In 1921 the Tennessee General Assembly enacted a law “to provide for those colored men who served as servants and cooks in the Confederate Army.” Senator Edgar Jones Graham of Hickman County proposed the bill, which entitled former slaves to ten dollars per month if they could show proof of remaining with the army until the close of the war. Widows were ineligible.
More than 280 ex-slaves presented applications to the Board of Pensions between 1921 and 1935, including the body servant of President Jefferson Davis and two men formerly owned by Nathan Bedford Forrest. The questionnaires, similar to those for white Confederate veterans, provide valuable social, military, and personal family information heretofore largely ignored. The most revealing aspect of the collection, which is stored at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, includes the supporting documents submitted with many of the questionnaires. Since each petitioner was required to prove his army service, dozens of files contain correspondence and notarized statements detailing the writer’s knowledge of the applicant. Some files contain handwritten notes from former slaves. Although most of the men identified themselves as servants and cooks, a few provided more detailed information about their occupations, which included those of builder, supply wagon driver, blacksmith, forager, orderly, soldier, message runner, hospital laborer, porter, and miller at the Loudon Mill. The greatest number of applications came from West Tennessee, and several men were active in local and regional veterans’ organizations. The last of the pensioners died in 1943.