Families research African-American Confederates
By Martha Quillin – Staff Writer
Published: Mon, May. 11, 2009
Historians such as Earl Ijames have learned that very little about the Civil War was black and white, even when it came to the hues of the soldiers’ skin.
Ijames, a curator at the N.C. Museum of History and a former staffer in the state Office of Archives and History, has become something of an expert on a group of black soldiers many people don’t know — or don’t want to know — existed.
"The historically accurate term is ‘colored Confederates,’" Ijames says, and thousands of them went to war from Southern states, including North Carolina. Some were slaves sent in place of their masters, or were forced or volunteered to serve alongside them. Others were freed blacks who offered their services.
One was Wary Clyburn. His daughter, Mattie Clyburn Rice, will be in Raleigh this week in conjunction with the National Genealogical Society’s annual conference, where Ijames will tell the story her own family didn’t believe until just a few years ago. More than 1,500 people are expected to attend the national conference, which runs Wednesday through Saturday at the Raleigh Convention Center.
Rice, born in Union County when her father was in his 70s, remembered the stories her father told of his military service: about leaving the plantation in Lancaster County, S.C., and joining the 12th S.C. Volunteers in Columbia, where his best friend, his master’s son, was already in training.
Rice said her father was a skilled marksman and a brave soldier who twice saved his friend by carrying him off the battlefield. After the war, Clyburn came to North Carolina, setting in Union County near Charlotte.
Clyburn died when his daughter was just 9 years old, and later, when she was the only one left who had heard the stories first-hand, no one believed them. By 2005, there might have been only two people in this world who knew anything about Wary Clyburn. One was his daughter. The other was Earl Ijames.
They met by happenstance, when Rice traveled to Raleigh in search of her birth certificate so she could get a driver’s license. She went to the archives building by mistake. It was August, hotter than 100 degrees outside, Ijames says, and he didn’t want to have to tell her she was in the wrong place. He started chatting with her, giving her time to cool off in the air-conditioned building.
She told him her name. Her full name. For the sake of conversation, he asked whether she was kin to Wary Clyburn.
"Lord have mercy," she said. "How do you know my daddy?"
Ijames knew of him from studying the Civil War pension applications in the archives. He got the records, laying out before Rice the proof of what she had always believed.
"She knew what she knew," Ijames said.
Ijames — pronounced "Imes" — says many people find it hard to believe that any African American, slave or free, would have willingly served on the side of the Confederacy. But Ijames, who is black, says their reasons for fighting were as complex as those of other soldiers, some of whom had never owned slaves and never hoped to.
It isn’t clear whether Clyburn went to war just because his friend had gone; or he thought, as some soldiers did, that no matter who won, slaves would be set free; or he believed he could raise his stature by serving; or he fought because the South was the only homeland he had ever known and he was willing to die to protect it.
Whatever their reasons for wearing blue or gray, Ijames says, Wary Clyburn — along with fellow black Confederates Luke Martin and Hawkins Carter, Union soldier Parker D. Robbins and hundreds of others — were fighting men and deserve to be recognized for their valor. "It’s just a miscarriage of justice for this many people to be just blotted out of history," he said.
A genealogy conference is a good place, Ijames says, to celebrate the accomplishments of people whose names have slipped from the memories of the living but can be found through painstaking research.
© Copyright 2009, The News & Observer Publishing Company
On The Web: www.newsobserver.com/news/story/1522166.html