How — and Why — Real Confederates Endorsed Slave Pensions
In another forum recently, there was a lively discussion going on about the historical basis for present-day claims about black Confederates. One of the topics, naturally, was the pensions that some states awarded to African American men who had served as body servants, cooks, and in other roles as personal attendants to white soldiers. One person asked why it was that the former states of the Confederacy were so late in authorizing pensions for these men, or (in some cases) did not authorize them at all. It’s a good question, that I’m sure defies a single, simple answer.
But in the process of looking for something else, I came across this editorial in the October 1913 issue of the Confederate Veteran, calling on the states to provide pensions for a “a particular class of old slaves.” I’m putting it after the jump, because it’s peppered with racial slurs and stereotypes that are hurtful to modern ears, but were wholly unremarkable for that time, place and publication. So let me apologize in advance for the language, and hope that my readers will appreciate the necessity of repeating it here, in full and in proper context, in order to be crystal clear about the author’s meaning and intent. There are times when polite paraphrasing just doesn’t do the job.
As you read this editorial, keep in mind that the Confederate Veteran, by its own masthead, officially represented (1) the United Confederate Veterans, (2) the United Daughters of the Confederacy, (3) the Sons of Veterans (i.e., the SCV), and other groups. The magazine was mostly written by Confederate veterans and their families, to be read by Confederate veterans and their families. While the editorial may not reflect formal UCV/UDC/SCV policy, its appearance in the magazine does indicate that its perspective is one that would be shared by the magazine’s readership, and its call for action would reach a willing and receptive audience.
In short, if you want to know how real Confederate veterans viewed the purpose and necessity of pensions for former slaves, start here:
PENSION SLAVES WHO SERVED IN THE WAR.The South loved and revered the old darkies who formerly were servants in the homes and on the plantations of the white people. They will ever occupy a sacred place in the memory of the people of the Old South and their sons. If people ever deserved to be so revered, it is the old darkies. The people of the South should, do something material for the benefit of a particular class of old slaves. The servants who faithfully followed their young masters to the front during the War of the States and served as loyally as if they had been enlisted white men, doing their particular duties well and never tiring, should be allowed to draw pensions paid by the white people of the Southern States. Behold the picture: Black, ignorant, yet faithful, the servant of the sixties, at the call of his master, was quick to leave the old plantation and go to the front to bear the burdens of the master, forage for him, and nurse him while sick or wounded, and in death lifted the body of his beloved master, bore it from the battle field, and took it back to the old plantation and family burying ground. The negro slave delighted in serving his white folks. Consider the irony of the situation. The darky knew that the first consequence of the war in case of victory for the enemy would be bis immediate “freedom.” He knew it be- cause his master told him so. But no soldier in gray ever fought with greater vengeance than was felt in the heart of the black man with him. Administering to his every want in sickness and in health, seeking food for bis hungry body, and bearing him home in death — in every way the servant was loyal and faithful to his master. He cannot live much longer, and we should pension him. There are not so many old negroes who saw this kind of service in the war that the expense would be heavy. We are sure that not a normal human bring in all the South would begrudge the old darkies who served their masters at the front a pension commensurate with their great services and the capacity of the State to pay. There has been organized in Birmingham an Ex-Slaves’ Association with a total membership of 365 old darkies. The organization will be extended finally over the entire South. An ex-slaves’ home is one of the objectives of the Birmingham organization. Plans are already under way for this institution, which will be unique in many respects. The plan of the former slaves is to return to ante-bellum simplicity in the manner of living. The home is to be equipped with the old-time loom, spinning wheel, and carders. Pots and ovens with the ash cake will take the place of modern cooking utensils and baker’s bread. The idea is to be inaugurated in an old-time mammies’ dinner to be given at Birmingham some time this summer. The dinner will be cooked in the old way by old time mammies. Only negroes of both sexes born before 1860 are eligible for membership in the Ex-Slaves’ Association. This move should enlist the hearty support of all our white people. [The foregoing is almost literally an editorial in the Montgomery Advertiser. It deserves consideration. Our people are all right. They concur in the sentiment and would approve action by State legislation with such unanimity that if anybody objected be would be ashamed to say so. But we have been talking about this thing for a generation, always approving but never acting on the subject. By this prolonged delay of showing appreciation, the records will not convince other generations that the people who should act on this subject were sincere, yet they truly are. Such action is as sacred a duty as can be conceived by Southern people. It is right and politic, then, next to the woman's monument, that there should be a statue of a typical slave in every Southern city. A duplicate would suffice, and by cooperation much economy would thereby be exercised. Let Camps and Chapters take up the subject now.]
Present-day advocates of the black Confederate narrative often point triumphantly to pensions awarded by former Confederate states to elderly African American men as evidence that those men were thus officially recognized as serving the Confederate nation and cause. Real Confederate veterans, as indicated by this editorial, clearly saw those pensions in an entirely different light, and serving an entirely different purpose. There’s no mention in this piece about loyalty and commitment to the Confederate cause, or standing foursquare, shoulder-to-shoulder with their white brothers in defending hearth and home against the Yankee invader, or any of those vague, patriotic-sounding cliches that have become the unchallenged currency of the modern black Confederate narrative. Real Confederates would have laughed out loud at those notions. No, the arguments made in this Confederate Veteran editorial are all about recognizing personal loyalty and service to slaveowners. Period, full stop. First and last, it’s about rewarding the black man who, according to the author, “delighted in serving his white folks.”
Real Confederates, unlike their make-believe Confederate descendants, at least had the honesty to say what they meant, and mean what they said.
Now let me be clear — these men do need to be recognized by history, and honored for who they were and what they experienced. But it does no honor to them, or anyone else, figuratively to wrap them in the Southern Cross and preach bold platitudes about “black Southern loyalists” to the strains of “Dixie,” playing in the background. Such actions, frankly, dishonor them, because it hijacks their identities for a modern and historically dishonest purpose. Kevin is right — we should honor these men for what they survived, not for some happy fantasy that serves only to distract from the hard reality of their lives.