Winbush's view of the South is a family matter
Published: Saturday, January 24, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 10:21 p.m.
As a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Nelson Winbush counts the Confederate battle flag that draped his grandfather's coffin and the reunion jacket and cap worn by Louis Napoleon Nelson, of Company M, 7th Tennessee Cavalry, among his prized possessions.
And like his grandfather, he is black.
Winbush, a 74-year-old retired assistant high school principal from Kissimmee, will be guest speaker at the ninth annual Lee-Jackson Dinner tonight at the Women's Club of Alachua.
The event is hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans Madison Starke Perry Camp 1427, John Hance O'Steen Camp 770, and the Military Order of Stars and Bars Gen. William Miller Chapter 111.
Winbush is used to the skeptical looks he gets when he tells people that his grandfather, a slave living on a farm in Tennessee, was part of the Confederate Army, but he'll happily pull out the documents that he says will prove his case, including the flag.
"That kind of silences them," he said.
Winbush says his grandfather was born on a farm in Lauderdale County, Tenn., and eventually came to live on a large farm owned by James Oldman. At age 14, his grandfather, along with Oldman's two sons, E.R. and Sidney, enlisted.
"The three of them grew up together and when they went to war, they went to war together," Winbush said. "He initially went as E.R.'s bodyguard and cook, but eventually he did some of everything."
He said the three walked to Brownsville, Tenn., where they enlisted. They took part in battles at Shiloh, Lookout Mountain, Brice's Crossroads and Vicksburg.
While his grandfather could neither read nor write at the time, his ability to memorize the Bible earned him a temporary assignment as a chaplain.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans describes itself as "the direct heir of the United Confederate Veterans and is the oldest hereditary organization for male descendents of Confederate soldiers."
It has a Southern-flavored view of history, insisting that the conflict which history books refer to as the Civil War didn't technically meet that definition. Thus, the group prefers War Between the States. It also downplays the issue of slavery as a cause of the war.
Background information from the group states that ". . . 65,000 African Americans - some free, mostly slave - assisted the Confederate cause. Many served as cooks, teamsters or in other support roles, but almost a third faced the enemy in combat."
This is a figure University of Florida history professor Matt Gallman would dispute.
"Most people who deal with the Civil War think there were very few (Confederate) African Americans who actually fought," said Gallman, whose specialty is 19th century American history.
In Civil War diaries they are not mentioned. Neither do Confederate African Americans show up as having died on the battlefields or as prisoners, Gallman said.
Winbush said that in the South, blacks and whites worked together. "The only segregated troops were the Yankees," he said.
"The treatment of African-American soldiers in the North is a segregated story," agreed Gallman, adding that black troops were paid less, given the worst duty and commanded by white officers.
But Gallman didn't agree that the South, with many of the African-Americans still enslaved, could be judged as integrated.
Winbush said the three men who had enlisted together all survived to tell about it.
"None of the three were wounded," Winbush said. "They ended up surrendering in Gainesville, Ala., and walked back to Tennessee."
Louis Napoleon Nelson lived to age 88. After the war, he returned to James Oldman's farm - the same farm where he'd lived as a slave - and lived for 10 years, before moving to nearby Ripley, Tenn., where he worked as a plasterer.
"I grew up in his house and lived in his house until I moved to Florida in 1955," Winbush said.
Winbush was only 5 years old when his grandfather died, but Winbush said he remembers the stories he was told about his grandfather's war experience and remembers riding with him in a buggy.
"Where I grew up in West Tennessee, it was common knowledge he was a Confederate veteran," Winbush said.
His grandfather actually received a Confederate pension. Now Winbush, an Army veteran of the Korean conflict, feels a connection with others whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought for the South.
"Their ancestors went through a lot of the same things my grandfather went through," he said. "It's a kinship that's difficult to explain, but when you experience it, you know it."
Gary Kirkland can be reached at 338-3104 or email@example.com.
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