A Cultural Biography of Silas Chandler

Last month I shared a brief update concerning my book manuscript on the history and memory of Confederate camp servants and black Confederates. At the time I was weighing the strengths and weaknesses of different narrative forms. As it stood the narrative lacked focus not in the sense that the evidence was not organized, but that the lives and experiences of camp servants remained inaccessible to the reader. Readers meet a large number of camp servants/slaves during the war and in the postwar period, but they are almost all snippets of rich lives shared in passing by their owners and others. I want readers to be able to identify with an individual.

As I mentioned in that earlier post the one exception is Silas Chandler. Having experimented with different narrative approaches to highlighting his life and memory throughout the manuscript I decided to start over and write a cultural biography of Silas. This change is not something that I joyfully embraced so late in the process, especially because I have never written such a book, but I am beginning to see the benefits of doing so.

Placing Silas at the center of the narrative  allows me to utilize all of the evidence collected thus far about his life and build outward. Nothing that I have written will be lost. It just needs to be re-framed to help fill in the picture of Silas’s life. In short, it will be Silas’s life that helps to build a picture of the culture of slaves in the Confederate army, the master-slave relationship at war, his place in the postwar narrative of loyal slaves and his recent transformation into the most prominent black Confederate soldier.

Best of all I have sufficient evidence about Silas to bridge the divide between history and memory. The reader now has a face with which to move this story forward.

I suspect that this will push back the time frame for completing the project. How far back I cannot determine. I will likely travel to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History as well as Silas’s hometown in the Fall.

In addition to writing, I am reading examples of cultural biography by historians who faced some of the same challenges. I started with Melton McLaurin’s classic, Celia, A Slave and then moved on to Elizabeth A. De Wolfe’s The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories. I am now making my through Betsy Ross and the Making of America by Marla Miller. Feel free to offer additional readings.

Stay tuned for additional updates. I plan on sharing a version of the first chapter at the National Civil War Museum on September 26.

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11 comments… add one
  • William Kerrigan Jul 28, 2015

    My book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, (Johns Hopkins, 2012) is a cultural biography of a man who left a pretty thin trace on the historical record. Much of what I do in that book is describing the world around him at different times in his life. You might find it to be a model of how to do, or how not to do, a cultural biography on someone who left no writings of their own.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 28, 2015

      This is great. I will definitely check it out. Nice to know you might be around to offer some advice as I move forward.

      • William Kerrigan Jul 28, 2015

        If you do read it, I would think chapter two might be a first place to start. It focuses on John Chapman’s decade in northwestern Pennsylvania, and the direct sources I had about his life there are pretty thin–some entries in dry goods store ledgers, a listing in the census, an IOU, plus some oral traditions not recorded in print until decades later. I found myself reading a lot of primary sources left by others who were present in that place and in that time, not for references to Chapman (he was just another rough looking young man on the frontier at that point, not yet “Johnny Appleseed”) but rather to try to see this particular world through the eyes of his contemporaries. One of the big challenges is the necessity of speculation (possibly, perhaps, probably) and letting your reader know when you are making informed guesses and what your evidence for your speculations is.

  • Steve Kantrowitz Jul 28, 2015

    I think this is a terrific strategy for writing an engaging book. I am eagerly awaiting the volume but am happy to wait if this is the reason.

  • cagraham Jul 28, 2015

    Two books I read in May might be of use.

    Martha Hodes, The Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century.

    Jon F. Sensbach, Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World

    The former is more of a straight biography while the later attempts connections to larger religious history, but both have the problem of thin documentation. Both are excellent.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 28, 2015

      Hi Chris,

      Read Hodes’s book a few years ago. Incredible. Thanks for the other reference.

  • Karen L. Cox Jul 28, 2015

    A challenge, indeed. I’m writing a book that draws together several personal/historical narratives tied to one event–a murder. Part of me would rather not look at other examples, only because I want to come at it the way I think is best. To be original. In some ways, you’ve already figured this out on your own even though you’ve read other books. Let me recommend Ancestry as a way to get at some interesting details about a person’s life who, otherwise, may have left you very little record to go on.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 28, 2015

      Part of me would rather not look at other examples, only because I want to come at it the way I think is best.

      Sound advice, Karen. My reading has definitely helped, but the amount of time I have already spent thinking about this subject has influenced my decisions much more. A number of Chandler family members are on Ancestry, including Silas’s great great granddaughter, who I co-authored an article with back in 2012. This is definitely going to be an adventure. Best of luck with your own project. Sounds fascinating.

  • Leo Jul 29, 2015

    Kevin, I am glad to hear you are coming to Mississippi, and I look forward to reading your book once you complete it.

    I do not know if this is helpful, but the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi my be able to assist you during your visit.

    While it is not a cultural biography, I am reading and enjoying Lincoln’s Loyalists by Richard Current. It has opened my eyes to an aspect of the American Civil War I never knew existed outside of the lost cause mythology I was force fed in my youth.

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