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.