Richard Quarls and the Dead Man’s Pension
Kevin recently highlighted a story done by a local news station in Florida on Richard Quarls, in honor of Black History Month. Quarls is one of the better-known “black Confederate soldiers,” and in 2003 had a Confederate headstone placed over his grave by the local SCV and UDC groups.
In watching the video it occurred to me that, as presented, there are two narratives being told in the segment about Richard Quarls. One, as told by his great-granddaughter, Mary Crockett, is that of a slave who accompanied his master’s son to war. Ms. Crockett’s account, passed through her family, is clear about his status and role in the war, recounting that “when the master’s son got shot, and fell, [Quarls] picked up the gun, started firing the gun, and defending him while he laid on the ground.” The son is identified here as H. Middleton Quarles, who was killed in fighting at Maryland Gap, Maryland on September 13, 1862. It may have been in that action that Richard Quarls picked up Private Quarles’ rifle. There’s no reason to doubt Ms. Crockett’s account of her great-grandfather’s experience although, as always, family reminiscences are invariably subject to the vagaries of oral traditions passed from one generation to the next.
The second narrative is that overlaid by the SCV, which “discovered” Quarls’ military service and sponsored the headstone and memorial service. This second narrative is largely reflected in the dialogue of the news report, which is sprinkled with dramatic-sounding but vague phrases that blur the distinction between soldier and servant, slave and free. We are cautioned that “historians disagree about their numbers and how they served,” but also assured that “he may have been a servant and rifleman.” It’s suggested that he may have fought in thirty-three battles, and the viewer is told that at the end of the war Quarls was “honorably discharged.” It’s an impressive story to a general audience, but the historian immediately notices that there are very, very few specific facts presented that can be cross-checked against primary sources.
As noted in the video clip, the key element in identifying Quarls’ supposed service as a soldier is his pension record from the State of Florida (10MB PDF). The pitfalls of working with Confederate pension records have been discussed in detail elsewhere, and generally speaking, are less than fully-reliable in determining an individual’s status in 1861-65. They are particularly problematic on the case of Richard Quarls, and actually raise more questions about his wartime service than they answer.
Quarls applied for a pension in Pinellas County, Florida on July 10, 1916. On the first page of the application, he claims that he enlisted in Company K, 7th South Carolina Infantry, at Camp Butler, South Carolina, sometime in 1861. He gives his name upon enlistment as Richard Quarls. He claims to have been discharged in 1865 “near Richmond” Virginia, in 1865, on account of “Lee’s surrender.” The inference is that Quarls served almost the entire war with the 7th South Carolina Infantry. Quarl’s service claims were attested to by two witnesses, T. B. and O. W. Lanier. Both testified to have known Quarls during the war, affirmed his membership in the unit, and that they witnessed his full service as described in the application. These basic elements of his record during the war, claimed on the initial application, appear to have been accepted without question by the SCV, and form the wartime history of Richard Quarls that is now repeated as historic fact, his story being picked up by even non-Civil War authors, including Ann Coulter. (Coulter says Quarls’ grave was unmarked before the installation of the SCV’s stone, which is not true.) In fact, those self-same pension records cast serious doubt on much of what is “known” about Richard Quarls’ service during the Civil War.
Quarls’ initial pension application was dated July 10, 1916 (Page 6). The application was passed along by the state to the U.S. War Department for verification, which replied in mid-November that no one named “Richard Quarls” could be found either on the rolls of the 7th South Carolina, nor on the rolls “of any of S.C. C.S.A. Organizations” (Page 24). The letter did note, however, that a man named J. R. Quarles was listed as having enlisted in Co. K of the regiment. This J. R. Quarles, the letter noted, did not appear on regimental rolls after December 1861.
The local pension board passed this information along to Quarls in March 1917 (Page 25), with the additional information that neither of his two original affiants, T. B. and O. W. Lanier, could be witnesses to Quarls’ claimed service through the end of the war, as T. B. had been discharged in 1862 after the loss of an arm, and O. W. had been paroled at Greensboro, North Carolina in May 1865, apparently undermining Quarls’ claim to have been released near Richmond. The letter ended,
One of your witnesses is shown by the official records to have been discharged in 1862 on account of amputation of [his] arm. The other witness is shown to have been parolled at Greensboro at [the] Close of [the] War. Both your witnesses claim you were discharged near Richmond, while one of them was discharged in 1862, and the other at Greensboro. It will be necessary for you to show by affidavits of comrades who have personal knowledge of the facts that you were discharged at the close of the war. Also advise as to the name shown by record received from [the] War Department [i.e., J. R. Quarls] and to [the] reason your name is not shown on same. There are rolls of the Company and Regiment to May and June 1864, but your name is not shown on any of them; however, you claim to have enlisted in 1861.
There’s no record of how (or if) Quarls responded to the pension board’s challenge of the Laniers’ affidavits. But in July 1917 Quarls, or someone working on his behalf, obtained a notarized statement (Page 21) from one Wilson Farris, who swore
that he has known Richard Quarrels all his life — knew him while he was in the Confederate Army serving in the 7th South Carolina Regiment and knows him to be the same person whose name appears on the Muster Roll at Washington, DC as J. R. Quarrels [sic.].
Who Wilson Farris was is unknown; no one of that name appears on the rolls of the 7th South Carolina, so it’s not clear how he would have been in position to attest to Richard Quarls’ service through the war. Nonetheless, his sworn statement seems to have done the trick; it confirmed Quarls’ service and affirmed that he was, in fact, the J. R. Quarles located in the rolls at the War Department. Richard Quarls’ pension was approved on August 25, 1917 (Page 13), at the rate of $180 annually.
Quarls collected this pension until his death in 1925. His widow, Mary Quarls, continued to collect a widow’s pension for another twenty-six years until her own death in 1951.
But that pension had been awarded based on the applicant’s identification as J. R. Quarles. And that man had been dead and buried for half a century before Richard Quarls ever applied for a pension.
J. Richard Quarles enlisted in the 7th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry on October 5, 1861, for a 12-month term. J. Richard Quarles appears to have been the older brother of H. Middleton Quarles, Richard Quarls’ reported master. His service record (19MB PDF) shows he was admitted to Chimborazo Hospital No. 4 in Richmond on March 30, 1862, suffering from catarrh and pneumonia. His condition upon admission was noted as “feeble,” and that he had been sick in camp for two or three weeks previous. After lingering almost a week, Private Quarles died of pneumonia on April 5, 1862.
Memorandum certifying the death of Private J. Richard Quarles on April 5, 1862 at Richmond, signed by 1st Lt. Jiles M. Berry, commanding Co. K, and countersigned by Major John Stewart Hard, Commanding the 7th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. The memorandum notes that Quarles was owed back pay from November 1, 1861 through the date of his death, along with a $25 commutation for clothing. Other documents in Quarles’ file note that these monies, totaling $81.83, were to be paid to his mother, Mary A. Fuller, of Edgefield, South Carolina. Via Footnote.
Recall that, in the November 1916 letter from the War Department that first mentioned J. R. Quarles in connection to Richard Quarls’ pension application, it was noted that there was no record of the former on regimental rolls after December 1861; this is because Private Quarles was never paid after that date, and he went into the hospital at the end of March 1862. It’s not clear why the War Department never snapped to the fact that J. R. Quarles died during the war.
Make no mistake: I do not believe that Richard Quarls intentionally misrepresented himself in obtaining a Confederate pension; I am not accusing either Richard or Mary Quarls of anything of that sort. I have no reason to believe Quarls intended to misrepresent himself in any way. Nor do I think he ended up getting something he didn’t deserve; in those days before Social Security or general disability pensions, if this pension allowed him and Mary some measure of financial security, that’s all to the good, and I’m glad of it.
But it’s easy to see how this might have happened. Quarls didn’t know how to read or write, or even to sign his own name; he must have relied on friends for assistance in this process — he was apparently well known and widely respected in Tarpon Springs — and it would be easy for a small miscommunication to have a profound difference. There were also at least five men named Quarles or Quarrells in the 7th South Carolina, futher compounding the confusion. I’ve seen no evidence, apart from Wilson Farris’ affidavit, that Richard Quarls ever used the initial J, nor a first name beginning with that letter. I believe that Richard Quarls was the beneficiary of a fortuitous misunderstanding, and a received a Confederate pension based on the military service of his former master’s older brother.
There is also little doubt that, in his later years, Quarls took some measure of pride in his Confederate association with the war, as evidenced by the reunion pin shown in his portraits, similar to this one. A user on Ancestry found the following obituary for Quarls in the Tarpon Springs Leader:
Columbus’s right name was Richard Quaws [sic.], the name of Christopher Columbus being assumed because of previous service that the man had in the Confederate Army under the name of Quaws, and which he thought would probably not meet with the approval of his friends here if they knew it. Nevertheless, his service with the Southern army was well known by all his colored acquaintances here, who thought of great deal of the old man. A few years ago he was taken to the convention of the Confederate Veterans in Washington by a number of veterans who attended from this city. Coming back, he was the proudest man in the colored quarters of the city, as he had seen the great President Wilson.
Columbus, or Quaws, was a slave on a Carolina plantation, at the beginning of the war between the North and South. He was very much attached to his master, and when he was called to the Southern colors, Quaws went, too, and served the duration of the conflict. Since that time he has been on the pension list, upon which he depended for his living, being too old to do anything for his own support. He lived in Tarpon Springs for the past twenty years, and was well known here among both white and colored, who thought a great deal of the old man. The funeral was held yesterday afternoon. His wife asks the Leader to thank all the white friends who have helped her and have sent flowers.
Just as today, in 1925 the distinctions between Quarls’ status as a slave and his agency in making his own, voluntary choices are blurred: “he was very much attached to his master, and when he was called to the Southern colors, Quaws went, too, and served the duration of the conflict.” (Mary Crockett was more explicit, saying “he was forced into the army. . . , so basically he didn’t have much choice but to fight.”) Whatever his actual beliefs or views it seems clear that, to many in the larger community, in his last years Quarls embodied the “faithful slave” meme so prevalent to the Lost Cause. That symbolism may bear some relation to the other unusual event in Quarls’ story. Ms. Crockett also told how, after his death, Quarls’ widow received a visit from the Ku Klux Klan, in their robes, who bowed before her and held a ceremony in honor of Quarls. The obituary also mentions this event, although doesn’t mention an in-person visit by robed Klansmen:
Yesterday afternoon, his wife was very much surprised to receive a letter bearing the seal of the Ku Klux Klan here from which dropped a check for twenty-five dollars when it was opened. The letter read: “Through sympathy for you and kind feelings toward your deceased husband, Christopher Columbus, this organization desires to extend to you their sympathy and help. We hand you herewith the sum of $25.00 to help defray the burial expenses of your deceased husband. Yours in sympathy, The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Tarpon Springs.”
It is a complicated story, indeed. While modern Southron Heritage™ folks insist that there’s a bright line between themselves and groups like the Klan — epitomized by the ubiquitous mantra, “heritage, not hate” — it wasn’t always so. In the early years of the 20th century, at the time of what may be considered the Lost Cause high water mark, Confederate veterans’ groups often commemorated the original, Reconstruction-era Klan as a justified, even noble, continuation of the conflict of 1861-65 and published paeans to its memory. Membership in that earlier Klan was noted in old soldiers’ obituaries. The United Daughters of the Confederacy sold “absolutely correct” histories of the Klan (right) to raise funds to build a monument at Jefferson Davis’ home, Beauvior. The Confederate Veteran magazine cheered D. W. Griffiths’ infamous film Birth of a Nation, as having “done more in a few months’ time to arouse interest in that organization than all the articles written on the subject during the last forty years.” In short, at the very time Richard Quarls was applying for a Confederate pension and attending at least one Confederate reunion, the Reconstruction-era Klan was wholly embraced, lauded, and honored by Confederate veterans’ groups across the South. The memories of Confederate soldiers of 1861-65, and of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction, remained locked arm-in-arm for decades, well into the 20th century.
Why would Confederate veterans embrace Richard Quarls? My guess is that, for them, he embodied the core Lost Cause meme of the “faithful slave,” who remained true to the Confederate cause and his former master for decades after the war. We’ve seen this before, as with R. A. Gwynn (here and here), William Slaughter, Crock Davis, Bill Yopp and many others. That’s not to say that Quarls, Gwynne and the rest were compelled to participate, or didn’t take actual pride in their attendance at Confederate service — Quarls’ obituary is quite explicit about that — but it’s a mistake to assume that there weren’t larger, more subtle cultural and racial currents at work there. A when a new Klan (the so-called “Second KKK“) emerged after 1915, it’s entirely in keeping with their claims (however inaccurate) to be the revitalization of that earlier group that they would embrace a man that they viewed as representing the “correct” role and position of a former slave.
I’ve had the opportunity to dig into the histories of several men who’ve been identified as black Confederate soldiers. When contemporary records are available, the claims made often don’t hold up to close scrutiny. Upon further investigation some cases, like Thomas Tobe of South Carolina, confirm that the man in question served in a non-combatant role. Other examples, like that of James Kemp Holland, are patently wrong. In this case of Richard Quarls, it seems that we can be reasonably certain of several things, including:
- Quarls went to war as a slave, the body servant of a white soldier, possibly H. Middleton Quarles. He later claimed to have been in combat, picking up his master’s rifle when the latter was hit.
- In 1916, Quarls applied for a Confederate pension from the State of Florida. Florida appears not to have had a pension program for former servants, and Quarls applied using the form for former soldiers.
- In response to a query from the local pension board as to whether or not Quarls was the same man as J. R. Quarles, identified in the records, a man named Wilson Farris went to a notary and attested that Richard Quarls was, in fact, the same man.
- Having connected the pension applicant Richard Quarls with the service record of Private J. Richard Quarles, and unaware that Pvt. Quarles died in 1862, the State of Florida awarded Richard Quarls a Confederate Soldier’s pension.
- In his final years, Richard Quarls took a measure of pride in his Civil War experience, and attended a Confederate veterans’ reunion in Washington, D.C., likely the 1917 U.C.V. event.
Richard Quarls was the fortuitous beneficiary of some unknown clerical mix-up. But its effects have been far-reaching right down to today, almost a century after that error. As a result of that mistake, Richard Quarls’ pension records carry the name of Private J. Richard Quarles, a man who’d already been dead and buried for 50 years. Seventy-five years after Richard Quarls’ own death in Tarpon Springs, the local SCV and UDC camps latched onto those same pension records. In their rush to publicly identify Quarls as a black Confederate soldier, neither group, it seems, bothered pull a copy of the service record of Private J. Richard Quarles – the very man they assumed to be buried in Tarpon Springs – from the National Archives, which would have immediately revealed that the two men were different persons. (I realize that, with websites like Ancestry and Footnote, research of this sort is easier now than ten years ago. Nonetheless, the records were readily available.) As a result, today Richard Quarls today lies under a VA-provided headstone that lists a military rank he did not hold, and a first initial he never had.
It’s a complex story, the life of this man Richard Quarls, more complicated than even Mary Crockett probably imagines.
Richard Quarls portrait via Fox News; headstone photo via Find-a-Grave.