How Web 2.0 Rescued Silas Chandler’s Memory

Impressed Slaves Working on Confederate Earthworks

At the beginning of Tuesday night’s History Detectives episode Wes Cowan offered the following assessment of his Antiques Road Show appraisal of the now famous tintype of Silas and Andrew Chandler:

Guys, I can’t tell you how exciting this is for me. After the Roadshow episode aired there were a lot of questions that were raised about the story.  Viewers wrote in droves to question whether the African American in the picture was a slave or a free man and whether so-called black Confederates were a myth. It’s a story and a debate that I also find fascinating.

I was one of those viewers, but I chose to speak out on this blog.  Of course, I had been writing about Silas and the broader mythology of black Confederate soldiers for some time, but this particular episode probably did more to push me over the edge than anything else.  Here was a chance on national television to debunk many of the wild claims made about the role of African Americans in the Confederacy and essentially a family’s story was allowed to pass as history.

Throughout 2010 I continued to write about the subject and on a number of occasions the time spent paid off with real change.  Consider the two National Park Service sites that included questionable information sheets and/or exhibits about black Confederates.  The first involved Governors Island in New York City and the other at Shiloh National Military Park.  In both cases it was a reader, who tipped me off and in both cases the necessary changes were made.  That, of course, is a testament to the hard work that the National Park Service does on a daily basis to present the public with sound historical interpretation.  Even the Museum of the Confederacy did the right thing in pulling their black Confederate soldiers from their online store.  Extensive commentary about the Virginia textbook fiasco involving Joy Masoff led to numerous newspaper and radio interviews as well as a NYTs editorial.

A few weeks following the Antiques Road Show episode I received a phone call from a producer with the History Detectives.  They were considering doing a follow-up episode and they asked me to serve as an informal adviser.  I talked with them about my understanding of the history, suggested scholarly studies that needed to be consulted, and put them in contact with fellow historians, who might be able to help them further.  I remember one conversation early on in which the producer hinted that they were not sure whether the story merited further attention.  Of course, I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I encouraged him to see this not simply as a story about the relationship between two people, but about how we understand the broader conflict.  The highlight was learning that I would be filmed as a historical adviser.  About a week before I was scheduled to travel to D.C. for filming the producers decided to go with someone else.  I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t disappointed, but I was really pleased with Professor Berry’s performance.  She did a stellar job of outlining the relevant history.  Even if it was from behind the scenes I am honored to have been involved with this project.

But here’s the deal.  To the extent that I am tooting my own horn and to the extent it’s deserved one thing is for certain: none of it would be possible without you.  The success of this blog is wrapped up in the quality of the content, but more importantly, it hinges on your response to it.  My ability to use this site as a springboard to additional opportunities depends on the profile of the people who read it, how they respond to it, and whether they share it on other platforms and talk about it in their respective communities.  This is what I understand as the social in social media and it can be a powerful tool.

So, thanks once again for taking the time to read and give yourselves a hand.

10 comments… add one
  • Ray O'Hara Oct 13, 2011 @ 18:53

    Antiques Roadshow is strictly an appraisal show and they really can’t be held liable for anything except their appraisal.
    History Detectives on the other hand claims it gets to the bottom of things and they can definitely be held accountable for their findings.
    I’ve never really been impressed by either show and almost never watch them.
    HD like the History/Military Channel seems to go by the theory that when legend meets fact, print the legend.

    There used to be a cable show “At the Auction” it like Roadshow appraised items, but then they’d show the auction and you could see what the items were really worth. and rarely were the appraisers dead on. in the end an items value is what someone will pay not what some “expert” claims.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 14, 2011 @ 1:41

      Antiques Roadshow is strictly an appraisal show and they really can’t be held liable for anything except their appraisal.

      I disagree. The fact that HD followed up on this story suggests that PBS disagrees with you as well.

      • Ray O'Hara Oct 14, 2011 @ 6:12

        I think the fact they had a different show follow it up actually backs up my point.
        Roadshow raised a point but they had HD explore it and they didn’t do a special segment on Roadshow.

        • Kevin Levin Oct 14, 2011 @ 6:17

          I don’t see your point. The appraisers on ARS offer historical explanations/interpretations all the time. To say that it is “strictly an appraiser show” completely ignores this fact. I suspect that the reason people tune in in the first place is to hear the stories behind the objects as well as for the appraisals.

  • Matthew Wallace-Gross Oct 13, 2011 @ 15:45

    Hi Kevin,

    I have enjoyed reading your blog over the past few years, and I typically agree with your reasoned analysis of the issues surrounding African-American Confederate service. You argue your points with an emphais on evidence, rather than gut feelings; a road not always travelled by those with an opposing view. However, I disagree with your assessment of the recent episode of History Detectives, when you stated that “a family’s story was allowed to pass as history.” I felt that, on the contrary, it was made clear to both viewers…and to the descendants of the men in the tintype, that Silas was neither free, nor could he have been a soldier. Perhaps, that point could have been broadened, somewhat. However, I did not come away from the episode feeling that the producers lent any credence to the family story, itself. The exception to the aforementioned point being the grain of truth regarding the land deed.

    Thanks again for maintaining such and informative and thought provoking blog about the most interesting of all subjects – the American Civil War (although, my wife would disagree with the latter appraisal).

    Best Regards,

    Matthew Wallace-Gross
    Department Historian
    Department of Massachusetts
    Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War

    • Kevin Levin Oct 13, 2011 @ 15:50

      Hi Matthew,

      Thanks for the comment as well as the kind words. I think you misread the post. I was referring to the Antiques Road Show as allowing the family’s story to pass as history not History Detectives. My assessment of HD is quite the opposite. Though I had a few problems with the episode overall I was very pleased in how it corrected some of the most important facts about Silas’s life. I hope that clears things up.

      • Matthew Wallace-Gross Oct 15, 2011 @ 18:14

        Hi Kevin,

        Sorry about my confusion. I did misread the post. Thanks for the clarification.

        Matthew Wallace-Gross

        PS – I will be ordering a copy of your book from Amazon this weekend. If it’s as thought provoking as your blog, I’m sure to be in for a real treat.

        • Kevin Levin Oct 16, 2011 @ 1:54

          Not a problem, Matthew. Glad to see we cleared that up. Thanks for the kind words re: the blog and for ordering the book.

  • Margaret D. Blough Oct 13, 2011 @ 14:30

    Congratulations, Kevin!

    • Kevin Levin Oct 13, 2011 @ 14:44

      Right back at you, Margaret. 🙂

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