Saunders: Children of Civil War veterans bring history to life

May 26, 2013 

There are now only two of them left in the state, surviving children of Civil War veterans.

One’s daddy fought for the Union.

The other fought for the Confederacy.

Both are black.

As our nation honors veterans today, Luke Martin Jr. and Maddie Clyburn Rice are the only two North Caroline members of the “My daddy fought in the Civil War” Club.

Luke Martin Sr. was a runaway slave who joined the army in New Bern in 1863 and fought in Company G, 1st N.C. Colored Infantry.

Weary Clyburn is listed as a Confederate soldier,

Like thousands of others, I went to the N.C. Museum of History earlier this month to see history in the form of the original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Several of us ended up shaking hands with history, as well. Martin was there to see the hallowed manuscript and he shook hands and talked with awestruck well-wishers. He is 95 and was in a wheelchair, but he has the grip of the bricklayer he still is.

Not just a bricklayer, his daughter, Fannie Martin Williams told me, but “a master brick mason, the best in the state. He taught my brother how to lay bricks; he’s the second-best.”

Earl Ijames, museum director, said Martin helped build Tryon Palace.

Ijames thought for years that Martin was the only surviving child of a Civil War vet in the state — until three women wandered into his State Archives office in August 2005. Maddie Clyburn Rice was 84 when she came in with her two daughters trying to find out how to get her birth certificate so she could get her driver’s license. She’d just moved here from New Jersey, you see, and was going to need to be able to drive to properly take care of some of her elderly relatives.

The three women had already been sent incorrectly to a few offices, Ijames said, “and I didn’t have the heart to send them out in that heat to another office... I asked her to have a seat and cool off for a minute... When she told me her name, on a whim I asked her if she’d ever heard of Weary Clyburn, who is one of the Confederate pensioners of color that we have in our state archives. She said, ‘How do you know my daddy?’

“I said ‘Lord, have mercy. Your daddy?... I went and pulled that 1926 Confederate pension application and showed it to her. She looked at it and she looked at me, and it was like she was looking through my soul. She turned to (her daughters) and said ‘You see. I told you Dad was in the Confederate Army and not the Union Army.’ She said ‘I’ve been looking for this documentation for 75 years.’

“She’d worked at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington for years, and she’d been telling army officers for years and years that her dad had fought in the Confederacy. None of them believed her and they’d tell her she needed to go to the National Archives and find him listed among the Union colored troops... But she knew the slave-holding family back in South Carolina and was able to get the Confederate service records of the slaveholder.”

Some revisionist groups, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, would have us believe that thousands of black men donned the gray uniforms to fight against Northern aggression — tee hee — while presumably yelling, “Y’all go on back where you come from. We don’t want no freedom.”

Sorry, you sons of veterans, but I have found no evidence to back that up. None. Zilch. Many historians say that some slaves involuntarily accompanied their owners into battle. Me? I think some of the slaves saw that crossed rifle insignia the Confederates wore on their caps and thought it stood for “X”, as in Malcolm X.

Rice, 92, was nine when her daddy died. She lives right down the road a piece near Greensboro, but because she cherishes her privacy, I was unable to talk to her. Ijames, however, said she told him how her daddy taught her how to shoot guns and throw knives. Now you see why I wasn’t anxious to go intruding on her privacy.

Luke Martin Jr. loves talking, but since he doesn’t hear too well over the phone, his daughter Fannie talked for him last week. Martin, who was two when his daddy died, she said, is a retired school teacher and contractor, “the best brick mason here in Eastern North Carolina.

“He started going to school to get his certifications so he could teach vocational education,” she said. “He went to Appalachian State, N.C. State, A&T... He went to school every summer. He’d get a little bit and get a little bit until he was able to teach.” He retired from the Pamlico County School System.

One of Martin’s surviving sons, William, has Luke Sr.’s Civil War sword and gun mounted on the wall inside his home, she said. Another son, Frederick, was killed in the Vietnam War, and another was killed in an accident while working for a gas company in Washington.

Despite such tragedies, Luke Martin Jr. says in a fascinating interview on www.youtube.com, “I haven’t had any bad days. I’ve had some hard days, but I haven’t had any bad days.”

Wow.

Of the Emancipation Proclamation, which many perceive as having “given” slaves their freedom, museum director Ijames said “It wasn’t anybody giving them freedom. Those guys earned it in blood and sweat and patriotism. Lincoln said to those white soldiers who wanted to desert when the Union recruited black soldiers, ‘You think you’re fighting for their freedom, but they’re fighting for you and for your country to be united.’”

It still is. Happy Memorial Day.

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