SAVANNAH - The weather may have been gloomy in Savannah earlier this month, but Georgia Benton was all smiles as she was inducted into the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Not only is Benton the first African-American member in the Savannah chapter, but she's also the first in the state of Georgia.
"A lot of people when they hear the word 'Confederate,' they run," said Savannah Chapter 2 President Elizabeth Piechocinski. "But what they don't realize is that there were a large number of African-Americans who served in the Confederacy. Some were musicians or body servants, but some also fought."
Benton's great-grandfather, George W. Washington, a slave in Sumter County, S.C., went off to war as the body servant of Lt. Alex McQueen. The pair served in numerous battles together, most notably the Battle of Sharpsburg and the Battle of Gettysburg. Benton said that through the years her grandmother had passed down stories of Washington and his service during the war, so she already had a lot of the documents and information she needed to get started with the process of joining the organization.
"I thought, 'Wait a minute, I deserve the same right to be a part of a group who are honoring their forefathers,"' said Benton. "Very little is known about black Confederate soldiers, so if I can be a starting point in letting the world know the history and making them aware that African-Americans have fought in every war in history, then I'm proud to stand up for my great-grandfather. ... I'm standing here with honor and pride."
Benton said it took her about two months to compile the documents needed to trace her family lineage. Because there aren't a lot of enlistment records for African-American Confederate soldiers, it did take patience and a lot of digging, but Benton believes that she can help enhance the organization with her knowledge of African-American soldiers' roles in the Civil War.
"My son tells me I'm a trailblazer, because I was also involved in the community civil rights movement in Port Wentworth. So, trailblazing, making a difference, I guess it's in my blood. It's just something that you do," Benton said.
It's unclear how many, if any, African-American women have joined The United Daughters of the Confederacy's South Carolina Division, as state officers did not reply to email inquiries this week. Before her death, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, a biracial woman and the daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, said she wanted to join.
Robert Behre of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.