The discussion of African Americans who served in the armed forces of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War has become a source of controversy among historians. The records show that both free and enslaved African Americans served on behalf of the Southern states. The first "ex-slave pension movement" appears to have been suggested by a former captain in the Confederate Army, Alabama native Walter R. Vaughan. A former mayor of Council Bluffs, Iowa, he "argued that the federal government owed a debt to the former slaves."1
South Carolina, which was the first state to secede from the Union, passed legislation on March 16, 1923, that called for "...Pensions for certain faithful Negroes who were engaged in the service of the State in the War between the States." The Act provided a pension for "any blacks who served the Confederacy loyally as servants, cooks or attendants." All were eligible for a pension and many African Americans applied. One applicant was Tom Bing of Hampton who claimed to have served as a "private soldier" in Colcock's Regiment under Bill Peeples during the entire war, but "no substantiating data" was found to confirm his claim.2
An article titled "Favor Ex-Slave Pensions" in The New York Times on February 8, 1903, referred to former Confederate veterans of Birmingham, Alabama, endorsing Hanna's Bill that advocated pensions for former enslaved people. The article states how they "were highly eulogized for their fidelity to their masters while they were fighting in the field" and that the resolutions "recite that the slaves peaceably cultivated the plantations of their masters during the absence of the latter, and did not violate the trust imposed upon them. The resolutions were adopted without a dissenting vote."
Many accounts survive of servants or enslaved persons who accompanied their masters into the army and fought in defense of their masters on the battlefield. Numerous stories describe African Americans returning their deceased masters’ bodies to their homes or plantations, when they could have run off and deserted into Federal lines. Consequently, many obtained their freedom for such loyalty, if not to the Southern cause at least to their master, with whom many had close friendships since childhood.
One famous African American Confederate is Private Henry Brown of Darlington, South Carolina, who volunteered to serve in the army. Today, a 15-foot monument stands in his memory. Born in Camden, Brown joined Captain W. H. Evans's 8th South Carolina Infantry and later served with Captain S. H. Wild in the 21st Regiment. He served as a drummer with the Darlington Guards and is buried in Darlington's Brockington Heights neighborhood.
During the Civil War, Henry "Uncle Dad" Brown captured a pair of Yankee drumsticks, which he prized. A photograph of him with his drum survives in the Darlington County Historical Society. The February 1989 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated remarks that Brown had went to war not to "preserve slavery or to endorse secession" but, like many of his white counterparts, simply "to defend his home" as did "his friends and neighbors."
After the death of Henry Brown, the Darlington Guards, "an all-white military unit," marched to Brown's home and kept vigil. At his funeral, ministers J.J. Jefferson and D.M. Fulton eulogized the deceased.3
On February 4, 1990, in Darlington, a number of local and state officials attended a memorial service for Private Brown, including retired U.S. Army General William Westmoreland and the U.S. Secretary of the Army Michael P.W. Stone. Stone also was the keynote speaker at the event. Senator Harold Fielding of South Carolina "helped organize the ceremony and restore the monument" of Private Henry Brown, who had died on November 2, 1907.
To the west, in Canton, Mississippi, stands a 21-foot-high granite obelisk on Academy Street erected in honor of Willis Howcott, who fought for the C.S.A. with the Harvey Scouts, a cavalry outfit. The inscription on the monument reads: "A tribute to my faithful servant and friend, Willis Howcott, a colored boy of rare loyalty and faithfulness, whose memory I cherish with deep gratitude."
The monument had been built in the 1890s by funds provided by William Hill Howcott, a 15-year-old white boy, whose childhood playmate was Willis Howcott. When his young master went off to war, Willis refused to stay behind and regrettably was killed at the age of 14 in combat in 1865.4
The American Civil War and slavery are not cut-and-dry issues that can be summarized simply by referring to the demarcation line known as the Mason and Dixon. On both sides of the map there were exceptions to the rule, with thousands of Southerners serving in Federal units while Copperhead sympathizers and even native-born Northerners aided, abetted, or served with Confederate armed forces. Thus, why should millions of free or enslaved African Americans be any different than their white counterparts? They too were individuals who were moved by ideas and emotions of their time.
Human nature and its reaction to events in the past are as diverse as its participants. Thus, African American Confederates or former enslaved persons receiving pensions from former Confederate States should not seem impossible or improbable. The facts are often much more interesting than fantasy or academic fashions, thus the reason why historical research continues to be a fascinating endeavor.
1 James M. Davidson, "Encountering the Ex-Slave Reparations Movement From the Grave..." The Journal of African American History, Vol. 97, No's 1-2, Winter-Spring 2012: 13-38.
2 Alexia J. Helsey, "Black Confederates," The South Carolina Historical Magazine Vol.74, No.3, July, 1973: 184-187.
3 Greg Tyler, "Rebel Drummer Henry Brown," Civil War Times Illustrated, Vol. XXVII, No.10, February, 1989, pp's. 22-23; Greg Tyler, "Article Brings Notice To A Unique Rebel," Civil War Times Illustrated, Vol.XXIX, No.2, May-June, 1990: 57, 69.
4 J. Stephen Conn, "Black Confederate Soldier's Monument-Honoring Willis Howcott," Confederate Digest, January 20, 2009. http://www.confederatedigest.com/2009/01/black-confederate-soldiers-monument.html