Editor's note: This story was originally published on Dec. 8, 2012
MONROE -- A long-forgotten chapter of Civil War history finally got its due Saturday in Monroe.
A lively ceremony at the Old County Courthouse commemorated 10 black men from Union County, nine of whom were slaves, who served in the Confederate Army and later received tiny pensions for their service. Mattie Rice, the 90-year-old daughter of one of the slaves, dedicated a granite marker to the men in front of a century-old Civil War monument from the Jim Crow era.
The new marker is believed to be the first of its kind in the country honoring black men who worked, willingly or not, for the Confederacy.
Greg Perry, one of the men’s descendants, surveyed the diverse crowd and said, “Some of these people would never have met under other circumstances. It’s just beautiful, the humanity, baby.”
As the nation observes the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, supporters of the marker hope it can unite people while honoring men who aided their community during and after the war.
But to some historians, the marker revived questions about misguidedly elevating the role of “black Confederates.” They said the idea of trumpeting the work of black men for a cause that enslaved them remains hypocritical, a way to downplay the fundamental place of slavery in the war.
Rice is aware of such criticism, but pays it no heed.
“It’s a different day and a different time,” Rice said in an interview. “A lot of people ask me if I’m angry. What do I have to be angry about? There’s been slavery since the beginning of time. I’m not bitter about it and I do not think my father would be bitter about it.”
About 250 people attended the two-hour event, including other descendants, women in black mourning dresses, lace gloves and veils, men in Confederate uniforms with sabers and rifles, and a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace.”
Several Confederate flags fluttered from the courthouse balcony next to the Stars and Stripes.
Tony Way, a local amateur historian and Sons of Confederate Veterans member, led the marker drive.
Wearing his own Confederate uniform, he said the day capped several years of work for the privately-funded commemoration.
The marker in the brickwork reads: “In Memory Of Union County’s Confederate Pensioners Of Color.” It lists the men’s names, notes that one was a free man and states, “In Honor Of Courage & Service By All African-Americans During The War Between the States (1861-65).”
The 10 handled typical war-time duties demanded of slaves: they cooked, were bodyguards, hauled supplies and built fortifications. Some were as young as 11 or 15 when they went to war.
Here’s how Hamp Cuthbertson described his experience at Fort Fisher near Wilmington in 1863. He was building fortifications and handled “other strenuous manual labor under the direction and command of his masters, and enduring severe privation, hunger, illness and punishments, and being returned to the home of his owner about one year later.”
Cuthbertson related the story when seeking his state pension in 1927.
North Carolina finally had agreed to provide pensions to blacks who served in the war decades after white soldiers received their checks. By then, most of the 10 men were around 90 and in poor health.
There’s no way to know how many slaves went willingly to war and how many bolted for the Union lines at the first chance. Virtually no black men fought in battle for the South, historians have said.
And as they did in antebellum days, the Confederacy greatly relied on slave labor throughout the Civil War.
UNC Charlotte associate professor James Hogue, who is writing a book on the South’s last-ditch effort to arm slaves at war’s end, said groups pushing the notion of “black Confederates” are trying to revise history and downplay the fact that the Civil War was over slavery.
“The choices people make (on whom to honor) say more about them than what actually happened,” he said. “Why (the 10 men)? Why not have a monument memorializing the sacrifices of the hundreds of thousands of slaves in Union County who were not emancipated until the end of the war?”
But Way, the event organizer, said the marker was meant to be inclusive and tell a chapter of county history that otherwise would be lost to time.
“I’m not looking to glorify slavery,” Way said. “But are we supposed to discount the fact they even existed? This (criticism) is political correctness run amok.”
Ahead of their time
The 10 men were praised throughout the ceremony, as some in the crowd occasionally nodded “amen.” There also were quotes from Scripture and a lot of support voiced for Southern heritage.
Speakers included members of the SCV, the Military Order of the Stars and Bars, the Order of the Confederate Rose, the Order of the Black Rose and Children of the Confederacy. “We are all brothers and sisters under one flag, ” said Joel Fesperman, commander of an Albemarle SCV camp.
Michael Givens, the SCV commander in chief, said his group preserves and defends “the true history of the South.” He then inducted Aaron Perry, the great-grandson of one of the 10 men, into the SCV.
Those 10 served under trying circumstances then returned to build up their communities while forming friendships with their white counterparts, combat veteran and Assistant Union County Manager Matthew Delk told the crowd. “These men, simply put, were 150 years ahead of their time.”
N.C. Museum of History curator Earl Ijames praised the men’s courage. “This is a New South monument that gives a name to what was property,” he said “The fact that there were Confederates of color cannot be denied.”
After Rice unveiled the marker, a green wreath was placed alongside it, in front of the 1910 obelisk to “Our Confederate Soldiers.”
All 10 names were read aloud, a hand bell rang and the women in black placed black roses atop the marker for each man. A Confederate honor guard fired off a salute before taps was played.
Having descendants of slaves and of white people from the Confederacy join in the ceremony makes Martin Luther King’s words come alive, said Jackie Barrett-Washington, great-granddaughter of one of the slaves.
“There’s always been markers of white men who served,” she said. “Now, North Carolina is distinguishing itself by saying there were people of color who were a part of this, too.”
Several descendants called it a proud day, one that their ancestors would have enjoyed. “I know my (great-grandfather Ned Byrd) is in heaven smiling,” Hettie Byrd Wright said.
‘A long time coming’
Growing up around Monroe in the 1920s, Rice said she was too young to work in the fields and her father, Wary Clyburn, was too old.
He was in his 80s by then. So the former slave took his daughter to a livery stable to trade stories with some of his old friends, who were white. The story that stuck with Rice was Clyburn describing how he followed his master’s son to war, then helped drag him to safety during a battle.
Other family members were uninterested in the stories of Clyburn, who died in 1930 at about age 90. But the Archdale woman, one of the few children of slaves still alive, spent over half her lifetime searching for records about her father.
“I’m really excited about the ceremony,” Rice said. “It’s been a long time coming.”