Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Richard Quarls and the Dead Man’s Pension

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on February 12, 2011

Kevin recently highlighted a story done by a local news station in Florida on Richard Quarls, in honor of Black History Month. Quarls is one of the better-known “black Confederate soldiers,” and in 2003 had a Confederate headstone placed over his grave by the local SCV and UDC groups.

In watching the video it occurred to me that, as presented, there are two narratives being told in the segment about Richard Quarls. One, as told by his great-granddaughter, Mary Crockett, is that of a slave who accompanied his master’s son to war. Ms. Crockett’s account, passed through her family, is clear about his status and role in the war, recounting that “when the master’s son got shot, and fell, [Quarls] picked up the gun, started firing the gun, and defending him while he laid on the ground.” The son is identified here as H. Middleton Quarles, who was killed in fighting at Maryland Gap, Maryland on September 13, 1862. It may have been in that action that Richard Quarls picked up Private Quarles’ rifle. There’s no reason to doubt Ms. Crockett’s account of her great-grandfather’s experience although, as always, family reminiscences are invariably subject to the vagaries of oral traditions passed from one generation to the next.

The second narrative is that overlaid by the SCV, which “discovered” Quarls’ military service and sponsored the headstone and memorial service. This second narrative is largely reflected in the dialogue of the news report, which is sprinkled with dramatic-sounding but vague phrases that blur the distinction between soldier and servant, slave and free. We are cautioned that “historians disagree about their numbers and how they served,” but also assured that “he may have been a servant and rifleman.” It’s suggested that he may have fought in thirty-three battles, and the viewer is told that at the end of the war Quarls was “honorably discharged.” It’s an impressive story to a general audience, but the historian immediately notices that there are very, very few specific facts presented that can be cross-checked against primary sources.

As noted in the video clip, the key element in identifying Quarls’ supposed service as a soldier is his pension record from the State of Florida (10MB PDF). The pitfalls of working with Confederate pension records have been discussed in detail elsewhere, and generally speaking, are less than fully-reliable in determining an individual’s status in 1861-65. They are particularly problematic on the case of Richard Quarls, and actually raise more questions about his wartime service than they answer.

Quarls applied for a pension in Pinellas County, Florida on July 10, 1916. On the first page of the application, he claims that he enlisted in Company K, 7th South Carolina Infantry, at Camp Butler, South Carolina, sometime in 1861. He gives his name upon enlistment as Richard Quarls. He claims to have been discharged in 1865 “near Richmond” Virginia, in 1865, on account of “Lee’s surrender.” The inference is that Quarls served almost the entire war with the 7th South Carolina Infantry. Quarl’s service claims were attested to by two witnesses, T. B. and O. W. Lanier. Both testified to have known Quarls during the war, affirmed his membership in the unit, and that they witnessed his full service as described in the application. These basic elements of his record during the war, claimed on the initial application, appear to have been accepted without question by the SCV, and form the wartime history of Richard Quarls that is now repeated as historic fact, his story being picked up by even non-Civil War authors, including Ann Coulter. (Coulter says Quarls’ grave was unmarked before the installation of the SCV’s stone, which is not true.) In fact, those self-same pension records cast serious doubt on much of what is “known” about Richard Quarls’ service during the Civil War.