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.
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Battle of Chickamauga (Sept. 1863)
Thanks to Andy Hall for passing along the following items from Confederate Veteran. The first is Andrew M. Chandler’s obituary from the July 1920 issue. It includes a reference to his severe wounding at Chickamauga, but there is no reference to Silas. Let’s just be clear about the nature of the story, which sits at the center of the mythology that surrounds these two. Here is the standard Internet account:
During the fighting at Chickamauga, Andrew Chandler suffered a great wound to the leg which the surgeons were ready to amputate off. But Silas pulled out a gold coin that the boys were saving to buy some whiskey. Bribing the doctors to let Chandler go, he then carried the injured boy on his back to the nearest train. They rode all the way to Atlanta in a box car. Once there, the hospital doctors saved the boy’s leg and life.
Remember, Silas and Andrew supposedly remained life long friends. I should point out that I have little doubt that Silas escorted Andrew home following his wounding and he may have saved his life. What we don’t have, however, is any evidence to support the specifics of this account. But if it were true one would expect some acknowledgment from Andrew. Well, perhaps not in an obituary that was likely written by a family member. What about an account written by Andrew himself about his experience at Chickamauga for Confederate Veteran? Keep in mind that this publication is littered with references to loyal former body servants/slaves, who rescued and saved their masters on the field of battle. To be fair, Andrew doesn’t mention his wounding at all; rather, he uses the opportunity to share the experience of battle.
This is a story that has been passed down between the families, but there is no evidence to support the specifics of the account. Family stories can be incredibly valuable in the search for historical truth, but they can just as easily hinder that process. I will leave you with the words of Chandler Battaile, great-great-grandson of Andrew M. Chandler, which helped to close out the History Detectives investigation.
I think it’s interesting to understand the place of stories in family histories. Obviously, the story that we’ve shared is one that is very comfortable, and comforting to believe. But without documentary evidence, it is a story. Our families’ histories have been, and will always be, deeply intertwined and evolving with the times.
Andrew and Silas Chandler
Let me be perfectly clear that despite some problems I had with the final section of last night’s History Detectives episode about Silas and Andrew Chandler I am pleased with the overall production. Wes Cowan and the rest of the HD staff put to rest the question of whether Silas was a slave or a soldier and, with the help of Professor Mary Frances Berry, put to rest the controversy surrounding the recruitment of slaves as soldiers in the Confederate army. The points were clearly articulated and they were based on the best scholarship and a close reading of the relevant archival sources. As I’ve already stated, the show will not convince the diehard black Confederate myth makers nor should anyone criticize it because of this fact. The show was never meant for folks whose understanding of the past is based more on faith than critical thought and honest investigation.
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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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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.
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.”