SEAC archeologists recently completed their first mobilization mapping cemeteries along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. These cemeteries range from single graves seemingly forgotten in the woods just off of the Parkway to regularly arranged and named, well-maintained multi-family graveyards with well-made headstones and regularly refreshed artificial flowers. Others are overgrown plots filled with poison ivy, greenbriar, and poplar and sassafras saplings, with clusters of field stones whose pattern is only manifest when the pin flags are set.
The Reynolds Cemetery, also known as the Claytor Cemetery, is one of the latter, but was one of the largest cemeteries we’ve mapped along the Blue Ridge so far. In recent years, the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway Adopt-A-Cemetery program has brought some much needed care to several cemeteries along the Parkway. We recorded more than 65 graves in the Reynolds Cemetery, some dating as late as the 1980s. There were clearly more depressions than grave markers; no doubt some temporary plaques have been lost, and headstones and footstones displaced. More graves might have gone unrecorded if not for the clean up efforts of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s partners.
Reynolds is particularly unique among the burial spaces we’ve investigated as part of this project because it is an African African cemetery. It is located opposite the Pine Spur overlook, part of what was intended to become a recreation area designated for African Americans. Development of Pine Spur began prior to the desegregation of the National Park Service, blueprints were produced and a ball park, swing sets, and some driveways were built, but save for the overlook, the Pine Spur Recreation Area was never completed.
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Can you find the cemetery?
An appraisal report made during land acquisitions for the proposed recreation area states that, “In the center of this tract there is a negro graveyard, which has been used by Negros in this vicinity for a number of years. The graveyard contains about one-half acre.” The report describes the cemetery as, “an undesirable feature of this tract.”
Did the presence of the cemetery play a role in preventing the development of the recreation area? Did the community who buried their dead there actively seek to prevent development? What role did the racist policies of the Jim Crow era play? How did America’s entry into World War II impact development plans? Interesting questions, but the cemetery’s intrigue hardly stops there.
Humphrey Claytor was reportedly the earliest interment in the Reynolds Cemetery. Claytor was an African American Confederate soldier and his grave is marked with a military headstone. He was born in October 1842, in Franklin County, Virginia. Between 1863 and 1865, he served as a private in the Confederate Army. In the year following the war, he married Mary Jane Ferris and their first son, Giles, was born. He was a farmer, married three times, twice widowed, and had five sons and seven daughters between 1866 and 1886. He died on May 28, 1926, in Floyd County, Virginia, at the age of 83.
It is not a secret that African Americans fought for the Confederacy – it’s history. The recent debate over the sale and display of Confederate flags on government property and the highly publicized speeches of the recently deceased Anthony Hervey, perhaps the most vocal African American supporter of the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride and not racism, has brought discussion about black confederates more into the limelight.
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Throughout the Civil War enslaved African Americans were conscripted by the Confederacy, leased from slave owners, and brought to the war as servants by white Confederate officers. There were also free African American men, some of whom held others as slaves, who voluntarily enlisted. At Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s request, the use of 20,000 free blacks and slaves in noncombatant roles, such as cooks, laborers, nurses, and teamsters was authorized by the Confederate Congress in February 1864. In November of that year, Davis asked the Confederate Congress to purchase 40,000 slaves for noncombatant duty. It became legal for African Americans to fight in the Confederate army on March 13,1865, long after the United States had begun recruiting free and formerly enslaved African Americans.
Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory were slaves of a Confederate officer and had been pressed into service constructing gun emplacements at Sewell’s Point at today’s Norfolk Naval Station. Under cover of the darkness on the night of May 23, 1861, the three rowed across Hampton Roads in a stolen boat and presented themselves to the guards at Fort Monroe, one of our newest national monuments. When Confederate Army Major John Cary requested that the men be returned pursuant to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the commanding officer, General Benjamin Butler refused, stating that the Confederate States of America was a foreign power with which the United States was at war and that the men in question were property that had been and would be used by the enemy against the United States if were they returned. The three men had been were confiscated by the United States Army as Contraband of War.
During the Civil War, thousands of enslaved African Americans abandoned the places where they had been forced to work and sought refuge with the United States Army. The army called them Contraband and the places they lived, Contraband Camps. From among these, thousands of African Americans enlisted in the United States Colored Troops and fought to preserve the Union as much as their own freedom from enslavement.
Interested in United States Colored Troops? Click hear to watch a short video on the USCT in Natchez, Mississippi !
What were Claytor’s motivations for fighting for the Confederate cause? Did he join under duress? Was he a slave owner who felt strongly about preserving the institution of slavery? Perhaps, despite the speeches delivered at the Virginia Secession Convention and more in tune with the careful language of Virginia’s Declaration of Secession, he believed he was fighting for the more innocuous oft cited value of “state’s rights”. Perhaps he was promised his freedom or at least his family’s compensation if he enlisted.
Some may find it interesting that the African American community would bury so many of their own around a Black Confederate soldier – a character that seems anathema to many of us in the drama of the Civil War. What inspired the black community to lay beside him in death?
According to the 1930s appraisal report mentioned above, “The present owners [had] endeavored to stop burials in this plot but have failed.” Was it too difficult for African Americans to find an accessible alternative burial plot in the era of segregation? The majority of the graves in the Reynolds Cemetery are marked only with field stones which, while reflecting little information about the person interred besides possibly being a child or adult, suggest that the deceased or their survivors could not afford a professionally carved headstone. Perhaps any alternative was too expensive for most people to purchase, maintain, or even visit.
Claytor lived a long life following his discharge after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House. After the war, he lived as a farmer in Locust Grove, Floyd County, not five miles west of the the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Pine Spur Overlook. He picked up his mail and applied for his veterans pension at the Floyd County Courthouse in Floyd, Virginia.
Confederate veteran pensions? Virginia began granting pensions to white Confederate veterans in 1888 but not until the 1920s was this extended to black Confederate veterans. Interestingly, Claytor applied in 1921. The Federal government began granting pensions to Confederate veterans in the 1930s.
African American applications for Confederate veteran pensions were required to include affidavits from two white ex-Confederate soldiers or, if none could be found, two local white men of good reputation. A man named Walker Claytor signed an Affidavit of Comrades as part of Humphrey’s 1921 pension application, making an oath that he joined as an enlisted soldier and not as a servant.
Walker Claytor had served as a sergeant in Company G, 37th Battalion Calvary Regiment of Virginia. He was a white man and the son of Harvey Claytor, of a well-to-do farmer and former slave owner. Additional research may suss out the nature of the relationship between Walker and Humphrey but in the 1921 affidavit, Walker swore that he had known Humphrey for 75 years!
The SEAC mapping crew stayed in the town of Floyd during the trip. The locals to whom I made mention of Humphrey Claytor had not heard of him or his grave in particular, but they did say that Claytor is well-known surname in that part of the Commonwealth. Folks were quick to recommend exploring Claytor Lake State Park, a lovely place to visit and the site of the Haven B. Howe House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But hardly steeped in the drama of the story of a black Confederate soldier buried in a nearly forgotten cemetery on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
This year, high emotions and heated debates have surrounded the meaning of the Confederate flag and whether or not to raze monuments to Confederate soldiers. On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Reconstruction Era perhaps it is appropriate that we revisit these issues and re-examine our understanding of our shared history. How will we choose to understand the African American men that willingly or unwillingly fought for the Confederacy? Why did they choose to fight? We’re they pawns in an ideological battle over equal rights? In enlisting, were they the masters of their own destinies? How were they received by their communities after the war? Should their descendants be ashamed of their ancestors’ loyalties or be proud of their bravery and self-sacrifice? The resources to explore answers these questions are out there, don’t be afraid to look!
Know something about the Claytors’ story or the African American community around Pine Spur Overlook?
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Check out SEAC’s interactive online GIS map of historic cemeteries at Mammoth Cave National Park ! (It may take a few seconds to load..)