The National Park Service’s Black Confederates (Part 2)

Andrew and Silas Chandler

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a deep respect for the work of the National Park Service.  Not only do they do an outstanding job of preserving the physical landscapes of many of our most important Civil War sites, but they help us to better understand what took place there and what it means.  For any number of reasons that job has proven to be incredibly difficult over the past two decades.  Still, no one is perfect and as a historical institution they are bound to make mistakes.  Unfortunately, this is one of those instances that must be pointed out given how widely the subject has been misunderstood and even intentionally distorted.

As you can see this is the famous image of Andrew and Silas Chandler, which is often used to buttress arguments concerning the existence of black Confederate soldiers.  It is one of the most popular images that can be found on the many websites on the topic.  In this case the image is part of an exhibit at the Corinth Interpretive Center at Shiloh.  Before proceeding, I should point out that I am currently co-writing an article with the great-granddaughter of Silas Chandler, which we hope to publish in a magazine in the coming year.  The brief description under the image could not be more misleading.  First and foremost, not once is the visitor told that Silas was a slave and not a soldier.  According to the 1880 U.S. Census, Silas was born on January 1, 1837, while Andrew was born on April 3, 1844, which placed them seven years apart rather than two.  It is often suggested that the two boys were childhood friends; however, there is no evidence to suggest such a relationship.  That is not to suggest that the two were not acquainted with one another and it certainly should not prevent us from looking into how this master-slave relationship was shaped by the hardship of war.  Finally, Silas did receive a pension for his participation in the war, but it was not as a Confederate veterans.  Like other slaves Silas received a pension under the “Application of Indigent Servants of Soldiers and Sailors of the Late Confederacy.”  The application clearly indicates servants were not recognized as a Confederate soldiers, but were entitled to a pension owing to his service to his master.

This is not the first time that the NPS has stepped into the black Confederate morass, but let’s hope that as in that case they step up and make the necessary corrections.

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18 thoughts on “The National Park Service’s Black Confederates (Part 2)

  1. Emmanuel Dabney

    And not to steal any thunder from the upcoming work between Kevin & the descendant of Silas but I also think most people have failed to use the census in trying to reconstruct Andrew & Silas Chandler.

    Louisa Chandler, Silas’s mother, was widowed by 1860 and living in Division No. 1, Chickasaw County, Mississippi. Page 93, Schedule No. 1 for that county finds Mrs. Chandler, age 44, living with her sons Andrew, age 16; Benjamin, age 12; and Kyle, age 11. Her personal estate was valued at $40,000 and her real estate valued at $24,000. Louisa had ten slave dwellings and 36 enslaved people. The oldest was 80 years old and the youngest were newborns only six months old.

    I share this not to say Louisa Chandler was the worst person in Mississippi but rather to say that she is no different from other slaveholders. She held people in bondage from their births until their deaths even when they were too young to talk (six month old girls in 1860) to those who were grandparents and probably great-grandparents (like the 80 year old). Andrew Chandler was brought up in world where black men, women, and children reinforced his identity as a planter’s son and the expected future master of scores of enslaved people until the Civil War broke up the slave culture.

    I am sorry that like Kevin points out so many people continue to ignore that Silas received a pension because he was a servant, not a soldier. I am equally sorry that Andrew Chandler’s past as the son of a slaveholding family continues to be ignored and Silas is “free” though I continue to have seen no one show any proof of his freedom before the Civil War ended.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks Emmanuel. Please don’t apologize. The story – as best as we can put it together – is absolutely fascinating and worth sharing with as many people as possible. As you note, the census report alone tells us a great deal.

      Reply
    2. Margaret D. Blough

      Emmanuel-Excellent post (particularly about the kind of pension Silas received), but didn’t you mean to say that Louisa was Andrew’s mother, not Silas’s?

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        I’m sure that’s what he meant. I made the point about the pension in the post and I have a copy of it in my files. It’s pretty clear as how he was viewed in the early twentieth century when he applied for it.

        Reply
    3. Myra Chandler Sampson

      It is bad enough for the Chandlers and other slave owners to have kept humans in bondage from birth until death. It is even worse for the descendents of those slave owners to continue to profit from those dead slaves, such as parading the tin type picture of Silas and Andrew dressed in the Confederate uniforms on the Antique Road Show and telling the lies that go along with it.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Nice to hear from you, Myra. We can be thankful that legitimate agencies devoted to sound historical scholarship are will to make the necessary corrections.

        Reply
  2. Will Stoutamire

    Interesting post, Kevin. The language of the text seems to imply the kind of relationship between Andrew and Silas that the SCV and others want us to believe existed. You pointed out that the visitor is not told that Silas was a slave; in fact, the visitor is explicitly told that Silas was “his [Andrew's] former slave.” A point which seem to be completely untrue, given your earlier investigations.

    Here it appears that we have two men, a master and his “former” slave, now willingly posing (and serving) together as they go off to war. While Andrew was held prisoner in Ohio, his friend Silas travelled hundreds of miles, multiple times, to deliver him supplies [an interesting story in itself, it at all true; that is a LONG trip and one wonders why Silas, a slave, was entrusted to do such a thing and then didn't just stay in Ohio afterwards - possibly worthy of further investigation, in debunking the myths]. They then fought alongside each other (so it is implied) at Chickamauga and “returned home together in 1864.” Of course, as Mr. Dabney’s census analysis reveals, they didn’t exactly return to the same “home.” All of this on top of a failure to recognize that Silas was still a slave, and therefore not fighting of his own free will.

    This is the kind of oversimplification and misinterpretation that can occur when given 75 words to discuss a complex story. But that is no excuse for a poorly-written label that only serves to promote the Black Confederate mythology. It was certainly not smart to select this controversial photograph out of the hundreds, if not thousands of similar portraits that could’ve been chosen for an exhibit that apparently highlights men who fought at Shiloh. I’d be interested to know the background of the curator who did this label, his/her research process [could this be the result of the same mistake made in the recent VA textbook scandal?], and when the exhibit was constructed.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. Helps me get out of my post-Christmas funk…

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Will,

      Thanks for pointing out the bold print indicating that Silas was a “former slave”, which I completely missed. In some ways that’s even worse since it is simply not true. It’s another example of the morphing of the old “faithful slave” narrative. These stories tend to wax poetic about how Silas did all of these things for Andrew apart from the fact that he was enslaved. Again, I think we do need to leave interpretive room to understand how the master-slave relationship was shaped by the war, but we must be careful given the lack of any voice from Silas and most slaves, who functioned with the Confederate army.

      Reply
    2. Drew Dodenhoff

      Mr. Levin,

      Correct me if I’m wrong. I have been told the picture of the Chandler Boys is unique, because it is the only one in which the two figures are both armed. In other pictures of the soldier (master) and his servant (slave), the master may be armed, but the servant is in uniform, but not armed. There are numerous photos of black confederates in Confederate uniforms and with arms.

      Or is this another tall tale?

      Somehow or other the family lore has been that Andrew was 15 or 16 and Silas was 17 when they went off to war. We now agree, if one can trust the Census of 1860 that Silas was 24, married and the father of a child when he went off to war.

      Is it not possible that Silas was put in a position as a youth to watch over Andrew as he was growing up, and to be his “companion.” Maybe even be in charge of watching out for both Andrew and his four year younger brother Benjamin. Instead of a Nanny having a young man to make sure the two young boys didn’t get in trouble?

      Regards,
      Drew

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Silas was seven years older than Andrew. It’s not clear at all as to whether all of the weapons depicted in the image are authentic and not props. Why the photograph was taken is unknown. I think it is safe to say that Silas was meant to serve Andrew and make his life in camp as comfortable as possible.

        Reply
      2. Andy Hall

        There’s nothing unusual about Silas wearing military-style clothing of some sort, and it doesn’t say anything about his actual military status. Camp servants, North and South, routinely wore cast-off or spare uniform items (see here and here.

        Further, it was very common for slaveholders to dress their personal servants well, as a sign of their own status and generosity. In his memoir Rags and Hope, Val Giles talks about an unnamed Tidewater patrician, who he labels simply F.F.V. (First Families of Virginia), driving to General Hood’s headquarters in a coach-and-four, accompanied by liveried footmen.

        Reply
    1. Margaret D. Blough

      Mr. Dabney-You’re welcome. As my late mother advised me, it’s why it’s always helpful to have someone else (especially someone who can read for content and not just for typos) proofread; the brain has an autocorrect function, and we see what we intended to put down, not what is there.

      You made a lot of very excellent points. I think that those who have it as an article of faith that one has to believe that slave owners were monsters if one accepts that the historical record unequivocally establishes that, without slavery, there would have been no Civil War, have it all wrong. I don’t find it remarkable that Mrs. Chandler and her children accepted slavery as an institution. I find it remarkable that there was anyone, particularly someone born into the slaveowning caste, who still questioned it much less be willing to be public about it. The South had become an increasingly closed society in which dissent on the issue of slavery was ruthlessly suppressed and white dissenters were either silenced by social pressure, driven into exile, and even lynched. I’m sure that there were many slaveowners who did their best to treat their slaves as well as they could. What so many of them couldn’t begin to comprehend was that for the enslaved there was no substitute for freedom. One gets a sense of hurt, betrayal, and astonishment from the reaction of slaveowners to find that even their most trusted house slaves took off as soon as Union troops came near even though they had no assurances of what life would be like with the Union armies. It would be easy to dismiss slaveowners as monsters; monsters are not like us, they can easily be marginalized. The tough nut of slavery in a nation whose birth certificate proclaims the existence of liberty as an unalieanable right is trying to comprehend how people, who, I suspect, if we could have met them, we’d find kind, decent peope, could and did believe that it was right to own people as property and how others, even if they didn’t own slaves, could tolerate its existence.

      Reply
  3. JMRudy

    I’m not defending this exhibit panel in particular. I agree that it is misleading and poorly phrased. However, I would like to defend the Corinth Visitor Center’s overall exhibit. I was able to visit the new visitor’s center last April and soak in the entirety of their , as well as interview a number of the Rangers on their experiences interpreting the center.

    The center reproduces Mississippi’s causes of secession as it appeared in a local paper, writ large on one wall of the exhibit’s first gallery. The Corinth Contraband camp, likewise, receives a good deal of the exhibit space with interesting and enlightening aspects of the war teased out. The main hall features a large interpretive statue depicting a USCT handing a reader to a contraband woman, dedicating Corinth as the gateway to freedom. (see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tjjohn12/4525543043/in/set-72157623869758734/ ) The courtyard has a water feature which chronologically depicts the lead up to war, highlighting the turmoil over slavery again and again.

    Artifacts of Lost Cause interpretation are lamentable and should be weeded out when discovered and outmoded. But I’d submit that this is the only Lost Cause interp, or at least poorly representative of an otherwise vastly enlightened and evidence based museum which has deeply upset Lost Causers.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      JM,

      I appreciate this, but you don’t have to defend the NPS. I have no doubt that this is an exception to the overall quality of their exhibits and sophistication of interpretation that you will find throughout the institution. Thanks for the link.

      Reply
  4. Jeff Fiddler

    I had an ongoing battle with the NPS some time ago when I read a news article about a NPS guide at Richmond who said something like “the horrors of Libby prison could have been adverted if Mr. Lincoln and Grant had been willing to exchange prisoners – but they weren’t.”
    I blew my stack because the reason (at that time) for the failure of prisoner exchange was the CSA wouldn’t recognize then, or ever, USCT as pow’s. Something left out of this NPS
    guide’s explanation. I wrote supervisors and managers, naming this fellow, and got a nice letter saying he (the guide) would be reminded of some facts. Nothing else. I wonder if this NPS guide is still spreading his noxious lies.

    I am glad to hear there is some balance here even if at a different site….

    Reply

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