African-American Savannah woman takes her place among United Daughters of the Confederacy
A Savannah native, Georgia Benton grew up hearing about the Civil War service of her great-grandfather, a slave from Sumter, S.C., who followed his master to the battles of Sharpsburg, Gettysburg and Petersburg, and then brought his body home for burial when he was struck down by artillery fire and slain during the conflict’s final days.
“He was fighting for his land and his people,” Benton said of George W. Washington, who was 16 when he entered Confederate service in 1862 as the body servant of Lt. William Alexander McQueen, who was 22.
To honor Washington and his three years of wartime service, Benton took an audacious step: She decided to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
“I have every right to membership in the UDC, which along with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, remembers and recognizes the men who fought for and rendered service to the South during the Civil War,” said Benton.
Putting together the proof
Elizabeth Piechocinski is the president of Savannah Chapter No. 2 of the UDC. She’s also a member of the Daughters of the Revolution, and she said that venerable organization poses fewer hurdles to prospective members than does the UDC.
“It’s a very involved process,” said Piechocinski. “You have to prove that you are a linear descendant of a Confederate, either a soldier, or someone who served in another capacity, such as a cook, laborer or musician.”
Many Confederate officers were accompanied by body servants, added Piechocinski.
The servants performed a variety of chores, and even picked up a weapon when the situation demanded it.
The story of Washington and McQueen, two young men of two different races who served under one flag, was compelling, but would not determine the final decision on Benton’s application.
“The story is nice,” said Piechocinski, “but you still have to prove it.”
A monument in Sumter
It wasn’t easy. It involved the family Bible, birth records, death records, marriage records and census records, both pre- and post-Civil War.
“Very few African-Americans” can produce that amount of documentation, said Benton.
It also took in a unique tribute to George W. Washington, a 4-foot-high obelisk at his grave in Walker Cemetery in Sumter. (A monument to McQueen, who was killed in a South Carolina battle on April 9, 1865, the same day as Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender, is located nearby in Sumter Cemetery.)
Washington died in 1911, and the obelisk was put up by the A.A. Solomons family of Sumter. Washington worked for the Solomons as a butler and valet for almost 40 years, said Benton, who remembers often visiting her great-grandfather’s gravesite when she was a child.
One side of the monument commemorates Washington’s Civil War service and, when the obelisk needed repairs in 2005, they were paid for by the General P.G.T. Beauregard Camp No. 1458 of the SCV in Sumter.
With the monument inscription and the other documentation, Benton’s application was approved by the national UDC in October. She thus became the first African-American member of the Savannah chapter and the only African-American member in the Georgia division of the UDC.
To honor their ancestors
A retired mathematics teacher in the Chatham County school system who now runs a tax and accounting service, Benton is going into the UDC with her head up and her eyes open.
These are “gracious women” who want to honor their ancestors, “the same as I do,” said Benton.
Benton said that she’s heard mostly positive feedback so far. As for those who have criticized her decision, “I chalk that up to ignorance,” she said.
From the UDC’s perspective, said Piechocinski, race did not enter into the decision. At the start of the application process, said Piechocinski, “we didn’t know she was African-American. This is not just some sort of gesture on our part.”
‘A true soldier’
Her great-grandfather’s Confederate service is part of the “untold” history of the South, said Benton. “They don’t teach that.”
There were many black Confederates, she said, including George W. Washington’s brother Jacob. “Uncle Jake” was a musician who played the French horn, said Benton.
George W. Washington could have run off in 1863 when he participated in the Gettysburg campaign, said Benton. “But he stayed faithful. He stayed loyal. He was a true soldier.”
Benton is not the only person in her family who wants to commemorate Southern service.
Her son, Leroy Benton Jr., has completed his application to join the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“We all have a right to honor our heritage,” she said.
For more information
On the national organization of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
On black Confederates.