Simple Images, Complex Realities

by Andy Hall


A year or so ago the blog Confederate Digest posted an image from the Alabama Department of Archives and History, showing participants at what was billed as the "Last Confederate Reunion," held at Montgomery, Alabama in September 1944. The African American man at center is identified, from the archives' catalog description, as Dr. R. A. Gwynne of Birmingham, Alabama. No additional information about Dr. Gwynne is provided, and there seems to be an unspoken assertion that his presence is evidence of his service as a soldier, and there is an implicit assumption that he was viewed at the time as a co-equal peer of the white veterans. But as with Crock Davis and the Eighth Texas Cavalry, the reality is more complex, and reflects the social and cultural minefield of both the antebellum and Jim Crow South.

As it happens, the Alabama archive website also includes a copy of the issue of the Alabama Historical Quarterly (Vol. 06, No. 01, Spring Issue 1944) containing a detailed description of the event. The attendees are described thus:

Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate Veterans, Homer L. Atkinson, of Petersburg, Va., was unable to attend on account of illness. The first Veteran to arrive was Brigadier-General W. M. Buck, of Muscogee, Oklahoma, who has already reached the age of 93 but is remarkably active and came from Muscogee to Montgomery unescorted. The Georgia delegation was sent through the courtesy of Governor Ellis Arnall in a beautiful car escorted by the Georgia State Highway Patrol in charge of Corp. Paul Smith. In the delegation were Col. W. H. Culpepper, 96 years of age and Gen. W. L. Bowling, 97. Other Veterans present were: Gen. J. W. Moore, of Selma, 93 years of age, who was elected at the close of the Reunion to be Commander-in-Chief of the Veterans; J. D. Ford, Marshall, Texas, 95 years of age; W. W. Alexander, Rock Hill, S. C., 98; Gen. William Banks, Houston, Texas, 98; J. A. Davidson, Troy, 100 years of age. All Veterans except Gen. Buch were accompanied by attendants.

There's no mention of Dr. Gwynne, only the seven white veterans. There follows a long description of the various activities at the reunion, speeches, musical performances and so on ("Mrs. Thomas wore a Scarlett O'Hara dress and received vociferous applause when she sang 'Shortenin' Bread'"), and then, tacked on at the end of the piece, is a brief note:

In the group of seven Veterans [sic., eight men total, seven white and one black] that posed for a photograph was one Negro man slave 90 years of age who served in the war as a body guard to his master. This man, Dr. R. A. Gwynne, lives in Birmingham where he is a well known character.

This, along with the caption accompanying the photo, is the only mention of Dr. Gwynne in the account of the reunion. It seems clear from the context that Dr. Gwynne was, even in 1944, considered separate and apart from the white veterans. He's almost literally an afterthought. As I said, we've seen this before.

In the comments section of the original post, blogger Corey Meyer pointed out -- with more than a little snark -- that Dr. Gwynne's seated position may indicate his status was considered different than that of the others in the photo. The blog host fired back with speculation that Dr. Gwynne may have had an infirmity that kept him from standing, suggested that Meyer was arguing that Dr. Gwynne was somehow forced to participate in the reunion "against his will," and repeated the standard tropes about the "indisputable fact that thousands of blacks, both slave and free, willingly served in the Confederate armed forces, defending their homeland against a brutal, invading northern army." Another commenter, well-known on Confederate heritage sites, chimed in with some gratuitous name-calling directed against Meyer.

This is, sadly, the way online "discussions" about "black Confederates" generally go -- lots of sarcasm, rancor, and name-calling, with little or no attention paid to the individual subject, and no acknowledgment or understanding of the larger context of the periods under discussion, either the 1860s or early 20th century South. In this case, Dr. Gwynne gets completely overlooked, because his only role here is to serve as a convenient example of the "thousands of blacks, both slave and free, willingly served in the Confederate armed forces, defending their homeland against a brutal, invading northern army." (Entirely disregarded is the fact that, if Dr. Gwynne was indeed 90 years old in September 1944, he could not have been more than eleven at the end of the Civil War, a child even by 19th century standards.)

This, too, is entirely typical of the way images of old African American men at Confederate reunions are used as "evidence" of those men having been considered soldiers. Most of the time, these images are splashed out on a website without any further explanation and without full identification of the men involved, the units they were affiliated with, or even the date and location of the reunion. This 1944 example is better in that the man in question is identified, but the intended point is still the same -- that Dr. Gwynne's presence is proof "that thousands of blacks, both slave and free, willingly served in the Confederate armed forces, defending their homeland against a brutal, invading northern army." It's not; it's only evidence that Dr. Gwynne attended the event, and posed for a photo with the white veterans. The photos says nothing conclusive about his status during the war, how he was viewed by those same white veterans, or what his motivations or beliefs were when, as an enslaved child, he was taken off to war to serve as a "body guard" to an unknown master.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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