Thursday, February 12, 2009

Black NC Confederate soldiers honored

Black Confederate soldier Sandy Oliver's tombstone
This past Sunday our family attended a memorial service for two Confederate soldiers who were African-American.

Yes, that's right. Black Confederate soldiers.

The North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp 794, “The Columbus County Volunteers,” honored two of Columbus County, NC’s black Confederate soldiers with a grave marker dedication ceremony as a part of Black History Month.

The two men, Sandy Oliver and Joshua Nichols, were honored with about thirty white and black Confederate reenactors, about a hundred white and black attendees, and the firing of cannons in salute to their service to the Confederacy.
Horace Grove Missionary Baptist Church, Boardman, NC
The service was at Horace Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Boardman, NC, just off US74 east of Lumberton, NC. 

The church was packed with both white and black participants, many dressed in period Confederate or old-fashioned dress to honor the occasion.

Reenactors practicing before the service

Several spoke including the church's pastor, Rev. James E. Dockery, Jr., and Sharon Frazer, a descendant of both Oliver and Nichols and a member of Horace Grove church. 

Frazer came up with the idea and asked the local SCV camp to help her organize this memorial service.

20th NC Troops color guard
Another descendant Kendra Tyler then read the known biographies of both veterans to the standing room only crowd. 

She told us that the two honored soldiers were stationed at Fort Fisher, NC, during the war, the last of the great Confederate Atlantic coastal fortifications to fall to the federals in spring 1865.

Jolly addressing the service. Pastor Dockery on the platform.
Another speaker was Thomas J. Jolly, commander of SCV Camp #794 in Whiteville, NC.

Jolly made remarks of racial reconciliation and the history of the involvement of African-Americans in Confederate service.

Jolly said that larger numbers than most now know, perhaps in the tens of thousands of Americans of African origin served in the Confederate armed forces during the Uncivil War. 

Jolly read a long war-era quotation of at least one Confederate officer speaking of the large numbers of black soldiers serving in their ranks.

If that number is correct, then Jolly is claiming that as many as 1 in 10 Confederate soldiers were black. 

Certainly a neglected area of history, but an important research topic nearly 150 years after the war.

Marvin Nickolson in Confederate dress for the occasion
Also speaking was Marvin Nickolson, a black reenactor dressed in Confederate gray. 

He usually reenacts a black US solder of Battery B, 2nd Regiment, US Colored Light Artillery of Gallivant's Ferry, SC.

Nickolson gave a host of statistics showing the low percentages of the free population in the South -- white, black, and Native American -- which owned slaves. 

He also gave reasons why a black Southerner would have fought for the Confederate cause.

Sandy Oliver's gravesite. Apparently Joshua Nichols is buried elsewhere.
Nickolson also discussed the hurtful meanings the Confederate battle flag has unfortunately gained for many in the last generation of the civil rights movement.

A full congregation waiting for service to begin

He explained that while a Southern St. Andrews Cross on the grave of a black soldier may create a conflict of feeling, the flag meant no such thing to the men, white and black, who fought under that banner and carried it into battle.

Carlos Sutton, an historian and reenactor from Whiteville, NC, made remarks about blacks and whites during the war, both having homes and families in danger from invasion by an unprincipled foe. 

And on that very Sunday, said Sutton, blacks and whites were gathered, with their homes and families in danger today in a different way, and they had gathered in unity in a church in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the worship of His Name. He got a lot of Amens on that.

20th NC color guard marching into position

A number of observers were present from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the local NAACP chapter.
An outdoor memorial service then followed with a musket and artillery salute, prayers, and the presentation of a Confederate flag to the 82 year old grandson of Joshua Nichols. 

The man had known his grandfather, who died at the age of 110 in 1924. It was his grandfather who told him he had served as a Confederate soldier. 

20th NC troops bow their heads in view of these veterans' sacrifice
The weather was perfect for an afternoon outdoor memorial service. Afterward, the Horace Grove congregation served a soul food supper to the gathered group.
I couldn't help having a similar feeling of jovial unity, an understanding of the complexity of the American South, and a thankful heritage that I had the afternoon of November 16, 1996, when Operation Restoration ended in Durham, NC, at the Bennett Place Surrender site. 

Operation Restoration was a 47-day, 788-mile reconciliation prayer walk along Sherman's path through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
20th NC Troops reenactor gives a Confederate flag to Joshua Nichols' grandson

As I stood talking with folks after the benediction, one younger African American lady said to me, "There is more to the Confederate flag and our history than we have been told."
It was Jesus Christ, the only true Reconciler, and the common worship of Him who drew this diverse group together to honor true veterans who defended hearth and home against an outside oppressor.

Joshua Nichols' grandson holding the Confederate flag
The service also served to expose the truth of our history in an age when popular politics fogs the reality of our past and political correctness forbids and hides rather than liberates and illumines the history we all share.

I kept wondering how this service came about. After the last prayer that day, Pastor Dockery told me that Frazer asked him at a family reunion last July if it would be all right to honor her ancestors' military service if they had served for the Confederacy. Dockery asked her, "Why not? They were fighting for what they thought was right."

Frazer responded to a 2008 local newspaper article by the SCV looking for information on eight black men
from Columbus County, NC, who had indicated that they were veterans of Confederate service on the 1910 US Census. Frazer asked the local SCV camp for help with getting more information on her ancestors.

The SCV has so far not been able to find either Nichols' or Oiver's names on any official Confederate roster because it was illegal for them to serve as soldiers. They have found that Sandy Oliver was at one time owned by a white man named Shep Oliver, but his status during the war is unknown. Joshua Nichols was a free Negro at the time of the war and lived to the age of 110. Nichols' 82 year old grandson knows from him personally that that he was a Confederate soldier at Fort Fisher.

Sandy Oliver's decorated grave after ceremonies had ended
The SCV has verified that both men in fact did mark the 1910 US Census as Confederate veterans. While many black North Carolina Confederates received North Carolina pensions for Confederate service, Governor Aycock was opposed to the practice and found bureaucratic procedures to stop it.

Also participating in the day's events were Company D, 20th Regiment NC Troops, Butler Branch Men's Choir, Adams Battery, the Confederate Marine Corps, and the Fort Fisher Color Guard.

Another black Confederate story in Monroe, NC

Black Confederates in the NC State Archives