Marker honoring slaves in Confederate Army moves closer to reality

By Adam Bell
Thursday, Mar. 22, 2012

MONROE – Mattie Rice’s father rarely spoke of his service in the Civil War, with one exception: the time he saved the life of his master’s son.

Her father, Wary Clyburn, was a slave in the Confederate Army. And this week, the 89-year-old Archdale woman asked Union County commissioners to support a public marker honoring 10 local men, including her father, eight other slaves and a free black man, who served the Confederacy and much later received small state pensions.

“This would be a great honor for us,” she quietly but firmly told the board.

The marker would be one of the only monuments of its kind in the nation, as issues of race and heritage continue to reverberate 150 years after the Civil War began.

The plan, sought since 2010 by amateur historian and Sons of Confederate Veterans member Tony Way, calls for a privately-funded marker to go on the grounds of the Old County Courthouse in Monroe next to the 1910 Confederate monument. In a crucial boost to the plan, commissioners voted 3-2 to send it to the county Historic Preservation Commission, which could vote on it in May. It’s unclear, however, how that board would vote.

“(The men) left behind a legacy of faith, courage, service, integrity and honor,” Way said, and their place in history should not be denied.

In an interview, Rice said her father would have been proud to be recognized for his Confederate service. “He told me was not one of those abused slaves (and) was not mistreated,” she added.

Clyburn ran away from his plantation during the war to join his master’s son, whom he was raised with, and acted as cook and bodyguard. When the son was wounded in battle, Rice said, her dad crawled up a hill to drag him to safety.

“He always talked about that,” said Rice, who was 8 when Clyburn died at about age 90 in 1930.

Rice and her daughter, Ruth Young, saw no contradiction in tying recognition to a system that enslaved him. “Everyone else gets honored,” Young said, “so why not?”

Descendants of another slave, Ned Byrd, agreed. Until recently, some in their own family were unaware of Byrd’s service, Walter Byrd said.

‘A more integrated society’

To a significant degree, the Confederate Army could not have remained in the field without coerced slave labor on the home front and in military support work, said UNC Charlotte history professor John David Smith, a member of the N.C. Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee’s academic advisory panel.

Virtually no black men fought for the South, historians have said. There is no way to know how many slaves willingly went to war or were forced to go, then jumped to the Union lines the first chance they got.

One of the nation’s few slave monuments is in Fort Mill, S.C., near three other monuments in Confederate Park. An inscription says it was erected in 1895 “in grateful memory of earlier days,” and honors the “faithful slaves” who, “loyal to a sacred trust,” supported the army and protected the defenseless women, children and homes during the war.

In eastern North Carolina, a 1902 Confederate statue at the Tyrrell County courthouse includes the phrase, “To Our Faithful Slaves.” And in the 1920s, a Confederate women’s group lobbied Congress for a black Mammy statue in Washington, D.C. Protests from the black community and elsewhere helped doom the plan.

Earl Ijames, curator of community history and African-American history at the N.C. Museum of History, said the Union County marker will provide long overdue recognition. He helped Way with the plan.

All 10 men, even the free man, were described in pension records as “body servants”, or bodyguards, and handled such tasks as carrying water, hauling supplies or helping build forts. At least two were wounded.

And most were around 90 when they began receiving pensions starting in the late 1920s, half a century after white N.C. veterans got theirs.

“History has attempted to negate what they did…They would die for their freedom before freedom was available for their own people,” Ijames said. “For Union County, Jesse Helms’ (home) county, this makes a big statement that we are a society that has evolved into a more integrated society.”

A narrow request

County commissioners are asking the historic commission for a “certificate of appropriateness” to allow the monument on the courthouse grounds. The historic panel has jurisdiction over the 1886 complex. Way wants a four-foot-by-four-foot granite marker listing the men’s names, with an inscription noting that they were “absent of their basic rights yet faithful to their homeland.”

The certificate request appears to be a narrower issue than when commissioners asked the historic panel in 2010 to informally consider if the marker belonged at the courthouse, historic board Chair Jerry Surratt said. At the time, the panel objected to the plan, noting that the existing Confederate monument cites regiments, not individuals, and other memorials only list those who died.

“I personally feel that was the correct interpretation,” Surratt said, “but this is a new ballgame now.”

To grant a certificate, the panel must decide if the size and character of the marker is consistent with existing monuments, not the broader issue of whether it should be there at all. If the plan is rejected, the county could appeal to Monroe’s Board of Adjustment.

For Rice, the marker would cap decades of work delving into family history. And, she said, it would help children learn about a vital but little know part of black history.

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