The (Very) Posthumous Enlistment of “Private” Clark Lee
Kevin and Brooks have been all over the Georgia Civil War Commission, and particularly of its handling of the case of Clark Lee, “Chickamauga’s Black Confederate Soldier.” I won’t rehash all of that, but there are a few points to add.
First, kudos to Eric Jacobson, who noticed that the modern painting of Lee used by the commission on its marker (right) is almost laughably tailored to affirm Lee’s status as a soldier, including the military coat with trim and brass buttons, rifle, cartridge box belt, military-issue “CS” belt buckle, and revolver, all backed by a Confederate Battle Flag — even though the Army of the Tennessee didn’t adopt that flag until the appointment of General Joseph E. Johnston, well after the Battle of Chickamauga.
It’s probably also worth noting that the man in the painting looks a lot older than 15, the age the Georgia Civil War Commission says Lee was at the time of the battle.
As it turns out, several weeks ago the SCV and other heritage folks installed and dedicated a new headstone for Lee, explicitly (and posthumously) giving him the military rank of Private. The stone also states that Lee “fought at” Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, the Atlanta Campaign, and a host of other engagements by the Army of Tennessee. These are very specific claims, so it’s worth asking what the specific evidence for them is.
E. Raymond Evans (center, with umbrella), author of The Life and Times of Clark Lee: Chickamauga’s Black Confederate Soldier, speaking at an SCV memorial service for Clark Lee in April 2013. From here.
As is so often the case, there doesn’t appear to be any contemporary (1861-65) record of Lee’s service. There is no compiled service record (CSR) for him at the National Archives. Presumably the historical marker, the headstone, and a recent privately-published work on Clark Lee are all based on his 1921 application for a pension from the State of Tennessee, where he had moved in the years after the war. You can read Lee’s complete pension application here (29MB PDF). I cannot find a word in it that mentions or describes Clark Lee’s service under arms, or in combat. There is a general description of Lee’s wartime activities, but it’s quite different from what the Georgia Civil War Commission wants the rest of us to understand about him. I’ve put it below the jump because of some of the unpleasant themes expressed.
Lee’s pension file is longer than most — 20 pages — in part because it was initially denied by the state pension board, and there was much subsequent correspondence to establish his eligibility before he was finally approved. One of these items is a letter, dated June 16, 1923, addressed to U.S. Representative Gordon Lee. The letter in the pension file is unsigned — it’s presumably a carbon of the original — but the writer may have been State Senator Edgar Jones Graham of Hickman County, who originally put forward the legislation creating the program two years before. The letter lays out Clark Lee’s situation and claim for a Tennessee pension:
I have been interesting myself to get a State pension for him based upon the fact, as he states that he was a body servant, during the latter year of the war, to Col. Clark Gordon, your Uncle, and remained with him loyal and true to the close of the war and came home with Col. Gordon after the surrender of Gen Johnson’s [sic., Johnston's] Army in North Carolina. If he can establish this record he will be entitled to a Tennessee State Pension under our present pension law allowing pensions to faithful old slaves, who remained true to the close of the struggle to their “white folks.” I am proud of the fact that I am the author of this bill, making our faithful old slaves, who took part in the field, during the war.
It’s one of the great ironies of Black Confederate Soldier advocacy that one of its central talking points — they received pensions, therefore were considered to have been soldiers, Q.E.D. — is undermined again and again by the actual content of those very documents. We saw it with Thomas Tobe, we saw it with Richard Quarls, we saw it with Wade Childs, and we saw it with Louis Napoleon Nelson.
And now with “Private” Clark Lee.