No need for “interpretation” when the facts were made clear some 90 years ago

Posted on August 30, 2008 by


Recalling that I had something in my papers that deals specifically with the Virginia Servants’ Pension records, I started digging in my files and was happy to find something of value to the discussion about “Black Confederates.” More specifically, my finding addresses the need of some people today to insist that a “Black Confederate,” whether a body servant, cook, or whatever, means that said person was also a “Black Confederate Soldier.” My argument has been (and remains) that because a slave was a body servant, cook, or etc., it does not automatically mean that they were also soldiers.

Indeed, in my going over the servant pension application, something that should have been obvious dawned on me only then. The pension created for servants, cooks, etc. (which was more inclusive as it sounds and actually covered a wider range of persons who “served the Confederate States in a number of roles… other than soldier, sailor or marine) was created by the Virginia General Assembly because said group of body servants, cooks, etc. were not considered soldiers. The servants pension was initiated in the early 1920s and, during that same time, Confederate veterans… the very men who were the soldiers, sailors and marines… were applying for pensions as veteran soldiers. IF the Confederate Veterans considered the body servants, cooks, etc. as soldiers, then why were the body servants, cooks, etc. not allowed to make application for pensions specifically meant for veteran soldiers? Therefore, the body servants, cooks, etc. were not considered soldiers and therefore were not permitted to apply for pensions under the various types of legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly.

That said, I have taken time to transcribe portions of the servants pension that specify details about those who could apply. While in the service of the Confederate States or the State of Virginia, at no time does it refer to the applicants as veterans or soldiers. All items that appear in italics or in bold were done by me as a way to emphasize a few important points.

“APPLICATION of a person who served the Confederate States in the war between the States as body servant of a soldier in service, cook, teamster, Confederate guard, or who buried the Confederate dead, worked on breastworks, in railroad shops, blacksmith shops, in Confederate hospitals, under the direction of the Confederate Government, by acts approved March 10, 1928 and March 26, 1928.”
“I, ______ do hereby apply for a pension under the provisions of the Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia, relating to Confederate pensions.”

“I do solemnly swear that I am a citizen of the State of Virginia and that I have been an actual resident of the said State for one year next preceding the date of this application, and that I served the Confederate States Government in the war between the States as _____ and that I am now disabled and from the effects of such disability, I am incapacitated from following any occupation for a livelihood; and that during the said war I was loyal and true to the Confederacy and duties assigned me, and by reason of such service and disability, I am now entitled to receive the pension under the provisions of said act. And I further swear that my income from any source of employment, or annum. I do further swear that I do not receive a pension from this or any other State. I do solemnly swear that the answers given in the questions which I am required to answer in this application are true to the best of my knowledge and belief.”

The first five items pertain to name and other basic application information. Items after that include…

Line Item #6… “In what branch of service were you employed?_____(as an example, I cite the application of white laborer, Peter S. Dovel. Dovel’s response to this question was “Detailed as Blacksmith Helper making harness irons.”)

Item #7 – What service did you render? ____ (Dovel’s answer: “as above”)

Item #8 – Under whose order or by whose request did you render the service above explained? ____ (Dovel’s answer: “M.A. McAlister”)

Item #9 – Who was your master at the time of entering upon duties in the war between the States? ____ (I find it rather curious that Dovel answered this as having served for any “master” at all as he did not. Nonetheless, he was apparently not bothered by the wording of the question and answered: “George Short, Sr. Shop foreman, on Stony Run.”)

Item #10 – If he or any one of his family is living, give name and address.:____ (Dovel gave the names of his former foreman’s sons.)

Item #11 – When did you begin such service? ___ (Dovel: “1864”)

Item #12 – Where did you begin such service? ___ (Dovel: “Stony Run, Page Co., Va.)

Item #13 – When and why did you leave the service? ___ (Dovel: “When the job was done, all of us quit.”)

Item A “Oath of Resident Witness” was next in the application after Item #16 and the signature of the applicant. Item B is more significant however, as the “Affidavit of Ex-Confederate Soldiers.” In this section, if a soldier(s) who was/were aware of said applicant’s service could testify on his behalf, he/they would sign-off. The section reads…

“Having personal knowledge of the applicant’s service (If no such ex-confederate soldiers are known to be living then let one or more reputable citizens, having personal knowledge of the service of the applicant, fill in this certificate.)” We, ___ and ___ do solemnly swear that we are residents of the ___ of ____ in the State of ____ and that applicant whose name is signed to the foregoing application for aid under the act of the General Assembly of Virginia, approved March 10, 1928 and March 26, 1928, is personally well known to us, and that we have known him ___ years, and that we were soldiers (sailors or marines) in the military (or naval) service of Virginia, or of the Confederate States, during the war between the United States and the Confederate States, and that the said applicant who served the Confederate States Government as ___ during said war, was to our personal knowledge faithful in the discharge of his duty and that we are satisfied of the justice of said claim, and recommend the same under the provisions of the said act, and that we have no personal interest in the allowance of the applicant’s claim.

Items C & D that follow are simple legal certifications made by the pension board and the certificate of judge. Incidentally, in the case of Peter Dovel, Robert L. McKim, a son of one of Mosby’s Rangers, was chairman of the board in Page.

Incidentally, this particular application was prepared by Dovel on 31 March 1936 (at about the same time one of my great-great grandfathers made application as a veteran soldier under the other set of pensions specifically designated for veteran soldiers).

So, again, in the modern struggle to understand blacks and their roles in relation to the Confederate army, we need to defer to the findings of the pension records and the legislation that made them possible. If a former slave received a pension as a body servant it does not mean that he was automatically considered a soldier. Did some blacks serve as soldiers? In what I have found, it appears rare, but yes. Were all African-Americans who serve as body servants, cooks, etc. considered soldiers by the Confederate soldiers/veterans and those of the ca. 1920s Virginia General Assembly? The answer appears rather clear that neither the veteran Confederate soldiers or the State of Virginia supported the idea as there were an entirely different set of pensions for body servants, cooks, etc.