including the spelling of Gwynn’s surname, it seems clear that these all refer to the same man, tracing him backwards in time from Birmingham to Columbus, Georgia and back again to Seale, Alabama:


1930 U.S. Census, Birmingham, Alabama. Listed as R. A. Guinn, age 74 (implied birthdate 1856). Married to Sallie, age 38. Children J. T. (son, age 10); Felton A. (son, age 8 ) and Deborah (daughter, age 5). No employment listed.

 


1920 U.S. Census, Columbus, Georgia. Listed as R. A. Guinn, age 56 (implied birthdate 1864). Married to Sallie, age 28. Children David L. (son, age 5) and John T. (son, age 2). Employed driving a coal wagon.

 


1910 U.S. Census, Columbus, Georgia. Listed as Ransom A. Gwinn, age 52 (implied birthdate 1858). Married to Dora, age 51. Children Corine (daughter, age 14) and Bertha (daughter, age 8). Employed as a cart driver by the city Sanitation Dept.

 


1900 U.S. Census, Columbus, Georgia. Listed as R. A. Gwynn, age 44. Birthdate given as January 1856. Married to Dora, age 43. Children Hugh (son, age 17), Mamie (daughter, age 14), Ransom (son, age 12), Corine (daugther, age 7), and Henry (son, age 4). Employed as a wiper by the railroad.

 

1890 U.S. Census was lost in a fire.

 


1880 U.S. Census, Seale, Alabama. Listed as Ransom Guinn, age 22 (implied birthdate 1858). Married to Dora, age 21. No children. Employed as a laborer.

 

As noted previously, there are a number of inconsistencies in these entries, but these are common to census data. Taken together, these documents present a strong circumstantial case that Gwynn was, in fact, younger than he claimed in 1944.  With the single outlier of the 1920 Census, where Gwynn is recorded with an age nearly a decade younger than he must have actually been, the ages reported all suggest a birthdate in the late 1850s, the earliest being the January 1856 date given in 1900. It’s entirely likely that Gwynn didn’t know his actual birthdate, and knew his age only approximately; that was a common phenomenon, especially among former slaves who were born into a world without birth certificates, and with little reference to calendars or other tools we take for granted. But importantly, all of these reported or implied birthdates would make Gwynn at least two years younger than reported in the story about the “Last Confederate Reunion.” If, in fact, he was born in January 1856, Gwynn would have been a little past his ninth birthday when the Civil War finally ground to a close.

None of this is to question that Ransom Gwynn went off to war as a child as a servant to his master. His claim, eighty years later, to have served as a “body guard” is not plausible, but then old men are wont to exaggerate sometimes. The problem here is not Ransom Gwynn’s claim in 1944, but in claims made on his behalf today. To suggest that this kid’s experience proves a larger case — you know, “that thousands of blacks, both slave and free, willingly served in the Confederate armed forces, defending their homeland against a brutal, invading northern army” — is just ludicrous.

____________________

Thanks to Alabama_Girl, who figured out the key to this story.

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11 Responses

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  1. TheRaven said, on January 23, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Excellent.

  2. corkingiron said, on January 23, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Good work, as usual Andy. Props to you and Alabama_Girl for digging into this.

  3. Kevin said, on January 24, 2011 at 4:38 am

    Yep…another outstanding post. Thanks Andy. You are making my job much easier. :)

  4. Corey Meyer said, on January 24, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Another fantastic post Andy.

  5. Corey Meyer said, on January 24, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    Andy,

    I also find it really interesting that those white veterans are all “Generals”. I am guessing these are honorary titles? I mean, what are the chances that the last seven men in Alabama were all generals?

    • Andy Hall said, on January 24, 2011 at 6:46 pm

      It was VERY common in the 19th century for men of local prominence to be addressed by a military title, typically “colonel,” regardless of their actual military service. This, combined with honorary titles bestowed by the UCV, UDC etc., meant that pretty much everybody got addressed that way, and it got worse as veterans got to be fewer. “General” J. W. Moore, for example, was only a few years older than Gwynn, and was a teenaged cavalry trooper before he got sent home because of his age.

      That said, I’ve never seen a “black Confederate” referred to as “Colonel So-and-So.”

  6. Richard said, on January 24, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    Thanks Andy for taking the time to actually document your evidence, its a skill that seems to be lacking on the Internet.

    NC Troops 1861-1865 Jordon Vol XIV Infantry

    61st Co. K
    Levi B. Cummings Private
    Negro, Born in Duplin County and resided in Onslow or Jones County where he was by occupation a laborer prior to enlisting in Jones County at age 26, July 14, 1862, for the war. Reported present in Nov, 1862-April, 1863. Reported on detail as an ambulance driver in May-June, 1863. Discharged in July-August, 1863, or on November 16, 1863, because he was “not considered white”.

    You can follow the Cummings family from Onslow to Dublin and then Jones and Onslow again in the census. The Cummings surname in Eastern NC can be white/black/indian. I am sure there are family members out there that can help fill in the blanks.

    With access to footnote.com and ancestry.com there really is no reason not to research the easy things and build a case. Next step would be to research wills/deeds/manumissions/ etc and learn about kinship and business ties. We are lucky to have death certificates for NC on ancestry.com

    In Levi B. Cummings case my first question is why did it take him so long to be discharged? How much control did the Confederate Government have over the raising of local troops. It appears to me the local leaders with the money raised their own units at the beginning of the war, Levi was of mixed heritage, but that would have been known by his local community. In 1850 he is listed as mulatto, 1860 he is listed as black.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 24, 2011 at 8:50 pm

      Richard, thanks for your comment. I want to note that your blog, African American Soldiers and Sailors, Onslow County, North Carolina does some serious heavy lifting when it comes to exploring the individual lives of ACW servicemen. I hope anyone reading this blog will give yours a close look, as well.

      I don’t know about Cummings’ case specifically, but it looks to be an interesting example. It does seem that the dispute over local v. national control over units may have played a part. It may also be that his assignment as an ambulance driver is significant, in that that is one of the roles that the Confederacy was conscripting free blacks and slaves (when they could get them) to support the war effort. His ultimate discharge in Nov 1863 underscores official CSA policy, which appears finally to have won out.

      The Confederacy was a big place, and people and situations are complicated, as Cummings’ case shows. I suspect there may have been a number of men (guessing dozens, not hundreds or thousands) in Cummings’ situation, where individuals through skill or direct patronage gained some sort of semi-official or official status in the ranks, at least temporarily before the wheels of policy and bureaucracy caught up with them. To me, cases like Cummings’ are important to study not just for their own merit, but because in their specifics they serve to undermine the more grandiose, sweeping claims about “black Confederates” that show fundamental misunderstanding of the time and place. Levi Cummings, in other words, may be the exception that proves the rule.

      You’re dead right about using resources like Ancestry, Footnote and others. They are subscription services, but IMO they’re part of the cost of entry if one’s going to start digging into this stuff. Every avocation comes with costs; those happen to be the expenses one incurs in this sort of work, and there’s really no excuse for not getting ready access to these.

      Added: It’s likely coincidence, but Cummings’ discharge in November 1863 is concurrent with this correspondence between General Sam Cooper in Mobile and the CS Secretary of War, James Seddon, on the military status of mixed-race men.

  7. Richard said, on January 25, 2011 at 6:38 am

    Thanks for the link, explains alot. I can appreciate your comments about the census in regards to Ransom Gwynn. My civil war ancestor died at 104, it was even etched into his tombstone but when you look at the census it tells a different story. His age goes up and down by 10 years depending on what year you look at. His union pension records helped to put the number at 94.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 25, 2011 at 9:17 am

      The other thing to remember when it comes to inconsistent census records is that, it was done entirely in-person, door-to-door, by census takers. So apart from errors made by the census taker in recording the information given, there’s also the limitation that the person providing the information may not have the correct information — it could be one of the older kids in the family, providing information for everyone in the household.


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