A Tale of Two Tombstones

Searcy’s modern grave marker, claiming him as a Confederate soldier.

ECW welcomes guest author Kevin C. Donovan

During a recent first-time visit to Chattanooga’s Confederate Cemetery, I found a solitary grave situated in a far corner of the cemetery.  The curious grave has two tombstones.  One lies flat on the ground; the second stands upright.  The flat stone, weather-beaten and clearly older of the two, is captioned with a “C.S.A.” set above an engraved Confederate battle flag.  It marks the final resting place of “Shaderick [sic] Searcy 1845 – 1937.”  The more recent–upright– stone is sculpted in a form identifying it as an official U.S. Veterans Administration-issued tombstone.  This stone bears the Southern Cross of Honor[1] above this inscription: “PVT Shadrick Searcy – CO I – 46 GA INF – CSA.”

Based on the foregoing, I (and any other gravesite visitor) would naturally conclude that I was standing before the final resting place of a Confederate army veteran.  That is, until my eye passed over the rest of the inscription on the older tombstone.  That reads: “Served Under Masters J.D. and W.K. Searcy CO I 46, GA. INF. Both Killed In Battle.”

Shadrick Searcy was enslaved.  Knowing that enslaved persons were prohibited by Confederate law from serving as soldiers until only days before Lee’s surrender, when only a few in Richmond were belatedly enrolled, I then wondered how did Searcy supposedly “become” a private soldier in an Army of Tennessee unit, at least according to the second tombstone?  Was it simply a mistake arising from the mists of time, or was Searcy a sort of Civil War unicorn, that is, both enslaved and a private in the Confederate Army?  Curiosity prompted research, yielding the following about the historical Shadrick Searcy and his path to modern (alleged) soldier status.[2]

Chattanoogna’s Confederate Cemetery honors Southern war dead.

First, Searcy himself answered the question of whether he ever was a soldier.  Searcy has a pension file with the State of Tennessee, where he lived in Chattanooga after the war.[3]  In 1921, Tennessee passed a law “to provide pensions for those colored men who served as servants and cooks in the Confederate Army in the war between the States.”[4]  On February 6, 1928, the 83-year-old Searcy filed a “Colored Man’s Application for Pension” under that law.  Therein, Searcy swore that he “was a servant [slave] from the State of Georgia” who served in the war.  Searcy named as his “owner” Dr. John Searcy, the father of James and Kitchen Searcy, for whom Searcy toiled during the conflict.

Apparently, Searcy’s initial application was insufficient, for he submitted a new sworn statement dated July 23, 1928.  Searcy reiterated that he was seeking a “negro pension as servant of Confederate Soldier during the war.”  Searcy explained that James was killed at the Battle of Franklin (November 30, 1864), while Kitchen was “killed one morning early in a swamp in a fight near Rome, Georgia near the last of the war.”[5]  Searcy said that he stayed with the company until the surrender (service for the entire war was a pension prerequisite).

Searcy ultimately received his pension, but only after a white friend intervened on his behalf.  By letter dated May 28, 1928, William Nixon, representing the N.B. Forrest Camp (No. 4), United Confederate Veterans, based in Chattanooga, wrote to the Pension Board.  Nixon advised that “My old colored friend Shadrack [sic] Searcy” had been relying on his pension “to pay his rent and living expenses” but no check had arrived.  Searcy had visited Nixon that morning to report that Searcy’s landlord “had locked him out of his house, and he is in distress.”  Nixon asked the Board to expedite the check.[6]

Nixon’s effort was successful; Searcy received his pension, as Nixon reported in a letter he later sent to the Pension Board.  This letter, dated May 12, 1937, noted the death of “Our last Negro Servant Pensioner,” who was that day being buried.  Nixon asked the Board if Searcy could receive a “Confederate Veterans Marker.”  Nixon noted that they already had “secured about 100 for Veterans whose graves were not marked.”  In support of his request, Nixon repeated that Searcy had served two Confederate soldiers in the war and had subsisted on his servant’s pension until his recent death.  Nixon’s last line is interesting.  He stated, apparently referring to Searcy, he “[w]as anxious to secure, and obtained, a Confederate Uniform for the last Re-union, here.”  If my reading is correct, Searcy wore a Confederate soldier’s uniform in public shortly before his death.  But nowhere did Nixon claim that Searcy had been anything other than an enslaved person.

A letter in the pension file denying him a Confederate grave marker as they were only for “Confederate soldiers (White).”

The Pension Board denied Nixon’s request for a Confederate grave marker for Searcy, because “just Confederate soldiers (White) are permitted to have these.”  Nixon’s UCV chapter must have decided to erect its own marker over Searcy’s grave.  This explains the stone topped with “C.S.A.” and the engraved battle flag, which nevertheless carefully notes Searcy’s true status as an enslaved person who served two masters who died in battle for the Confederacy.  To this extent, Searcy was honored.  It should be noted, however, that Searcy’s gravesite is not located among the primary Confederate veterans’ plots, but situated many yards apart, in a distant corner of the cemetery.

Searcy’s original grave marker, revealing his enslaved status.

The elongated original headstone probably was laid flat on Searcy’s grave, for over the years Searcy’s gravesite became overgrown and was lost.  In 1995, a local Sons of Confederate Veterans (“SCV”) chapter assumed responsibility for maintaining the cemetery.[7]  In 1999, someone–probably that SCV chapter considering its subsequent claims, described below–erected the modern marker to Searcy, albeit without knowing the actual burial site.  This is the marker that now claimed that Searcy had been a Confederate soldier.

There the matter rested until 2016, when Searcy’s gravesite was rediscovered.  Chattanooga media publicized the find.  In doing so, reporters echoed claims by the local SCV chapter regarding Searcy’s supposed soldier pedigree.  Chattanoogan.com published an article calling Searcy “a black Confederate soldier,” quoting an SCV representative.[8]  Another SCV representative, interviewed by a local TV station, also described Searcy as a black Confederate soldier, a claim repeated in the broadcast itself.[9]  No explanation was offered for the contradictory identification of Searcy as enslaved found on the original tombstone.  While the broadcast reporter noted that Searcy received “a pension for his Confederate service,” no reference was made to the fact that the pension was based on his status as an enslaved wartime camp servant.

Shadrick Searcy’s solitary gravesite in a corner of the Chattanooga Confederate Cemetery.

How came the conversion of Searcy from enslaved person to “soldier”?  It is beyond the scope of this blog entry to explore this issue in depth.  However, ample “Lost Cause” literature exists revealing how the original proponents of that pro-Southern propaganda felt the necessity to deny that slavery motivated secession and the ensuing struggle for a Confederate nation (Alexander Stephens’ “cornerstone speech” notwithstanding).[10]  Jefferson Davis, for example, in his The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, asserted that slavery “was far from being the cause of the conflict.”[11]  This historical fiction is echoed in efforts of some modern Southern heritage groups to promote the idea of “Black Confederates” as a means of combating claims that honoring the history of the Confederacy is racist.[12]

Evidence exists that Searcy maintained friendly relations with ex-Confederates after the war.  He received pension help from his local UCV chapter, whose representative referred to Searcy as a friend.  That same chapter ensured that Searcy received a proper burial and tombstone.  What was Searcy’s motivation for maintaining this relationship?  Economic hardship and financial need?  Some real sense of war-time shared sacrifice and resulting comradeship?  Did he wear a Confederate uniform out of some sense of real involvement, or to curry favor in an era of Jim Crow oppression?  Any or all such motivations are possible.  But what is indisputable is that regardless of how Searcy is presented today, both he and his contemporary Confederate friends agreed that his wartime service was that of an enslaved person, not a soldier.

Kevin C. Donovan is a retired lawyer whose 36-year practice encompassed all aspects of labor law and employment litigation and counseling. In addition to numerous legal articles, Donovan has authored “How the Civil War Continues to Affect the Law,” published in Litigation, The Journal of the Section of Litigation, of the American Bar Association, “The Court-Martial of Fitz-John Porter,” published in Columbiad: A Quarterly Journal of the War Between the States, “From Walnuts To Appomattox: The Opinions of The Confederate States Attorneys General,” found in North & Southmagazine, and most recently, “The General In Defeat,” discussing Robert E. Lee’s April 23, 1865 interview by the New York Herald, published in America’s Civil War. “A Better General Than Witness: Sherman’s Bennett Farm Surrender Testimony Before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War” and ‘The “Butterfly Effect”: How the Eighteenth-Century Kidnapping of A Free Black Man Led to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act & the Civil War’, each are pending publication.


[1]  The Southern Cross of Honor was a military decoration analogous to the U.S. Medal of Honor.  https://www.cityofgroveok.gov/building/page/cross-southern-cross-honor-confederate-states-america.  It later became a commemorative medal issued by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Cross_of_Honor.  The VA affixes a CHO logo on the tombstones of all Confederate veterans.  National Cemetery Administration: Pre-World War I Era Headstones and Markers, https://www.cem.va.gov/cem/hmm/pre_WWI_era.asp.

[2] A discussion of the politically explosive issue of whether a desperate Confederacy would turn to black soldiers in attempting to stave off final defeat is discussed in William C. Davis, Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY, 1991), pp. 541, 597 – 599.

[3] Searcy Pension File, found at “Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog,” https://deadconfederates.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/searcypensionfile.pdf.

[4] Kevin M. Levin, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 2019), p. 112 & n. 31.

[5] Government records list the two Searcy brothers as soldiers, but not Shadrick. https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/searchsoldiers.htm#q=%2246th%20Regiment,%20Georgia%20Infantry%22.

[6] Nixon’s letter, and other correspondence referenced herein, are in Searcy’s pension file.

[7] “Chattanooga Confederate Cemetery Relies on Philanthropy,” David Cobb, Chattanooga Times Free Press, April 20, 2014, https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2014/apr/20/confederate-cemetery-relies-on-philanthropy/.

[8] “True Grave Of First African-American Soldier Buried At Chattanooga Confederate Cemetery Found,” Chattanoogan.com, March 23, 2016, https://www.chattanoogan.com/2016/3/23/320653/True-Grave-Of-First-African-American.aspx.  This article carries no byline.

[9] “African American Soldier’s Grave Found at Confederate Cemetery,” News Channel 9, ABC, March 25, 2016, https://newschannel9.com/news/local/african-american-soldiers-actual-grave-found-at-confederate-cemetery.

[10] “Cornerstone Speech,” https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/cornerstone-speech.

[11] Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Thomas Yoseloff, New York & London, England, 1958), Vol. I, p. 78.  Davis claimed that it was the North’s long campaign to deprive the South of “equality in the Union” and threaten its domestic tranquility that drove that section to seek safety outside the Union.  Id., pp. 83 – 85.

[12] See, e.g., Searching for Black Confederates; John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005), p. 194.  Levin, in his Searching for Black Confederates, explores in detail the “Myth of the Black Confederate Soldier,” and has noted that the treatment of Searcy’s gravesite is one example of “why this myth will not die.”  Kevin M. Levin, “A Black Confederate Soldier Who Served Two Masters,” Civil War Memory, March 24, 2016, https://cwmemory.com/2016/03/24/a-black-confederate-soldier-who-served-two-masters/.

4 Responses to A Tale of Two Tombstones

  1. The SCV over-states its case, but as the author suggests here, there were indeed black Southerners who sought to identify with Confederate soldiers at reunions.

  2. Pingback: Emerging Civil War
  3. It is astonishing that historians deny the existence of armed Black Confederate soldiers. Their existence is documented in period publications and soldiers’ letters and diaries. While their numbers have not been reliably determined, they did exist. Those who deny this are either ignorant of the facts or dissembling.

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