Duty. Honor. Confederacy.
Published Thursday, July 24, 2008
by Kimberly Harrington, For The Charlotte Post
MONROE – At first glance, it’s an unlikely combination. A black family seated under a tent facing a line of Civil War re-enactors, proudly holding Confederate flags and gripping their weapons.
But what lies between these two groups is what brought them together: An unmarked grave about to get its due, belonging to a slave who fought for the Confederacy.
Weary Clyburn was best friends with his master’s son, Frank. When Frank left the plantation to fight in the Civil War, Clyburn followed him.
He fought alongside Frank and even saved his life on two occasions.
On July 18, the city of Monroe proclaimed Weary Clyburn Day; an event that coincided with the Sons of Confederate Veterans convention in Concord.
The N.C. Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans (James Miller Camp 2116) honored Clyburn, who died March 30, 1930, with a memorial program at Hillcrest Cemetery in Monroe and unveiled a new headstone for his unmarked grave.
“It’s an honor to find out we have a gentleman who served … with loyalty and devotion to his friend,” said Commander Michael Chapman of the local SCV chapter.
“I’m happy to be here. It’s a glorious day,” said Mary Elizabeth Clyburn Hooks of New Jersey. “I just think it’s beautiful these people chose to celebrate my grandfather’s bravery and courage. It’s just overwhelming.”
Missing from the event was the woman who helped bring the pieces together, Mattie Clyburn Rice of High Point, who remembered the stories her father shared with her as a child.
Rice was hospitalized the morning of the ceremony.
Rice remembered being at her father’s funeral, said Earl Ijames, a curator at the N.C. Office of Archives and History. “He told her stories, and being able to verify those stories brought this event together,” he said.
Ijames met Rice when she was at the state Archives Office looking for her birth certificate in August 2005. She was in the wrong department and he struck up a conversation with her. Ijames asked Rice her name and upon hearing Clyburn, asked if she had ever heard of Weary Clyburn.
“She looked straight at me and said, ‘That’s my daddy,’“ he said.
Ijames has been researching “colored Confederates” for the past 14 years. According to Rice, he said, Clyburn’s father sharecropped and painted after the war. He moved from Lancaster County, S.C., and eventually settled in Union County. Rice moved away but relocated to North Carolina three years ago to take care of her nephew.
An impressive crowd gathered at the gravesite to pay tribute to Weary Clyburn. Civil War re-enactors, dressed in full regalia, came from overseas and states as far away as California and Pennsylvania to the program.
“We’re here to honor Weary Clyburn, but really, the honor is ours,” said N.C. SCV Commander Tom Smith. “The Sons of Confederate Veterans honors our own and he’s one of our own. We need to do more of what we’re doing now."
Weary Clyburn was one of thousands of slaves who served in the Confederate Army, Ijames said. There’s no way to quantify the number of slaves who served. “But it’s in the thousands, easy.”
People today often wonder why slaves fought for the Confederacy. Ijames said the only course they had to freedom was through the Confederate Army. “Why not go and defend what they know versus running away and going to the unknown,” Ijames said. “A lot of us automatically assume the war started to free slaves. That’s not true. It was a war to preserve the Union as the way it was.”
Slaves were not allowed to fight in the federal army, Ijames said. Those that made their way behind Union lines were still considered slaves.
Clyburn escaped the plantation and made his way to Columbia, S.C., where he met up with Frank in boot camp. “They were best friends,” Ijames said.
Felicia Bryant, Clyburn’s great-granddaughter, agreed. “They were really good friends and that trumped everything else.”