Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Confederate “Body Soldier” Honored with Fake Grave, Yankee Headstone

Posted in African Americans, Education, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on May 29, 2012

Update, June 12: The researcher behind the stone, Julia Barnes, pushes back hard against my piece below:

Andy, as with many issues, reporters make mistakes. The reporter did a good job and was trying to do a public service. The records for Wade Childs stated that he was a “body servant,” not “body soldier.” The burial site for both men, Lewis and Wade Childs, was the West View cemetery in Anderson. This is not supposition. It is based upon the death certificates. Both were buried in the same cemetery, by the same undertaker, about 12 months apart. This is not a fake grave. It is a placement based upon the records of the Anderson Cemetery records office, the South Carolina Vital Records department, and the Pension records found in the SC Archives, which noted his burial location and date. All of this was reviewed by the City attorney for approval of the placement of the headstone.

Fair enough. More in the comments.

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Even in the muddle of half-understood documents, vague definitions and simplistic, patriotic tropes one comes to expect of news stories about black Confederates, this one’s a mess:

Childs served as a body soldier with Orrs Regiment of the South Carolina Rifles in the Confederate army during the Civil War. He carried the belongings and camp supplies of white soldiers, one of some 20,000 to 50,000 slaves who labored during the war.

[Julia] Barnes believes he might also be one of the 3,000 to 10,000 black Confederates who Harvard researchers suspect fought for the South. The Southern army did not record black soldiers, said Barnes, an Anderson County historian.

I’ve never heard the term “body soldier” before, but I suspect I will again. It’s a modern obfuscation that both sounds substantive and conveniently elides the terms used 150 years ago. It’s not a term real Confederates would have understood or used. Childs would have been known as a “body servant,” or simply as a slave. There is a passing reference to Wade Childs’ being enslaved, but no reference to soldiers Private John Chiles or Captain James S. Cothran, to whom (according to his pension record) Childs was acting as servant. Childs labored for those men, not for the Confederate army. The headstone makes no reference to Childs’ role whatsoever. That’s almost unheard of on such stones, and suggests very strongly that the folks who put it up feel like the less said about that status, the better.

Mike Barnes, the local SCV camp commander, is quoted as saying that “they are considered veterans by the state of South Carolina,” but in fact the state viewed men like Childs very, very differently than it did rank-and-file Confederate soldiers. South Carolina first awarded pensions to disabled white veterans and their widows in 1887, and gradually expanded eligibility for other white veterans in the decades following. It was almost forty more years, though, before men like Childs were made eligible:

Act No. 63, 1923 S.C. Acts 107 allowed African Americans who had served at least six months as cooks, servants, or attendants to apply for a pension. Then in 1924, apparently because there were too many applications, the act was amended to eliminate all laborers, teamsters, and non-South Carolinians by extending eligibility only to South Carolina residents who had served the state for at least six months as “body servants or male camp cooks.”

The evidence for Child’s involvement with the Confederate military seems to rest entirely on his 1923 pension application (read it here), which is fine as far as it goes. (See another example of the limits of Confederate pension records here.) But the pension application is very clear about what Childs’ (or Chiles’, as it’s given in the application) role was during the war as a servant — none of this vague “body soldier” business mentioned there.

It’s also important to note that, as is often the case with such applications, the case for Childs’ worthiness for such a pension was made not only on his wartime service to his master, but also on his continued adherence to the racial status quo antebellum in the South. “Wade has been a faithful, dependable negro [sic.],” his primary sponsor writes, “humble to white people and always willing to serve them.” Contrary to the assertions of the local SCV camp commander, this is hardly a case of Childs’ service being recognized by the state as being anything like that of white veterans, armed and in the ranks.

Make note also of the fact that, as of 1924, African Americans who had worked as laborers and teamsters, men whose activities were arguably more directly beneficial to the South’s military effort, were explicitly excluded from the pension program in favor of those men like Childs who had served individual white soldiers. Cooks and personal servants counted; the men who built earthworks and drove wagons did not. That was the policy of the state of South Carolina.

All of this is par for the course in “honoring” black Confederates, but there’s an additional element here that adds another layer of dubious research findings:

Barnes and her husband discovered that Childs’ brother Lewis was buried at Westview, a historically black cemetery. They concluded that Wade Childs must be buried there, too.

Westview’s military corner facing Reed Street is “wall-to-wall” with unmarked graves, Barnes said.

“I had been looking and found his brother there,” Barnes said. “It’s logical that he would be there since his brother is there. We don’t know where, but when we saw Lewis, we felt his was there, too.”

Yes, you read that right — they have no damn idea where Wade Childs is actually buried. They’re guessing, and placed a stone in that cemetery, on that spot, because they “felt” that was the spot, that it was “logical” to them. It’s a fake grave, just like the ones in Pulaski — with the exception that the folks in Tennessee at least added fine print noting that location of the person mentioned is unknown. No such truth-telling here.

To add an extra bit of irony, these noble defenders of Southron Honour™ put up a stone with a rounded top, like those of of U.S. veterans, not the peaked top usually used for former Confederates. How on earth did they get that one wrong?

I dare say these folks found a local African American man in the South Carolina pension rolls, and ended up so determined to commemorate their very own black Confederate that little details like, oh, actually knowing where he’s buried became irrelevant to putting up a marker and chalking up another “forgotten segment of South Carolina’s past.” Thank goodness these folks are only promoting heritage — if they called this half-baked foolishness history, they’d be laughed out of town.

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Update, May 31: I originally put this down in the comments, but it might be useful to explain further why I’m a bit exercised about this “fake grave” business, an action that I (still) consider to be so misleading as to border on willful dishonesty.

Long-time readers may recall my post just about exactly a year ago on Peter Phelps, a white Confederate soldier who’d been named as a “black Confederate” by another website. In researching Peter Phelps, I found documentation not only of the cemetery he was buried in, but also the section. Unfortunately, there is no marker there now to identify the exact spot, so I posted a photo of the area with a caption that it showed the area where he was buried, but the precise location is not known. That’s fair, that’s accurate, and that’s honest. What I did not do is take a picture of an empty patch of soil and state, “this is Peter Phelps’ grave,” which is essentially what the Barnes are doing with Wade Childs.

As for their assumption that Wade Childs is buried next to his brother, the Phelps case is also instructive. Peter’s wife, Lucinda, died several years before he did, and we know (again from interment records) that she was buried in a plot in the same part of that cemetery. But section and plot numbers also make it clear that they are not buried together, as one might assume a married couple would be. While it may seem “logical” to think that Childs is buried near his brother, in the absence of actual evidence of that, it seems foolhardy to me to make that assumption and set it in stone (literally) for future generations. Visitors to that South Carolina cemetery a week from now, a year from now, fifty years from now, are going to be left with the belief that they saw the grave of Wade Childs, when in fact they might not have been within fifty (or a hundred) yards of it. Does that sort of precision really matter? Yes, I think it does, especially when it involves placing a marker that’s intended to last for generations to come.

As I’ve said, there are many ways to recognize a person, or a burial, without setting up a fake grave. It can be done. Even the faux cemetery for black Confederates at Pulaski, which is disingenuous and misleading in so many ways, acknowledges that the men so “honored” do not actually lie under those stones.

For those who want to engage in the heritage vs. history debate, this commemoration of Wade Childs offers lots to chew on. It’s a great example of the difference between two different approaches. Serious historians know the limits of their knowledge of a subject, and are willing to say “we don’t know that; we don’t actually know where Wade Childs is buried.” A serious historian does not go around setting up a simulated gravesite as a means of “honoring” a deceased person, or making up a term like “body soldier” to muddy the waters around the man’s actual role in the war, while ignoring critical elements of the primary, documentary record that undermine the chosen narrative. “Heritage” advocates do that sort of thing all the time, and aren’t even aware they’re doing it, or understand that it’s a problem.

So by all means, “forward the Colours,” y’all. Just don’t think what you’re doing counts as history.

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Image: Jennifer Crossley Howard, IndependentMail.com.