Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The (Very) Posthumous Enlistment of “Private” Clark Lee

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on June 14, 2013

ClarkLeeKevin 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.

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Service
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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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GeneralStarsGray

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31 Responses

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  1. Rob Baker said, on June 14, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Great work as always Andy.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 14, 2013 at 9:11 pm

      Thanks. If we’re going to talk about Clark Lee, or anyone else, we oughter go back to the source material.

  2. SF Walker said, on June 14, 2013 at 10:19 pm

    Another fine article on the black Confederate phenomenon, Andy. I find the painting particularly amusing–not too many Army of Tennessee troops had such a military look as “Private” Clark Lee does here. Lots of the white enlisted men in this army were wearing civilian coats and belt buckles. Revolvers generally weren’t permitted in the ranks, either–though they were used as props in portraits, of course. The intent of the painting is pretty obvious.

  3. Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on June 15, 2013 at 6:50 am

    Excellent post, Andy. Examples such as these never cease to amaze me. How can you possibly give a man the rank of private and assert he “fought” when there’s no historical evidence he did so?

    What historically oriented groups should be doing, in cases such as Thomas Tobe’s, where grave markers are in dire need of replacement, is to simply work with the family – if any still survives – to purchase and erect and tasteful gravestone, rather than a VA marker.

    Whether there would be any mention of the interred’s service as a servant during the war would be up to the family, but it should not be the focus. That seems much more respectful than using these long-dead ex-slaves as pawns in modern social-political squabbles.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 15, 2013 at 10:55 am

      Families sometimes get drawn into these things, too. Presumably they — like most Americans in the early 21st century — know very little about their ancestors from 150 years ago. So when some heritage group genealogist calls and says, “we’ve researched your g-g-g-grandfather, and found out he was a Southern hero, and we want to hold a military ceremony honoring him,” that’s very appealing. They’re just as vulnerable to this narrative as the general public.

  4. Jimmy Dick said, on June 15, 2013 at 8:19 am

    I just love how the Lost Causers beg for people to “let the facts speak for themselves.” Then they go out and change the facts because the facts prove them dead wrong. The whole black confederate thing is nothing more than a gigantic distortion of the facts. This Georgia Civil War Commission is just the continuing attempt of Lost Causers to create a past that did not exist. Apparently their tourist concept is aimed at aging white conservatives who want to believe in a fictional past.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 15, 2013 at 8:29 am

      Jimmy, this is the list of proclamations the commission has issued, from their website. Notice any leanings?

      Robert_E._Lee’s 202nd Birthday_Proclamation(2009)
      Robert E. Lee’s 205th Birthday Proclamation(2012)
      Robert_E_Lee’s 206th Birthday Proclamation(2013)
      Gov._Deal_150th Anniversary of Battle of Sharpsburg(2012)
      Alexander_Hamilton_Stephens (2012)
      Confederate_History_Month (2003)
      Confederate_History_Month (2008)
      Confederate_History_Month (2009)
      Confederate_History_Month (2011)
      Confederate_History_Month (2012)
      Confederate_History_Month (2013)

      • Jimmy Dick said, on June 15, 2013 at 11:43 am

        Hmm, there could be a general trend there. I’m not sure. May need to do some more research. I may wait for them to commemorate Sherman’s March to the Sea. I’m sure they can post links to all the burned out and destroyed places along the way while advertising Antebellum mansions and buildings and whole Antebellum town squares that aging white conservatives will flock to.

        That and maybe celebrating all the black men from Georgia who enlisted in the USCT and fought to preserve the Union and stop the traitors who were attempting secession.

        I’m sure they’ll be announcing those celebrations any day now.

        • Andy Hall said, on June 15, 2013 at 11:49 am

          Jimmy, the North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission, a private group set up to counter the “cultural Marxism” of that state’s official observance, puts USCTs from North Carolina under “Acts of Treason Against North Carolina</strong>.”

          Can’t make this up.

          • Jimmy Dick said, on June 15, 2013 at 12:53 pm

            No, you really can’t. Those that prefer the lie will go to great lengths to perpetuate it. I just used the Georgia case in my doctorate course on education to show the other students how false information is sometimes promoted by government websites. Then I explained how we call this propaganda. I’ll let you know if anyone comments.

          • Richard said, on June 15, 2013 at 8:56 pm

            I don’t usually get into discussions of who is a traitor, but your link to that website is troubling. I spent an evening riding Long Ridge Rd last week, visiting the many family cemeteries that dot the landscape. This road runs from outside Little Washington to Plymouth. You will find many proud Americans with 1st North Carolina Union Volunteers emblazoned upon their tombstones. These men risked it all and have not been given the respect that is owed to them by this country.

  5. Robert Maresz said, on June 15, 2013 at 10:52 am

    …..thanks for plowing through the bull-roar….

  6. Corey Meyer said, on June 16, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    Andy…somehow I missed this post…again…very nice work.

  7. Martin Husk said, on June 17, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Since the Georgia Civil War Commission can bestow rank on someone without a scintilla of proof that person ever took up arms, I’d like to do the same. Henceforth, Clark Lee shall be known as Rear Admiral of the Confederate States Zeppelin Corps.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 18, 2013 at 12:07 pm

      Phelps is a different sort of case. He really was a soldier. He just wasn’t African American. ;-)

  8. TF Smith said, on June 18, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    Nice work, as always

  9. Kevin Dally said, on June 19, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    I’m sure, Andy…you WILL “offend” again! LoL

  10. kacinash said, on June 20, 2013 at 11:00 am

    I continue to be baffled by the fact that this sort of nonsense is a problem Civil War scholars face.

    Thanks for posting the pension file– I have never had the chance to read one of those before.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 20, 2013 at 11:22 am

      Most Civil War scholars ignore it altogether. They see it as a fixation of a small group of people, part of a larger schema of rationalizations, deflections and false narratives necessary to lionize the Confederate cause as a whole. They see it as unworthy nonsense, and to an extent, they’re right.

      What they miss, though, is that the black Confederate narrative has been stealing a march (or four) on them wit the general public’s understanding of the war, at a basic, grass-roots level. Every graveside ceremony, newspaper story or historical marker moves this narrative forward a little more. Taken individually, these stories (like Clark Lee’s) are very easily challenged, but there’s always another, equally contrived example to cite for those who want to believe.

      But good on you for reading through the pension application. You’ll find several others in posts I’ve written on this subject. Advocates of the black Confederate meme love to hand-wave at pensions as evidence for their claims, but either don’t know or don’t care that those same documents often undermine the very claims they’re making.

      • kacinash said, on June 20, 2013 at 2:13 pm

        It is easy to understand why these groups want to believe these variations of the Lost Cause narrative, but harder to comprehend that they do. The mistrust of historical research and critical analysis that generally permeates their ranks just does not compute with me.

        Pension applications provide such a wealth of information. I’ve only read veterans’ invalid and widows’ pensions, but it’s remarkable how much you can piece together about the lives and experiences of the individuals through these records. I would love to see some sort of digital project that can make these “body servant” pension records more readily available for the public’s perusal, as well as written scholarship.

        • Andy Hall said, on June 20, 2013 at 4:26 pm

          It is easy to understand why these groups want to believe these variations of the Lost Cause narrative, but harder to comprehend that they do. The mistrust of historical research and critical analysis that generally permeates their ranks just does not compute with me.

          There’s a set of core beliefs that binds the heritage movement that all go together — war was about tariffs, slavery was relatively benign, etc. — but they don’t stand up well to direct challenge. There’s a heritage group on Facebook that has made it official policy that their members should not visit blogs like mine, ostensibly because pageviews generate advertising income for me. There is no paid advertising on this blog and never has been, but they’re got to come up with some reason, right? ;-)

    • Andy Hall said, on June 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm

      Kaci, the other thing to remember is that the modern black Confederate narrative is a modern updating of the old “faithful slave” meme that is one of the foundational concepts of the Lost Cause. Its purpose now, as then, was to frame slavery as a fundamentally benign and mutually-beneficial institution, in which these men’s highest aspiration was “to serve their white folks.” That argument doesn’t cut it anymore, so the narrative has been shifted to make them not loyal to their owners, but loyal to the Confederacy and willingly serving as soldiers under arms. It’s a old and rancid idea, fitted out in a fresh, butternut uniform.

      • kacinash said, on June 20, 2013 at 2:20 pm

        Indeed. Remarkable how the Lost Cause Myth refuses to die after all these years.

  11. Kevin Dally said, on June 20, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    It’s like the whole modern day Southern Heritage agenda for many is a religion!

  12. Jeff Bell said, on June 23, 2013 at 1:35 am

    Southern politicians, landholders, slave-owners (Southern Gentry) found a willing and unwitting accomplice to their end of retaining power in the South: enlist the white populace by appealing to the darker side of their nature. The majority of white Southerners at the time was of English or Scots-Irish heritage and ascribed to a personal code of honor and a distrust of centralized power (The Government). It wasn’t hard to convince them that the U.S. Government was out to steal their very way of life, and the only way to preserve it was to secede. Ironically some of the same thinking seems to linger on in (mostly) the South to this day and it will likely be many generations (if ever) before this mentality subsides.
    I don’t blame most of these folks for believing this, it’s in their upbringing. You have to wonder though; will historical fact and reality ever really sink in?


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