The Columbus Dispatch
Black men as ‘Confederate vets’
Group honors 3 slaves they say fought for South
Shrouded in trees and partially covered up by a modern apartment complex, The Southern Hill Cemetery is easy to miss.
It sits atop a hill at the end of Sixth Street in Gadsden and is the city’s first and largest Black cemetery. Until recently, though, it had been forgotten.
When Chari Bostick found the site in 2013, it was overgrown with weeds and covered in litter. She was searching for the grave of her cousin, and his death certificate indicated that he was buried there. In the cemetery’s dilapidated state, though, she couldn’t find a stone bearing his name.
Instead, she found dozens of others. Today, Bostick is still searching for her ancestor’s grave, but in the meantime, she has dedicated herself to rehabilitating and preserving the cemetery, which was added to the Alabama Historic Register in 2013. The project, she says, has taken on a life of its own.
In the past year, it has evolved to include Confederate groups such as Sons of Confederate Veterans, Civil War reenactors, and the American Legion Honor Guard, all of whom gathered at Southern Hill on the first Sunday of November.
They came to honor the graves of three Black men as Confederate war veterans.
From war to death
David Sheffield, Wash Sheffield and a man named only as Bellisner were buried at Southern Hill some time after the Civil War, though the exact years are uncertain.
The three men were slaves who lived in the Gadsden area in the mid-1800s, and when the Civil War began in 1861, they were brought into battle with the 48th Alabama Infantry.
Confederate Capt. A.L. Woodliff enslaved the Sheffields. According to Woodliff’s journal entries, which have been preserved by his living relatives, he
brought the brothers into war as his bodyguards.
The Gadsden Times published one entry years ago that described a battle the company participated in while traveling through Virginia.
“The cannon was roaring, the battle raged, and I told David Sheffield, my bodyguard who wore the Confederate uniform, to go to the rear,” Woodliff wrote. “Later looking around, I saw Dave. I yelled, ‘Dave I told you to get to the rear.’ Dave replied, ‘But Captain they ain’t no rear.’ ”
The entry goes on to describe how both Woodliff and Sheffield were injured in the battle but survived it.
“While researching, I came across their service through The Gadsden Times articles, and they had a reunion for that company here in Gadsden,” Bostick said.
Every time she discovers a forgotten name buried at Southern Hill, she tries to find out as much as she can about that person, both to remember them and to notify any living relatives of the gravesite.
During the course of this process for
the Sheffields, Bostick said she saw an old newspaper story that included interviews with the brothers, “and they were happy to be there,” she said. “They were happy to have served, to have helped Mr. Woodliff out of the dangerous situation.”
Historian Kevin Levin, however, says this depiction of enslaved men as “Black Confederates” is a myth perpetuated by heritage groups and a general misunderstanding of the Civil War.
“They are blurring the boundaries between slave and soldier,” he said. “Understanding the post-war context for those newspaper articles is really important, and they can be really difficult to interpret.”
In the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, Black people were free from slavery, but they were still widely disenfranchised.
Thus, when Confederate reunions would happen, Levin says former slaves who were brought into the war would use the events as an opportunity to make money or remain in the good graces of their former masters.
“In other words, if they show support to the former Confederacy, if they show their support and loyalty to their former masters, then perhaps they will benefit and their families will benefit back home.”
Why Confederates were the answer
As a Black woman, Bostick said she was not ignoring the controversy associated with Confederate heritage. She had complicated emotions surrounding the ceremony to honor the three men, but ultimately, she separated her feelings from the men she was commemorating.
“Who am I to stand in the way of honoring them the way that they should be honored?” Bostick said. “I really don’t know how to feel. I just came with, you know, an open mind and a willingness to honor them in whatever way I could.”
The three headstones, accompanied by Confederate flags and thick black crosses, were donated to Bostick’s Grace Heritage Community Development by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Originally, though, that was not her plan.
For five years, Bostick worked to get the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to furnish the headstones for the Sheffields and Bellisner. She said she gave the VA all of the proof she had that the three men were veterans, but “it returned nothing.”
The VA will provide a government headstone free of charge for “the unmarked grave of any deceased eligible veteran,” and Bostick has received several headstones for veterans of other wars this way. She was in the midst of deciding next steps for the three graves when the Sons of Confederate Veterans approached her in the summer of 2020.
“When we had a lot of the racial outbreaks here and just in the United States as a whole, I was asked if I would come and speak to the Sons,” Bostick said. “After it was over, they wanted to know how they could help me to continue my work. I was having the hardest time getting those headstones from the VA, and so they wanted to help.”
From there, the next steps were simply to engrave and install the headstones.