Simple Images, Complex Realities

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by Andy Hall


1944Reunion.jpg

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.

I haven't been able to find much on Dr. Gwynne in the usual online sources for contemporary newspapers, census records and the like. I suspect that he may have been a clergyman, rather than a physician, but I don't know. I'll keep looking. It remains an open question how much, and in what role, Dr. Gwynne participated in the reunion festivities; we know that in Crock Davis' case thirty years previous, he was silent spectator at the veterans' business meeting, and did not eat at the same banquet table with the white veterans. Did a similar, Jim Crow standard apply to Dr. Gwynne at the "Last Confederate Reunion" in Jackson in 1944, or to other Confederate reunions across the South in the decades previous? It sure seems like a mistake to assume that it didn't, or that views on race and social position of black servants held by the white soldiers of 1861-65 had completely disappeared in the intervening decades.

No serious historian has ever, to my knowledge, questioned that black men, most of the them former slaves and personal servants, participated in Confederate reunions from the 1890s onward. It would be surprising if at least some men didn't, given the social pressures of the time and the pervasiveness of the "faithful slave" meme that helped define the Lost Cause. John Brown Gordon, commander of the United Confederate Veterans, described it at the time, observing that "these faithful servants at that time boasted of being Confederates, and many of them meet now with the veterans in their reunions, and, pointing to their Confederate badges, relate with great satisfaction and pride their experiences and services during the war. One of them, who attends nearly all the reunions, can, after a lapse of nearly forty years, repeat from memory the roll call of the company to which his master belonged." The great Southern historian Bell Irvin Wiley, writing just a few years before the "Last Confederate Reunion," devoted an entire chapter of his classic Southern Negroes, 1861-1865 to black body servants and their complex and (often distinctly unfaithful) relationships with their masters. It's a very convoluted business, as Wiley relates, but even he noted that "even now [1938], gray-haired Negroes, dressed in 'Confederate Gray,' are among the most honored veterans in attendance at soldier's reunions." They were honored by white Confederate veterans explicitly because they embodied the "faithful slave" meme that was central to the way the Confederacy was consistently portrayed by most Southerners at the time, and by some right up to today. I don't doubt that Dr. Gwynne (and Crock Davis, and Bill Yopp and ... ) gladly took part in these events, and took a measure of  satisfaction in their involvement in the war. But at the same time, their professed pride in the Confederate cause served a larger purpose for white Southerners, and (knowingly or not) those black men took on a role carefully crafted as part of the Lost Cause tradition, that of the loyal slave, still faithful to both his master and to the cause, decades later. They were honored and valued because they did this, as much as for their service to their masters decades before.

People are complicated, and often their true motivations and beliefs are impossible to know. But we do a real disservice to the past to use the sort of historical shorthand offered in the case of Dr. Gwynne or dozens of other unnamed black men photographed at Confederate reunions, that their presence is prima facie evidence of the their having been soldiers, and accepted as co-equal peers by the white veterans. That is, to borrow a line commonly used as a cudgel by Southern heritage groups on those who disagree with them, a singularly bad case of "presentism," using fragments of the historical record to make the case for an entirely modern and self-serving interpretation. The actual contemporary evidence, when available, suggests otherwise. It does not honor these men to present them as something they were not, nor does it credit the research skill or integrity of the person making the claim.


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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. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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