Blacks and the Confederacy: an incomplete story



Betty Winston Baye
May 14, 2009

I received an invitation to the 116th annual General Convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Biloxi, Miss. I don't think I'll be going, but I was nevertheless intrigued. So I called the national headquarters in Richmond, Va., to ask if African Americans were members. "We haven't had any until recently," the receptionist explained.

It's estimated that between 60,000 and 93,000 blacks served the Confederate military "in some capacity." Many, no doubt, as the receptionist described them, were "body servants" who went to war with their masters. Officially, blacks were prohibited from enlisting in the Confederate army until March 23, 1865, when an order came that slaves could be armed to fight to earn their freedom.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy has honored blacks who served the Confederate army. In 2002, its Jubal Early Chapter dedicated Confederate memorial markers to Creed Holland and two other black Confederate soldiers with "customary military funeral rites, such as cannonball volleys and rifle shots," and a folded Confederate flag was presented to Creed Holland's oldest living relative. Members also placed wreaths for Cornelius and Claiborne Holland in the Holland family cemetery, though their graves or descendants couldn't be located. A United Daughters representative described the three black men as "patriots who loved our Southland and suffered in its defense." Creed Holland's great-great grandson called the occasion "a day of unification."

Members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy were also in White County, Tenn., in 2006 to memorialize Pvt. Henry Henderson, who was 11 years old when pressed into Confederate service as a "cook and servant to Col. William F. Henderson, a medical doctor." Pvt. Henderson was wounded and was discharged at 16. The Crossville Chronicle reported that his sons received their father's "first and last Tennessee Colored Confederate pension check" in 1926 and used the money to bury him.

Kevin Levin, who regularly blogs about the Confederacy, upon seeing a photo of two white women dressed in mourning attire decorating Pvt. Henderson's grave, wrote just last month that the women aren't "honoring a soldier, they are honoring a slave," who was forced to join his master and who "must be understood as an extension of a broader life story of coercion." The United Daughters of the Confederacy and similar groups, Levin argues, "teach us nothing about the complex history of race relations in the Confederacy," and, in fact, "are completely incapable of commemorating Henderson's life because they fail to acknowledge him for what he was — a slave."

The Civil War ended 144 years ago, but the emotions it evokes are still red hot. The United Daughters of the Confederacy's receptionist said to me, "You can't revise history. There would be a lot of changes if we could. It is what it is. It's not always right. It's not always wrong, and that goes for the North as well as the South." She reminded me, of course, of the old saying that history is "his-story," according to whoever is doing the telling.

When the black Hollands were memorialized, Virginia state Sen. Charles Hawkins, a Republican, said, "We need to come to grips with the ghosts of our past. ... We need to understand this history if we are to grow and prosper." Fine words. But some find it impossible to confront ghosts of beloved ancestors who engaged in the dirty business of buying, breeding and selling human beings — a business made no less dirty by speaking of it with gentle words; for example, calling a slave "servant," a plantation a "farm," and implying that slaves willingly, and knowingly, fought for a cause that, had it not been lost, would have perpetuated their bondage and spread the evil to yet more territories of a young nation. Rather, the United Daughters of the Confederacy comfort themselves with the words and imagery of Mary Nowlin Moon, who, in 1915, wrote of "a heritage so rich in honor and glory that it far surpasses any material wealth that could be mine."

Few members today, I daresay, see any irony either in their group hosting a "silent auction" at its national convention.

On The Web:   www.courier-journal.com/article/20090514/COLUMNISTS09/905140304/Blacks%2Band%2Bthe%2BCon%20federacy%2B%2Ban%2Bincomplete%2Bstory