Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Confederate Reunions: Simple Images, Complex Realities

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on November 29, 2010

About a year ago the blog Confederate Digest posted an image from the Alabama Department of Archives and History, showing participants at what was billed as the “Last Confederate Reunion,” held at Montgomery, Alabama in September 1944. The African American man at center is identified, from the archives’ catalog description, as Dr. R. A. Gwynne of Birmingham, Alabama. No additional information about Dr. Gwynne is provided, and there seems to be an unspoken assertion that his presence is evidence of his service as a soldier, and there is an implicit assumption that he was viewed at the time as a co-equal peer of the white veterans. But as with Crock Davis and the Eighth Texas Cavalry, the reality is more complex, and reflects the social and cultural minefield of both the antebellum and Jim Crow South.

As it happens, the Alabama archive website also includes a copy of the issue of the Alabama Historical Quarterly (Vol. 06, No. 01, Spring Issue 1944) containing a detailed description of the event. The attendees are described thus:

Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate Veterans, Homer L. Atkinson, of Petersburg, Va., was unable to attend on account of illness. The first Veteran to arrive was Brigadier-General W. M. Buck, of Muscogee, Oklahoma, who has already reached the age of 93 but is remarkably active and came from Muscogee to Montgomery unescorted. The Georgia delegation was sent through the courtesy of Governor Ellis Arnall in a beautiful car escorted by the Georgia State Highway Patrol in charge of Corp. Paul Smith. In the delegation were Col. W. H. Culpepper, 96 years of age and Gen. W. L. Bowling, 97. Other Veterans present were: Gen. J. W. Moore, of Selma, 93 years of age, who was elected at the close of the Reunion to be Commander-in-Chief of the Veterans; J. D. Ford, Marshall, Texas, 95 years of age; W. W. Alexander, Rock Hill, S. C., 98; Gen. William Banks, Houston, Texas, 98; J. A. Davidson, Troy, 100 years of age. All Veterans except Gen. Buch were accompanied by attendants.

There’s no mention of Dr. Gwynne, only the seven white veterans. There follows a long description of the various activities at the reunion, speeches, musical performances and so on (“Mrs. Thomas wore a Scarlett O’Hara dress and received vociferous applause when she sang ‘Shortenin’ Bread'”), and then, tacked on at the end of the piece, is a brief note:

In the group of seven Veterans [sic., eight men total, seven white and one black] that posed for a photograph was one Negro man slave 90 years of age who served in the war as a body guard to his master. This man, Dr. R. A. Gwynne, lives in Birmingham where he is a well known character.

This, along with the caption accompanying the photo, is the only mention of Dr. Gwynne in the account of the reunion. It seems clear from the context that Dr. Gwynne was, even in 1944, considered separate and apart from the white veterans. He’s almost literally an afterthought. As I said, we’ve seen this before.

In the comments section of the original post, blogger Corey Meyer pointed out — with more than a little snark — that Dr. Gwynne’s seated position may indicate his status was considered different than that of the others in the photo. The blog host fired back with speculation that Dr. Gwynne may have had an infirmity that kept him from standing, suggested that Meyer was arguing that Dr. Gwynne was somehow forced to participate in the reunion “against his will,” and repeated the standard tropes about 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.” Another commenter, well-known on Confederate heritage sites, chimed in with some gratuitous name-calling directed against Meyer.

This is, sadly, the way online “discussions” about “black Confederates” generally go — lots of sarcasm, rancor and name-calling, with little or no attention paid to the individual subject, and no acknowledgment or understanding of the larger context of the periods under discussion, either the 1860s or early 20th century South. In this case, Dr. Gwynne gets completely overlooked, because his only role here is to serve as a convenient example of the “thousands of blacks, both slave and free, willingly served in the Confederate armed forces, defending their homeland against a brutal, invading northern army.” (Entirely disregarded is the fact that, if Dr. Gwynne was indeed 90 years old in September 1944, he could not have been more than eleven at the end of the Civil War, a child even by 19th century standards.)

This, too, is entirely typical of the way images of old African American men at Confederate reunions are used as “evidence” of those men having been considered soldiers. Most of the time, these images are splashed out on a website without any further explanation and without full identification of the men involved, the units they were affiliated with, or even the date and location of the reunion. This 1944 example is better in that the man in question is identified, but the intended point is still the same — that Dr. Gwynne’s presence is proof “that thousands of blacks, both slave and free, willingly served in the Confederate armed forces, defending their homeland against a brutal, invading northern army.” It’s not; it’s only evidence that Dr. Gwynne attended the event, and posed for a photo with the white veterans. The photos says nothing conclusive about his status during the war, how he was viewed by those same white veterans, or what his motivations or beliefs were when, as an enslaved child, he was taken off to war to serve as a “body guard” to an unknown master.

I haven’t been able to find much on Dr. Gwynne in the usual online sources for contemporary newspapers, census records and the like. I suspect that he may have been a clergyman, rather than a physician, but I don’t know. I’ll keep looking. It remains an open question how much, and in what role, Dr. Gwynne participated in the reunion festivities; we know that in Crock Davis’ case thirty years previous, he was silent spectator at the veterans’ business meeting, and did not eat at the same banquet table with the white veterans. Did a similar, Jim Crow standard apply to Dr. Gwynne at the “Last Confederate Reunion” in Jackson in 1944, or to other Confederate reunions across the South in the decades previous? It sure seems like a mistake to assume that it didn’t, or that views on race and social position of black servants held by the white soldiers of 1861-65 had completely disappeared in the intervening decades.

No serious historian has ever, to my knowledge, questioned that black men, most of the them former slaves and personal servants, participated in Confederate reunions from the 1890s onward. It would be surprising if at least some men didn’t, given the social pressures of the time and the pervasiveness of the “faithful slave” meme that helped define the Lost Cause. John Brown Gordon, commander of the United Confederate Veterans, described it at the time, observing that “these faithful servants at that time boasted of being Confederates, and many of them meet now with the veterans in their reunions, and, pointing to their Confederate badges, relate with great satisfaction and pride their experiences and services during the war. One of them, who attends nearly all the reunions, can, after a lapse of nearly forty years, repeat from memory the roll call of the company to which his master belonged.” The great Southern historian Bell Irvin Wiley, writing just a few years before the “Last Confederate Reunion,” devoted an entire chapter of his classic Southern Negroes, 1861-1865 to black body servants and their complex and (often distinctly unfaithful) relationship with their masters. It’s a very complex business, as Wiley relates, but even he noted that “even now [1938], gray-haired Negroes, dressed in ‘Confederate Gray,’ are among the most honored veterans in attendance at soldier’s reunions.” They were honored by white Confederate veterans explicitly because they embodied the “faithful slave” meme that was central to the way the Confederacy was consistently portrayed by most Southerners at the time, and by some right up to today. I don’t doubt that Dr. Gwynne (and Crock Davis, and Bill Yopp and. . . .) gladly took part in these events, and took a measure of pride in their involvement in the war. But at the same time, their professed pride in the Confederate cause served a larger purpose for white Southerners, and (knowingly or not) those black men took on a role carefully crafted as part of the Lost Cause tradition, that of the loyal slave, still faithful to both his master and to the cause, decades later. They were honored and valued because they did this, as much as for their service to their masters decades before.

People are complicated, and often their true motivations and beliefs are impossible to know. But we do a real disservice to the past to use the sort of historical shorthand offered in the case of Dr. Gwynne or dozens of other unnamed black men photographed at Confederate reunions, that their presence is prima facie evidence of the their having been soldiers, and accepted as co-equal peers by the white veterans. That is, to borrow a line commonly used as a cudgel by Southern heritage groups on those who disagree with them, a singularly bad case of “presentism,” using fragments of the historical record to make the case for an entirely modern and self-serving interpretation. The actual contemporary evidence, when available, suggests otherwise. It does not honor these men to present them as something they were not, nor does it credit the research skill or integrity of the person making the claim.

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12 Responses

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  1. Corey Meyer said, on November 29, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    Andy,

    Here is a video showing actual African-Americans discussing their service with the south during the war. I posted this in a comment on Old Virginia Blog and somehow the post dealing with black confederates was accidentally “deleted” once I showed Richard Williams this video.

    I must admit that I am guilty of not getting straight to the point on this discussion as well. I think you have done much more in providing real research and dialogue on this subject than I have. Maybe I should be less snarky and more professional. But, with research like that of Mr. Conn on Confederate digest I cannot help but be a bit snarky

    Nice article…keep up the good work!

    • Andy Hall said, on November 29, 2010 at 9:46 pm

      Corey, thanks for the comment. I hope that I bring some rationality to the discussion, but it may be just that I’m really long-winded.

      The role of slaves as personal body servants is really central to this discussion, and I think it’s something that’s often misunderstood by both “sides.” There’s no question that there were genuine personal bonds between individual white soldiers and the bondsmen who accompanies them to war, and I think a shared experience of hardship did, in many cases, help cement that. In some cases, that familiarity and bond might even be considered a friendship of sorts, but in neither the antebellum world of slavery nor in the Jim Crow South that followed, would those white men ever consider their black servants to have been their equals, ever. Friendly, yes. Familiar, yes. Even respectful, up to a point. But at the same time somewhat superficial, and never equal, not ever. Not in 1864, not in 1913, and not in 1944.

      For their part, the advocates of black Confederates usually point to these relationships as somehow being typical of the relationships between antebellum whites and blacks more generally. They look at men like Bill Yopp and Dr. Gwynne and extrapolate that sort of relationship onto all blacks in the South, and come up with mind-numbingly idiotic, sweeping statements about their beliefs and motivations that are based on nothing but comforting fantasy. (This is not unlike the Southern plantation owners during the war who, accustomed to dealing with a handful of so-called “house slaves” who themselves were looking out for their own interests, were shocked to discover that slaves’ loyalty to them and to the Confederate cause was not nearly as widespread as they’d assumed.) Advocates for black Confederates today point to the (perhaps) hundreds of black men who participated in Confederate veterans’ events, but completely ignore the roughly 94,000 men from Southern states who, upon liberation (or upon liberating themselves) signed on as USCTs, and the tens of thousands of conscripted laborers who never went near a Confederate reunion in the years after. Those men represent the experience of African Americans in the South, too.

      The other thing they overlook when they point to former body servants’ expressions of fealty to the Confederate cause is the truly pervasive nature of Lost Cause ideology in the Jim Crow South of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s really hard to know much that influenced men like Bill Yopp and Crock Davis and Dr. Gwynne, but it had to have made a difference. Life could be made very difficult for any black man in the South after Reconstruction to express publicly scorn for his former master or the Confederate cause generally; while this wouldn’t necessarily extend to participating in Confederate reunions, the pro-Confederate atmosphere in which these men and their families lived and worked would certainly skew the range of acceptable behaviors in that direction. I wonder sometimes if Crock Davis would have been a regular attendee at the Terry’s Rangers reunions if his former masters, the Hill brothers, hadn’t been such active members in the group.

      Sorry if this response is a bit muddled. This stuff is complicated, and it’s difficult to sort through in a brief way.

  2. BorderRuffian said, on November 30, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    AH
    “Advocates for black Confederates today point to the (perhaps) hundreds of black men who participated in Confederate veterans’ events, but completely ignore the roughly 94,000 men from Southern states who, upon liberation (or upon liberating themselves) signed on as USCTs…”

    ***

    You seem to be a staunch advocate against myths….except that you are promoting one here.

    Many of the USCT were not volunteers. And especially those in the Southern states.

  3. Marc Ferguson said, on December 1, 2010 at 3:10 am

    Andy,
    your point that these men, about whom we know almost nothing, are reduced to stereotypes and stand-ins for the faithful “black Confederate soldier” is so important. They are being used, and this this does nothing to honor their lives. Misused and unanalyzed primary source documents, photos from the later era of Jim Crow, simplistic and sentimental ideals of “faith” and “loyalty,” stereotypes of “faithful servants,” are lumped together in an identity-confirming exercise of ancestor worship.

    Loyalty and faithfulness and dedication to a virtuous cause are all wonderful ideals that can help guide us as individuals trying to make our way in a complex world, but they are terrible, misleading interpretive lenses through which to understand the motivation of historical individuals, especially when we know nothing about them. Perhaps Dr. Gwynn and Crock Davis were wonderful, loyal men. Who knows? Perhaps they were ambitious, or frightened, or envious, or resentful… Perhaps they truly identified in some way with the whites they served. Perhaps they saw some possibilities for dignity in associating themselves with these old Confederates. But those who identify them in pictures as people who should automatically be honored, though knowing nothing about them, are not offering historical interpretations but projecting their own values. Personally, and as a historian, I find this gesture to be a desecration of these men’s memories and lives, which need to be understood on their own terms, and the terms of the times in which they lived, even if that isn’t pleasant. We don’t need cliches about loyalty and faithfulness and defending their homes against Yankee aggressors, and interpretations of the old South and master-slave relationships through Moonlight and Magnolias gauze, even if they make us feel better about the past.

    • Andy Hall said, on December 1, 2010 at 4:08 pm

      Marc:

      Thanks for a very helpful comment. You make some points that I tried to get at in the original post, but didn’t articulate very well.

      When talking about men like Dr. Gwynne and Crock Davis, who were taken to war by their masters and decades later attended Confederate reunion events, it’s really vital to acknowledge and try to understand the larger context – legal, social, racial – that attained in both the antebellum and Jim Crow South. The relationships between these men, white and black, didn’t occur in a vacuum; they were shaped by certain assumptions by everyone involved, about each player’s proper role. The whites are generous and paternalistic, and the blacks are humble, loyal and appreciative. And above all, they don’t upstage the whites.

      It’s worth noting, as well, that the blacks who participated in Confederate reunions – what little we do know about them individually – are invariably men who’d served as body servants, men who’d had a close (if fundamentally and forever unequal) relationship with a specific white Confederate soldier. I haven’t ever come across a case of a former slave laborer, conscripted to a gang digging trenches or setting up earthworks, participating in a Confederate reunion, even though those men were surely much more numerous. That’s telling, particularly when the claim made for “black Confederates” is that, regardless of their role, they all shared common bonds of patriotism and pride of service with their white counterparts, and contributed willingly to the Confederate cause from a desire to protect their homes and families, etc..

      I don’t pretend to understand all the complex dynamics of these relationships, but these reunions didn’t take place in a vacuum. The welcomed presence of former slaves at these reunions strongly reinforced one of the central themes of the ubiquitous Lost Cause memes of the day, that of the former slave, still loyal to his master and still loyal to the Confederate cause. Their participation in reunions was almost always publicly framed exactly that way. These men – Gwynne, Davis, and others – were absolutely playing a role that they themselves were so immersed in they may not have fully recognized it; it was a role that African Americans in the South had to play in their interactions with whites all the time. I don’t doubt that there was real bonhomie on both sides of the equation, between the white veterans and the former slaves, based on their shared experience of the war. But to think that larger cultural and societal forces didn’t shape and restrict is a willful denial of one of the great, murky currents of American history — maybe the biggest one of all.

      This stuff is so very complicated.

      • Allie said, on December 18, 2014 at 3:20 am

        One complicated bit you’ve not mentioned is that is in some cases house servants were blood relations of their masters, and everybody knew it, even if it wasn’t discussed. It’s not hard to imagine that a young soldier and his (cousin? Half brother?) in bondage might have a complicated set of feelings about each other.

        The other thing to remember is that in probably the majority of cases soldiers were young men, and their body servants weren’t owned by them, but by their fathers. I imagine it was easier to exercise Christian forgiveness when the person you were serving didn’t have the power to free you even if he had wanted to. In other cases, slave holders made a point of telling their slaves they would free them if they could, but the laws of the state in which they lived forbid it. Of course, this was only a semi-truth; even in states which had forbidden the emancipation of slaves, it would have been possible for everyone involved to leave the state together for a free state. There were ways. The white masters just didn’t feel motivated to use them. But the slaves, deliberately prevented from being educated, would have no way of knowing the truth or falsehood of such statements.

        • Andy Hall said, on December 18, 2014 at 8:06 am

          “One complicated bit you’ve not mentioned is that is in some cases house servants were blood relations of their masters, and everybody knew it, even if it wasn’t discussed.”

          That’s true. I haven’t discussed it in individual cases because it’s not usually demonstrable now, 150 years later. There’s no question that there were often personal bonds between white soldiers and their African American servants.

          • Allie said, on December 18, 2014 at 9:30 am

            The paper trail can pretty strongly suggest such a thing even now! I was researching what happened to the people enslaved by my family and ran across a man specifically provided for by name in the head of family’s will before the war, who took my family’s name after emancipation, listed on the census as mulatto in 1870, whose mother in the same census was listed as a black woman living in the family’s house as a servant, whose death certificate signed by his own son listed his father as “unknown.” Hmm. Unknown, or just unspeakable? Nothing can be proven at this late date (that is, unless the people involved get DNA tests) but the fact that his mother was black and he was mulatto means his father was some sort of white man somewhere. And the nearest culprit would be one of the members of my family.

            I’ve never understood why the Southern Heritage crowd try to pretend the bad parts of history didn’t happen. These people are long dead and what happened is now between them and a merciful providence, if you believe in one. I didn’t take part in their sins and I didn’t take part in their acts of bravery, such as they were. What I am responsible for is my acts today – I can tell the truth, or I can tell lies. I can reveal the injustices of the past, or I can conceal them.

            • Andy Hall said, on December 18, 2014 at 1:46 pm

              “I’ve never understood why the Southern Heritage crowd try to pretend the bad parts of history didn’t happen.”

              Because Southern Heritage — by which is usually meant, Confederate Heritage — isn’t about what happened in the past. It’s about using the past, real or imagined, as validation for one’s own cultural/social/political views.

  4. David Woodbury said, on December 2, 2010 at 5:49 am

    Andy and Marc,

    Great post, and great commentary. That was good reading.

    David

    • Marc Ferguson said, on December 3, 2010 at 10:11 pm

      I think this is such fascinating stuff – the realities much more so than the simplistic narratives being woven by heritage groups.

  5. Tom said, on March 10, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    Hello I collect all types of Civil War Items,The reason I am posting here is I have Gen J.W.Moores Autograph and A small note he wrote when he became Commander of the veterans and a newspaper clipping of him at the time later I was able to get a flag that flew over his home and a few other items.If anyone has any Info on him please let me know.Thanks


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