History Detectives Tell Us What We Already Know

PBS's History Detectives

Let me begin by saying that I couldn’t be more pleased that History Detectives decided to follow up on the story behind the tintype of Silas and Andrew Chandler.  No, this episode is not going to convince the diehards, who smell a conspiracy behind anything that fails to conform to their narrow and overly simplistic view of the Civil War era.  The real benefit of the show will be for those people who have a genuine interest in better understanding how the war affected the master-slave relationship as well as how the Confederate government utilized slave labor.

In the end, however, we certainly didn’t learn much.  What many of us already knew about the legal status of Silas Chandler is based on a close reading of the best scholarship on the subject of slavery and the Confederacy as well as a simple search through the archival record.  Wes Cowan didn’t pull a rabbit out of a hat; he did what any undergraduate would do in a seminar on basic research methods.  So, what did we learn?

  • Silas was a slave.
  • Silas was not freed before the war.
  • The Confederate government did not recruit slaves as soldiers until the very end of the war.

I still have no idea what the postwar sale of land by the Chandler family to the congregation of ex-slaves tells us about the relationship between the two families.   As far as I can tell the white Chandlers probably earned some much needed cash from the sale of land during what must have been tough economic times.  To say that there is a “kernel of truth” to the close relationship between the two is stretching it.

Stay tuned for my co-authored essay with Myra Chandler Sampson on Silas and Andrew Chandler, which will appear in an upcoming issue of Civil War Times.  The article will hopefully fill in some of the detail that HD left out.

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15 comments… add one
  • Cyril Chandler Jr. Oct 13, 2011 @ 4:12

    It’s okay. My pride for my Great Great GrandFather has only been solidified.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 13, 2011 @ 4:14

      Nice to hear from you. It’s a remarkable American story of survival and achievement.

  • Margaret D. Blough Oct 12, 2011 @ 11:33

    Kevin-One thing that occurred to me in looking at the photo. I’ve read that there was all too often a rather cruel element of mockery in white treatment of enslaved blacks. The example given was in giving enslaved males the names of very powerful historical figures like Caesar and Pompey. Could there be an element of that in the photo, in posing the enslaved man as a soldier?

    The program was much better than I expected which may be a factor of setting the bar low. I’m glad that they did acknowledge that one had to look at the laws in effect. In many cases, it needs to go beyond whether there were legal bars to manumission. That still leaves room for assumption that the law was the but for element in keeping people enslaved. The social pressure on whites, particularly slaveowners, to support slavery unequivocally was huge. Shortly before the beginning of the war, there was a movement to pass laws requiring free blacks to chose a master, have one chose for them, of leave the state. This movement arose out of a fervent white desire to remove the living contradiction to the doctrine of slavery as a positive good presented by free blacks,
    Arkansas passed such a law in despite the fact that it had, comparatively speaking, very few free blacks. According to Ira Berlin’s “Slaves Without Masters”, and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas by the effective date of the act, January 1, 1860, the number of free blacks in Arkansas dropped from 682 (the # in 1858) to 144. Berlin states that most of those who stayed were elderly.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 12, 2011 @ 11:41

      A number of states including Georgia passed legislation at the end of the 1850s to limit the freedoms of free blacks for some of the reasons you cite. It was nice to see some context, which is almost always in short supply or non-existent in so many of these discussions. The black Confederate camp has a fetish for anecdotal evidence. It’s as if just one more “observation” will seal the deal, but they have almost no ability to interpret their findings beyond the narrow scope of their Lost Cause lens.

      Overall I was pleased with the program as well despite the concerns that I’ve expressed.

  • Ken Noe Oct 12, 2011 @ 3:24

    There’s a big difference between the legend of giving 80 acres to Silas Chandler’s church out of friendship and loyalty, and the reality of selling one acre to an African American church (not Silas’s) for $100. What I would like to know is what land was going for in that county at that time, and whether an existing church indeed was already there.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 12, 2011 @ 3:27

      Hi Ken,

      The historical adviser for that segment of the show suggested that it was likely that a church already existed on that plot of land. That makes all the difference when considering the price attached to the land.

      • Mike R. Oct 12, 2011 @ 4:17

        I would be interested in the census information for the years following the war, as it may shed light on Kevin’s conjecture that the family was in financial difficulty. Here in Maryland, the Ridgely family, owners of a large antebellum estate with many slaves (now a national historic site-http://www.nps.gov/hamp/index.htm) post-war grudgingly sold off their holdings in a piecemeal fashion to anyone with resources, but there is no evidence that they ever did so to amend for being slaveholders. To attach a philanthrophic or a reconciliatory meaning to the Chandler’s sale of property, without evidence, is farfetched.

        • Kevin Levin Oct 12, 2011 @ 4:21

          I think the producers of the show acknowledged the speculative nature of the claim when they said there is a “kernel of truth” behind some of the family lore. There is no evidence whatsoever that the sale had anything to do with Silas and his family nor that it was done for philanthropic reasons. As I suggest in my most recent post, the producers were clearly looking for a reconciliationist hook, but in doing so they missed some opportunities to tell a more complete story.

          • Mike R Oct 12, 2011 @ 4:44

            Well, the storyline of “My ancestors owned and mistreated other human beings for a very long time until forced to stop or be killed by an invading army” wouldn’t sound as good as “They all liked each over when it was over”

  • Jack Viere Oct 11, 2011 @ 19:44

    This was the headline in the C section of the Philadelphia Inquirer today. I couldn’t help but smile at the Northern twist on whatever the exasperating title was…glad to see someone writes on this!
    I have to say I really miss your blunt, straightforward style in the classroom. It still shows up in your writing, no doubt. I still have yet to see the program, but if you read my post for today (now yesterday-sorry college time has thrown me off,) I mention a few people who I was spending time with…let me just say that the population here finds it outrageous at first glance to see the above picture. Very different experience now being on the opposite end of the misconceptions; cradle of the South to the heart of Philadelphia: both sides have a mouthful to say.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 12, 2011 @ 2:29

      Hi Jack,

      Nice to hear from you. Keep up the work on the blog. It really is an impressive site.

  • Scott A. MacKenzie Oct 11, 2011 @ 19:29

    Understandably, our counterparts at the SHPG on Facebook aren’t too happy with this program.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 11, 2011 @ 19:32

      As you know, this program wasn’t produced for the SHPG. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anyone from that site share their own research concerning Silas and Andrew Chandler so anything they have to say is meaningless.

    • Leonard_K_Tunstall Oct 12, 2011 @ 6:13

      It’s funny you say that because from where I’m sitting the moans from this side about the “faults” of the show appear to be the loudest of all.

      I for one thought it was a very balanced and professional presentation that did not overstate the evidence either way.

      • Kevin Levin Oct 12, 2011 @ 6:16

        As I’ve already said, I was pleased with the show. They corrected the central threads of a story that has been butchered by any number of individuals and organizations.

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