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.