Six months ago, Polly Sheppard was wandering through her church’s cemetery, taking inventory of the stone markers. A couple of steps in, she noticed a military-style headstone. Carved on its weather-worn face was the name Louis B. Middleton Confederate Soldier.

The stone seemed out of place to her, given that the burial ground belongs to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, regarded as the oldest black AME church in the South.

A check of the state’s archives showed it wasn’t so strange after all: A Louis Middleton from Montague Street (the street was spelled with an “e” in the documents) worked as a cook during the war, and he applied for a South Carolina pension in 1923.

While the South and the nation are in the middle of celebrating the Civil War Sesquicentennial, historians say the involvement of the small percentage of blacks who participated in the Southern war effort is widely going unnoticed, largely because their role has become so politicized today.

“I think there are a lot of Confederate sympathizers who exaggerate the role of blacks in the Confederate military,” said Don Doyle, the McCausland professor of history at the University of South Carolina. “And a lot of skeptics who dismiss the idea that it was even possible.”

The reality, Doyle said, is that black involvement in the South was largely forced, with little say-so in their daily lives as they were put into essential roles from laborers to teamsters and general servants. “This cook would be a perfect example of what was the typical,” Doyle said.

Sheppard’s curiosity about Middleton was rekindled in July after reading a Post and Courier account of the local Battle of Gettysburg remembrance. The Emanuel AME grave area is in the Charleston Neck Area, near Magnolia Cemetery, the final resting site of many of Charleston’s Confederate war dead.

Re-enactors gathered there last month to mark the July 1-3, 1863 battle.

State records show that a Louis Middleton applied to the Charleston County Pension Board six decades after the war ended.

According to records, his service began in 1862. He is listed as serving under R.B. Simons, who started out the war as a private in Buist’s Company of the 17th S.C Militia, before taking on other assignments, including in Company A of 18 Battalion, S.C. Artillery, often referred to as the Siege Train Artillery Battalion. Neither Middleton’s age nor middle name were listed in the application.

Historical accounts say many slaves in South Carolina were used in the national defense — helping build coastal fortifications or performing other duties — freeing up whites for the fighting. Still others became integral members of camp ranks, following men of means into their assignments, attending to their needs.

In the 1920s, the S.C. Legislature opted to provide pensions for some of these men.

Historian Alexia Jones Helsley, who worked at the S.C. Department of Archives and History for more than 30 years and currently teaches at USC-Aiken, chronicled the development of the pension payouts, publishing her research in a collection titled “South Carolina’s African American Confederate Pensioners 1923-1925.”

The motivation behind the pensions, she said, was not completely noble on the part of lawmakers. First, they were a way of reducing financial burdens on the community. Most of the men were in their 70s and older by then, and unable to do most types of paying work.

Second, the pensions came as many Southern blacks were following the great migration to the cities of the North, looking for a better life but draining the state’s workforce. The pensions were seen as an attempt to create respect for those who supported the southern cause, Helsley said.

The pension act wording said the payments were “for certain faithful Negroes who were engaged in the service of the State in War between the States.” The first round of pensions were not to exceed $25 annually. Laborers, servants and cooks were the most frequent job description.

Helsley said the response turned out to be greater than expected. The payouts were soon seen as costly; applications mounted into the hundreds. By 1924, the state reined in who was eligible, including eliminating the roles of some laborers and teamsters.

“I think they were surprised at the numbers that applied in ’23 and the types of services they reported,” she said.

Helsley doubts there was any widespread political support for the Confederate cause among blacks pulled into service.

“From my reading of the records, I would personally say that’s an overstatement,” she said.

Randy Burbage, a local re-enactor and national officer in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said Middleton’s role during the war would have been of high value.

“A cook is pretty important member,” he said. “He still had to feed the soldiers,” and that “this is his home too.”

Regardless of Middleton’s circumstance during the war, Sheppard said his role needs to be verified, recognized and a search for family members explored.

“We’re proud to have him here,” she said while standing in the tall grass near his resting place.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.