The iconic image of Andrew and Silas Chandler has fueled some of the most outlandish claims about the service of thousands of black Confederate soldiers as well as the continued loyalty of slaves to their masters and the Confederate war effort. In the case of Andrew and Silas the image of the two men seated and armed has been used as a centerpiece of a narrative that assumes a close friendship between the two that began before the war and lasted well into the postwar era. None of these claims can be supported by the available evidence. One of the claims that can be found on countless websites suggests that Andrew assisted Silas in procuring a pension in the 1870s. Silas did indeed apply for a pension, but not until 1916 and it is not clear that it was approved. Most importantly, the pension that Silas received was for his presence in the army as a slave and not a soldier.
A recent post over at Brooks Simpson’s Crossroads has got me thinking about the tragic nature of the Civil War. Brooks offers the following in response to two recent editorials by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Cohen:
Was it an awful war? Sure. Was it tragic? In some ways, yes, but not necessarily in the ways in which Coates contests the term. It was tragic that white Americans could not bring themselves to realize the promise of their own revolutionary and Revolutionary rhetoric. It was tragic that in the end they could not bring an end to slavery short of secession and war. Doubtless Coates would agree that Reconstruction was a regrettable tragedy that illustrated the same shortcomings. In short, even as the destruction of slavery is cause for celebration, that it had to come to that through war is cause for reflection and contemplation. Moreover, if we continue to concentrate on the story of the destruction of slavery and the achievement of emancipation as a wartime phenomenon, we risk losing sight of the fact that what freedom meant remained undefined and incomplete, and that during Reconstruction, a truly tragic era, white Americans once more fell short of realizing the ideals which they claimed to cherish, leaving a legacy with which we still wrestle.
I tend to agree with Brooks’s assessment, but I wonder if this characterization of the tragic nature of the war reflects the continued hold that the “War to End Slavery Narrative” exercises over our collective memory. Yes, I am reflecting on this in the wake of having finished reading Gary Gallagher’s new book, The Union War. In other words, our definition of what makes the war tragic reflects the value that we have come to place on emancipation and slavery, which may not match up so easily with how the citizens of the United States in the 1860s viewed the meaning of the war.
I get a real kick out of the good folks over at the Southern Heritage Preservation site. They spend a great deal of time calling for the preservation of African-American history by pushing the black Confederate narrative, but when a black man disagrees with their preferred view of the war all bets are off. Consider this little give and take over an editorial written by Tony Norman for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The editorial is par for the course compared with most editorials written this year. Norman places too much weight on recent polls and completely ignores the dramatic changes that can be seen in recent Civil War commemorations and the overall public dialog. That hasn’t prevented the folks at SHP from going for the jugular. For people who are committed to preserving black history they sure don’t have much patience for black people.
My talk last night in Roanoke on Silas Chandler and black Confederates went very well. Of course, I heard that a phone call had notified organizers that a protest was likely, but it never materialized. In fact, the audience was attentive and they asked some excellent questions during the Q&A. It’s easy to exaggerate the significance of that small, but vocal group of partisans who clearly have an emotional stake in this “debate” rather than an intellectual or scholarly interest in this subject. Last night reminded me that there is a general public that is curious about this subject, but doesn’t quite know what to make of it. Many in the audience had heard about the Virginia textbook scandal from last year. What I love about this topic is that it gives me the opportunity to educate the general public about a widely misunderstood topic as well as the dangers of doing research Online.
By focusing on Silas Chandler I am able to steer clear of the numbers game and address more important aspects of the discussion, including the problem of utilizing Internet sources. Most importantly, by poking holes in the standard account of Silas, which pervades the Web, I can demonstrate what is wrong with the state of this discussion in its entirety. Silas really is the poster boy of this subject.