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?

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History Detectives Tell Us What We Already Know

PBS's History Detectives

Let me begin by saying that I couldn’t be more pleased that History Detectives decided to follow up on the story behind the tintype of Silas and Andrew Chandler.  No, this episode is not going to convince the diehards, who smell a conspiracy behind anything that fails to conform to their narrow and overly simplistic view of the Civil War era.  The real benefit of the show will be for those people who have a genuine interest in better understanding how the war affected the master-slave relationship as well as how the Confederate government utilized slave labor.

In the end, however, we certainly didn’t learn much.  What many of us already knew about the legal status of Silas Chandler is based on a close reading of the best scholarship on the subject of slavery and the Confederacy as well as a simple search through the archival record.  Wes Cowan didn’t pull a rabbit out of a hat; he did what any undergraduate would do in a seminar on basic research methods.  So, what did we learn?

  • Silas was a slave.
  • Silas was not freed before the war.
  • The Confederate government did not recruit slaves as soldiers until the very end of the war.

I still have no idea what the postwar sale of land by the Chandler family to the congregation of ex-slaves tells us about the relationship between the two families.   As far as I can tell the white Chandlers probably earned some much needed cash from the sale of land during what must have been tough economic times.  To say that there is a “kernel of truth” to the close relationship between the two is stretching it.

Stay tuned for my co-authored essay with Myra Chandler Sampson on Silas and Andrew Chandler, which will appear in an upcoming issue of Civil War Times.  The article will hopefully fill in some of the detail that HD left out.

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Portraying Silas and Andrew Chandler

Portraying Silas and Andrew Chandler

For those of you in the Boston area I will be speaking tonight at the North Worcester Civil War Round Table in Leominster. My topic is Silas Chandler and the myth of black Confederate soldiers.

Nice attempt at recreating the famous tintype of Silas and Andrew Chandler.  They almost pull it off except for the fact that the individual portraying Silas isn’t slightly hunched over in a subservient position.  The original image tells us quite a bit about the culture of slavery and antebellum race relations.  Myra Chandler Sampson (great granddaughter of Silas) shared her thoughts about the image a while back during our first phone conversation.  What follows appeared in that subsequent post.

“I was most interested in talking with Ms. Sampson about her thoughts concerning the photograph of Silas and Andrew Chandler.  Ms. Sampson mentioned that she owned a German Shepherd dog, which I thought was a strange thing to share until she added that posture is very important when handling this particular breed.  It should come as no surprise that a firm posture is essential to reinforcing the authority of the owner over the dog.  Looking at the image of Silas and Andrew I understand exactly what she means.  I never noticed it before, but Silas is clearly hunched over; remember he is seven years older than Andrew.  The image is not one of two childhood friends going off to war, but of a slave whose future now hinges on the boy next to him.”

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My Travels With Silas and Andrew Chandler

The History Detectives at PBS

Welcome to all of you looking for additional information about Silas and Andrew Chandler.  I’ve been writing about the two for a few years now as part of my broader interest in how the presence of enslaved and free blacks in the Confederate army have been remembered in popular culture.  What follows is everything I’ve written about these two individuals.  Hopefully, the posts will give you something to think about as you await the airing of PBS’s segment on the famous tintype.  Thanks for stopping by.

Additional posts on the subject of black Confederates are all tagged for easy access.  Click here for an overview of my position on this subject.

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Andrew and Silas Chandler Remained Life Long Friends

White Citizens Council Meeting in New Orleans

The vast majority of black Confederate accounts on the Internet follow a well-worn narrative.  First, we are somehow to believe that servants/slaves volunteered to accompany their owners to war and in doing so solidified a bond of friendship and a commitment to the achievement of Confederate independence.  Many of these postwar accounts offer rich descriptions of servants who rush onto a battlefield to rescue their wounded master or secure the dead body for the long trip home.  These stories were and continue to be told by whites as a way to minimize the horrors of slavery and as a vindication of the Confederate cause.  African Americans almost never come out from under the shadow of white storytellers.  To put it another way, African Americans remain an extension of the white storyteller’s will or as part of his chosen memory of the past.  It should come as no surprise then that many of these accounts paint a picture of peaceful relations between former master and slave following the end of the war.  We see this clearly in the case of Silas and Andrew Chandler.  Even Andrew Chandler Battiale, who appeared on the Antiques Road Show for an appraisal of the famous tintype suggested such a relationship: “The men grew up together; they worked the fields together, and continued to live closely throughout the rest of their lives.”

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