History Detectives Embrace Reconciliation at the Expense of History

Andrew Chandler Battaile and Bobbie Chandler

Once the producers of History Detectives committed themselves to exploring the story behind the tintype of Andrew and Silas Chandler through the respective memories of both sides of the family they embraced a narrative of reconciliation.  At some point they had to bring both sides of the family together through a common bond that implied some sort of friendship or mutual respect.  That comes out in their rather vague explanation of a plot of land that the white Chandlers sold to a black congregation.  Yes, they put to rest the ridiculous claims about Silas serving as a soldier in the Confederate army, which as I suggested last night we already knew, but they completely went off the deep end once the show emerged from the Civil War.  In fact, it’s not a stretch to suggest that HD offered a distorted picture of Reconstruction.  What do I mean?

Both white and black southerners suffered numerous hardships during Reconstruction and beyond.  African Americans in Mississippi and elsewhere faced violence from Ku Klux Klan and the civil injustices that eventually framed the Jim Crow South.  What is remarkable and what was completely ignored last night is the fact that Silas and Lucy Chandler emerged from slavery and managed to eke out a living.  They survived!  Silas became a respected carpenter in the West Point area, which created a stable economic foundation for an already growing family.  Silas and Lucy purchased land and according to the available evidence paid off their debt ahead of schedule.  Their children were educated and at least one taught college.  This is a beautiful story that falls well within a narrative of slavery to freedom, but that was sacrificed in order to give the participants and the audience some sense of closure.

In the end, what brought Andrew and Silas together was a law that allowed one human being to own another.  The inspirational story of Silas and Andrew that ought to have been embraced by both sides and the rest of us is what is possible out from under the shackles of slavery.

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17 thoughts on “History Detectives Embrace Reconciliation at the Expense of History

  1. John Cummings

    Yes, that is an inspirational story, but it was not the purpose of the program’s episode. To suggest that Andrew and Bobbie embraced the wrong thing discredits their free will. These gentlemen did not come into this to rehash the reconstruction era; they sought a better understanding of the circumstances that brought the photograph into being, and the clarification of how blacks served in the southern army. That was made abundantly clear. To debate the comfort level of other descendant’s with reconciliation is for another place and another time. Your article is forthcoming, but was not within the purview of this program. Outside of the question regarding the church property, the focus of the program was strictly related to the photograph as an artifact. I believe History Detectives succeeded in the task without need to editorialize beyond establishing the facts.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      John,

      You are correct that the primary focus was on the image, but both parties inquired about their respective stories implying a transfer of land. The story turned out to have a “kernel of truth” which is another way of saying not much at all. What we know is that Silas did own land, which is relevant to the popular narrative of close contact between the two families throughout the postwar period. It would not have been out of place to mention this.

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      1. Myra Chandler Sampson

        I agree. Silas and Lucy paid $1,000.00 with 8% interest for his first piece of land in 1880 and paid it off before the due date. He purchased land in 1891 and 1894.

        Reply
    2. Andy Hall

      I was impressed that the History Detectives piece seemed to focus very explicitly on two questions: (1) was Silas free or enslaved at the time of the war, and (2) was he considered a soldier by the standards of that time and place? These are specific questions, with knowable answers, that are generally glossed over in discussions of BCS (as they were in the original Antiques Road Show segment), and last night’s episode provided a much-needed and clear corrective of that. Given that the audience for History Detectives is the general public, which likely had little familiarity going into it with the either the Chandler story specifically, or the BCS narrative generally, the episode also provided a good, cautionary example of how a family’s warm-and-fuzzy oral tradition can come smack up against the hard reality of the contemporary historical record.

      Kevin has done more to bring this story to light in all its complexity that anyone else, including the folks on History Detectives, but I think his observation that the episode last night didn’t teach us anything new misses the point — for the vast majority of the show’s viewers, all of it was new.

      All we need now is for some historian, well-read in the primary sources and intimately familiar with the BCS debate, and maybe working closely with a descendant of Silas Chandler, to publish an article telling the full story behind the men in the old tintype, perhaps in some prominent Civil War magazine — an anniversary issue, even — that will get a lot of readership.

      Yeah, that’s what’s really needed here. ;-)

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        I agree with your comment, Andy. The information presented last night was certainly new for the vast of viewers. What I was trying to get at is that the basic facts surrounding Silas’s status before and during the war and his role as a servant were always available for those interested in this history. In fact, it doesn’t take much effort at all to acquire this information. That’s all I was getting at with that comment. Again, Wes Cowan did not pull a rabbit out of a hat.

        I also agree that the image was the main focus, but Bobbie does mention the transfer of land: “The other story was that he was granted his freedom by the Chandler family, and they presented him with some land, and he built a church on it.” Chandler Battaile asks specifically if there is any truth to the stories of a transfer of land. My point in this post is to expose the extent to which this narrative places Silas and the rest of his family in a dependent relation to Andrew’s side. Silas was given land or he was given his freedom. The producers had the opportunity in that last segment to make a crucial point about Silas’s story following the war, but they chose to stretch the evidence to somehow bring the two sides together.

        Reply
      2. Kevin Levin Post author

        Andy,

        I only had access to the transcript so I just watched the episode. I was also quite impressed with Chandler Battaile’s comment about the emotional hold that family lore often exercises over how we view the past. That is certainly not an easy thing to admit in light of the findings, but it is very honest.

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  2. Leonard_K_Tunstall

    Sir, I think it is YOU who’s gone off the “deep end” here with these last few posts. Your old stuff, used to approach this subject from afar with a historian’s mind. Now it’s emotional and far-fetched rants based on information that you yourself would disqualify as evidence if it came from the other side.

    First you took us into that nonsensical direction with the “posture” thing that simply doesn’t even have any basis in the photograph. Now you’re angry about History Detectives because they didn’t turn this into a documentary about Reconstruction (which isn’t even the point of the show, by the way). I watched the show and read the transcript to make sure. I didn’t see anything factually inaccurate at all about Reconstruction. They barely touched it in a couple of sentences but that was entirely appropriate because to do more would have changed the subject away from the artifact and into a whole new type of interpretive historical documentary. The only “reconciliation” message I even saw was a generic line about how both families continued to live a few miles apart from each other in the same county but it didn’t say anything one way or another if they had “reconciled.”

    And you know why? Perhaps there simply isn’t enough independently verified information about how the two Chandler families interacted after the war. That’s if they even did at all! Did Silas Chandler directly face down the horror of the KKK? Maybe, but we simply don’t know. It’s just as possible he escaped that era unscathed. Maybe he was discriminated against by later white Chandlers, but also maybe he wasn’t and maybe they were generous to him as some of the family lore claims. But the point is we don’t know enough to make that conclusion. That means its irresponsible to go the route you wanted them to take.

    For someone who attacks neoconfederates for stretching their interpretations beyond what the actual evidence supports you sure seem to be doing a lot of it yourself.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      First you took us into that nonsensical direction with the “posture” thing that simply doesn’t even have any basis in the photograph.

      According to the great granddaughter of Silas Chandler there is some basis for such an interpretation. We can agree to disagree on this.

      Now you’re angry about History Detectives because they didn’t turn this into a documentary about Reconstruction (which isn’t even the point of the show, by the way).

      I’ve already addressed this point. It is directly related to the episode because Bobbie Chandler inquired about it and Wes Cowan made it a point to try to come up with an answer.

      They barely touched it in a couple of sentences but that was entirely appropriate because to do more would have changed the subject away from the artifact and into a whole new type of interpretive historical documentary.

      Anyone who spends any amount of time investigating this story on the Internet is bombarded by claims about how the two sides of the family remained close and how the white Chandlers donated land to Silas for any number of reasons. This episode is not simply about an image, but about a broader mythology that surrounds the role of African Americans in the Civil War and how that role has been remembered. At no point did I suggest that Silas experienced the violence of the Klan or even harassment from the white Chandlers. What I suggested simply was that instead of making the vaguest of claims surrounding the sale of land that apparently had nothing to do with Silas (a claim that you seem to have no problem with) they could have said something about Silas’s postwar experience based on the available evidence.

      The historian’s mind is still intact. :-)

      Reply
      1. Leonard_K_Tunstall

        Being the great granddaughter of someone doesn’t make her an expert on his posture habits or give her any special knowledge of them (unless she knew him and saw how he sat).

        Anyone can objectively look at the photo and notice from the shadows and the position of Silas’s arm behind Andrews that he’s not hunched forward but he is in fact slightly leaning back relative to where Andrew is. That’s not open for interpretation – it’s the simple laws of physics. When something is behind another thing it can’t be simultaneously in front of it. What you’re seeing is therefore explained by the simplest and most obvious explanation. They are of different height (a trait which also seems to have been passed down to their descendents based on the photo above).

        In the episode I saw, Chander asked about whether there was any truth to the story about being deeded the land after the war. They investigated it, found the records sparse, and uncovered the closest thing they could find – a sale of the land where the church was built (and didn’t they find Silas on the church’s cornerstone or something?). They accurately and fairly interpreted that sale in a way that didn’t overstate the evidence but also held back from making unsupported conclusions about what his life must have been like in Reconstruction.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Being the great granddaughter of someone doesn’t make her an expert on his posture habits or give her any special knowledge of them (unless she knew him and saw how he sat).

          I never suggested she is an expert just that it is her interpretation. You seem to be hung up on this issue, but I really don’t have anything more to say. It’s a matter of interpretation.

          As to your last point, I am simply suggesting that the producers of the show had an opportunity to address the issue of land ownership more directly and in a way that brings Silas and his family out from behind the shadows of his former owner. Unfortunately, we know so little about the lives of most former slaves. Here we actually can say something based on actual evidence and in a way that adds a great deal to our understanding of this fascinating story. You seem to disagree with that. Oh well.

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        2. Brooks Simpson

          Silas’s name was found on the cornerstone of another church, not the church in question … so the family memory of the two principals was challenged … just softly for a feel good moment.

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          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            That’s exactly right, Brooks. And that was the opportunity to mention Silas’s purchase of land for his family. That also has a “feel good” ring to it and it’s true and is directly relevant to the story.

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  3. Dudley Bokoski

    As a southerner I am a firm believer in contradictions. You can take just about anything in the range of human relations, even if illogical, and we probably have it in our experience.

    It isn’t hard to believe the families got on well after the war and it’s even more possible they were civil but not at all close. One explanation is we used to be brought up not to speak ill of people and to observe polite relations, regardless of how you viewed someone or whether you were close or not. With the advent of the Interstate Highway system we’ve become inundated by Northern immigrants to the point where we’re all Yankees now and those traditions are, pardon the pun, “gone with the wind.”

    So, I’d suspect the two families were just normal families who observed the usual social conventions. Logically, it would not make sense for them to have had some Walton Family Christmas episode type relationship but it is entirely possible a helpful land sale was made as a nice gesture. Land was cheap and plentiful, and helping out a church would have been considered a good thing no matter whose church it was.

    None of it, one way or the other, takes away from the evil that was slavery. Believing the best of people where there isn’t evidence one way or the other doesn’t detract from that. Just seems the polite thing to do.

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  4. Myra Chandler Sampson

    The History Detectives did an excellent job showing that Silas was NOT free when Andrew took him off to the Civil War. It also did an excellent job showing that the Chandlers did NOT give Silas land to build a church on or anything else. I must say that was a major hurdle in getting the truth out. Thanks History Detective

    So…The Chandlers SOLD land on their plantation to ex-slaves to build a church on at an exorbitant price. (Silas was not involved in this). Some of these slaves were born on their plantation and had provided free labor all of their lives.

    I was disappointed that none of the other lies told on the Antique Road Show were addressed.

    I was also disappointed that Wes Cowan did not re-evaluate his appraisal for the Tintype.

    An apology from one Chandler family to the other Chandler family would be in order, but I will not hold my breath.

    Reply
    1. BorderRuffian

      “The Chandlers SOLD land on their plantation to ex-slaves to build a church on at an exorbitant price.”

      An acre of land *with a building* for $100 was not exorbitant.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        First, do you have a reference to the article mentioned in your other comment?

        The HD adviser suggested that there may have been a church on the land at the time of purchase, but I can’t be sure of the type of structure. Keep in mind that according to the standard account the land was given as a gift. So, we go from a gift to the sale of land for $100 that had no direct connection to Silas. I guess it depends on how one measures “exorbitant” within this specific context.

        Reply

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