An Update on the “Last Confederate Reunion”
A couple of months ago I did a post on a 1944 event in Montgomery, Alabama that was billed as the “Last Confederate Reunion.” In late 2009, the blog Confederate Digest had posted the image above, under the triumphant headline “Black Confederate, Dr. R. A. Gwynne, among the last Confederate Veterans of Alabama.” As I posted in November, it’s a dubious claim. A long, contemporary account of the reunion in the Alabama Historical Quarterly (Vol. 06, No. 01, Spring Issue 1944) mostly ignores Gwynne’s presence relative to the seven white attendees, but also mentions that he was 90 years old at the time. If that were true, he could not have been more than 11 at the end of the war — an child even by 19th century standards. Confederate Digest apparently overlooked this detail, in its intent to establish what one commenter referred to as “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.”
I couldn’t find much more about R. A. Gwynne at the time, but last week I reposted my November piece at The Atlantic, and in response got a lot of very interesting and helpful comments. One regular commenter there, Alabama_Girl, noted that Guinn was a common name in north-central Alabama, and asked if I’d tried alternate spellings for the name. I hadn’t, but having now done so, I think we may know considerably more about Gwynne’s personal history. It also casts further doubt on Gwynne serving in any military capacity, given that he may in fact have been even younger at the time than previously suggested. He likely had not seen his tenth birthday by the time the war ended.
The key lies in two primary source documents. The 1930 U.S. Census for Birmingham identifies an R. A. Guinn, age 74 (i.e., birthdate c. 1856) living in that city. He is married to Sallie Guinn, age 38. This is the only black man I can find in Birmingham with the name R. A. Guinn, or a variety of alternate spellings (Gwynne, Gwinn, Guinne, etc.) who would be about the right age to be the man identified in the photo. The second critical element is a record in the Alabama Death Notices Index, 1908-1959 (vol. 26, certificate no. 12721, Roll 4), found by Alabama_Girl, of Ransom A. Gwynn, of Jefferson County (Birmingham) on May 27, 1945, several months after the event in Montgomery. I believe very strongly that both these records document the “R. A. Gwynne” in the image, and the census entry in particular is important, as it opens the door to tracking Gwynne/Guinn/Gwynn back for half a century.
Apart from the 1890 U.S. Census, which was destroyed in a fire, it’s possible to track Gwynn — I will use that spelling henceforward except when referring to entries on individual primary source documents — it’s possible to trace him from the 1930 Census, the must recent available, back through 1880. Although there are lots of inconsistent responses from roll to roll, including the spelling of Gwynn’s surname, it seems clear that these all refer to the same man, tracing him backwards in time from Birmingham to Columbus, Georgia and back again to Seale, Alabama:
1930 U.S. Census, Birmingham, Alabama. Listed as R. A. Guinn, age 74 (implied birthdate 1856). Married to Sallie, age 38. Children J. T. (son, age 10); Felton A. (son, age 8 ) and Deborah (daughter, age 5). No employment listed.
1920 U.S. Census, Columbus, Georgia. Listed as R. A. Guinn, age 56 (implied birthdate 1864). Married to Sallie, age 28. Children David L. (son, age 5) and John T. (son, age 2). Employed driving a coal wagon.
1910 U.S. Census, Columbus, Georgia. Listed as Ransom A. Gwinn, age 52 (implied birthdate 1858). Married to Dora, age 51. Children Corine (daughter, age 14) and Bertha (daughter, age 8). Employed as a cart driver by the city Sanitation Dept.
1900 U.S. Census, Columbus, Georgia. Listed as R. A. Gwynn, age 44. Birthdate given as January 1856. Married to Dora, age 43. Children Hugh (son, age 17), Mamie (daughter, age 14), Ransom (son, age 12), Corine (daugther, age 7), and Henry (son, age 4). Employed as a wiper by the railroad.
1890 U.S. Census was lost in a fire.
As noted previously, there are a number of inconsistencies in these entries, but these are common to census data. Taken together, these documents present a strong circumstantial case that Gwynn was, in fact, younger than he claimed in 1944. With the single outlier of the 1920 Census, where Gwynn is recorded with an age nearly a decade younger than he must have actually been, the ages reported all suggest a birthdate in the late 1850s, the earliest being the January 1856 date given in 1900. It’s entirely likely that Gwynn didn’t know his actual birthdate, and knew his age only approximately; that was a common phenomenon, especially among former slaves who were born into a world without birth certificates, and with little reference to calendars or other tools we take for granted. But importantly, all of these reported or implied birthdates would make Gwynn at least two years younger than reported in the story about the “Last Confederate Reunion.” If, in fact, he was born in January 1856, Gwynn would have been a little past his ninth birthday when the Civil War finally ground to a close.
None of this is to question that Ransom Gwynn went off to war as a child as a servant to his master. His claim, eighty years later, to have served as a “body guard” is not plausible, but then old men are wont to exaggerate sometimes. The problem here is not Ransom Gwynn’s claim in 1944, but in claims made on his behalf today. To suggest that this kid’s experience proves a larger case — you know, “that thousands of blacks, both slave and free, willingly served in the Confederate armed forces, defending their homeland against a brutal, invading northern army” — is just ludicrous.
Thanks to Alabama_Girl, who figured out the key to this story.