Category Archives: Civil Rights History

Looking For Silas Chandler

Update: Thanks to TF Smith for the following comment, which I decided to add to the post.  He offers some very interesting observations about this image that are worth serious consideration. Your thoughts are much appreciated.

Actually, this was obviously a posed studio portrait, and there’s probably a case to be made the weapons – or at least most of them – were props. As examples, the individual I take to be AM Chandler has two revolvers, one (possibly an 1861 model Army or Navy Colt) stuck in his belt and another (fairly small) in his left hand, plus the weird machete/gladio-like edged weapon – only the large revolver looks like anything one would go to war with in 1861.  The weapons that the individual I take to be Silas Chandler has an even weirder assortment of weaponry:  the long gun, which appears may be a shotgun, rather than a rifle; some sort of pistol (pepperbox?) stuck into his shirt; and the large knife – again, not exactly standard equipment for your typical CSA infantryman, in 1861 or any other time.  Given the studio element of the photo, the possibility that some or all the weapons are props is quite possible, which raises the question of whether the uniforms were as well. It is entirely possible the photo was, to be frank, a joke. . .

Last Sunday evening I had a wonderful talk with Ms. Myra Sampson, who is the great granddaughter of Silas Chandler.  We talked for about an hour about her family’s history and quite a bit about Silas, who as you all know is one of the most visible “black Confederates” on the Internet.  You may remember that Ms. Sampson left a very thoughtful comment on a post about the well known image of the “Chandler boys” that was recently featured on Antiques Roadshow.  Her concern about the image and the chance to learn more about her ancestor led to a private email exchange, which ultimately led to the phone conversation.

Ms. Sampson is committed to challenging the distorted history about Silas that can be found on multiple websites and more specifically by the Sons of Confederate Veterans who placed an Iron Cross on his grave marking Silas as a Confederate soldier.  Even without my communication with Ms. Sampson there is reason to doubt what has become the standard story, but based on what I’ve learned over the past few weeks it is clear to me that little of the SCV’s story holds up.  I am convinced that the best way to tackle the mythology of black Confederates is not simply by making sweeping generalizations, but by challenging individual stories head on.  That has been my approach in cases involving Weary Clyburn, John Venable, and Bill Yopp to name just a few.  Most of the accounts of black Confederate soldiers revolve around a small number of individual names, which reflects the overall weakness of the argument.  Again, Silas is one of the most visible, in large part, because of the image of him with Andrew Chandler.  One of the things that I wanted to talk with Ms. Sampson about is the possibility of writing an essay about Silas Chandler for one of the popular Civil War magazines.  I’ve already had an editor express interest in the story.  It would be an effective way of sharing a more complete history of the man as well as to demonstrate how these stories so easily evolve into myth and distortion. Over the past few years Ms. Sampson has worked hard to collect historical documents in hoping to set the record straight about her famous ancestor.  I am hoping to help her in that endeavor.

One of the things that I’ve become interested in over the past few years is how African American families remember the Civil War and other aspects of the American past.  Ms. Sampson was very gracious in sharing her own personal story with me.  Much of it broadened my understanding of black historical memory while other aspects fell into line with other interviews that I have conducted over the past few years.  I will share just a few facts that are relevant to this story.  Ms. Sampson grew up in West Point, Mississippi in the years before the Civil Rights Movement.  She attended an all-black Presbyterian High School and was taught by both black and white teachers.  Interestingly, the history textbooks used were new editions in contrast with the older editions that were used in the nearby white public schools.  The amount of attention given to black history is unknown.  While her family did not share stories about the Civil War or slavery, Ms. Sampson does remember hearing quite a bit about Silas.  These stories came directly from her grandfather, George, who was Silas’s son.  It is commendable that Ms. Sampson has not relied simply on oral stories, but has worked in local archives to provide a richer history of her great grandfather.

Silas Chandler

A short biographical sketch of Silas at the 37t Texas website offers the standard story that can be found on numerous SCV websites.  It’s not so much a history of Silas, but a history of the “Chandler Boys” and their collective experience in the Civil War. Rarely do these websites consider these men on their own terms.  A few excerpts will suffice to make this clear.

37th Texas: “Enlisting in the Palo Alto Confederates in 1861 from his home in Palo Alto, Mississippi, at age 15 Andrew Martin Chandler was mustered into Co. F of Blythe’s Mississippi Infantry, 44th Mississippi Infantry. He participated in several campaigns with his childhood playmate, friend and former slave,  17 year-old Silas Chandler.”

Silas was born a slave on January 1, 1837 in Virginia on the Chandler family homestead plantation.  Andrew Martin Chandler was born April 3 , 1844 on the homestead plantation in Clay County Mississippi.  Much of this story hinges on the false belief that Andrew and Silas were childhood playmates and left for the war as close friends.  All of the Chandlers moved to Mississippi and all bought plantations in Clay County in 1839.  At that time Silas was 2 years old.  There is no record of Silas’s parents.  It is possible that they were sold by the Chandlers before they moved to Mississippi.  Given the age difference between the two it is difficult to believe that they were childhood playmates.

37th Texas: [includes the following from a 1950 typed transcript of handwritten notes from an interview with Andrew Martin Chandler conducted in 1912] “While there, he told me of another Silas Chandler that served with him in the Army. This Silas was a former slave owned by his parents, who was papered out just before the war. Even though he was granted his freedom, he insisted on going off to war with Andrew, partially because of their friendship, and partially because since Silas was a little older, he felt that he needed to protect Andrew.”

No service record exists for Silas in the 44th Mississippi Infantry.  The Confederate Army files at the Tombigbee Regional Library in West Point show that Andrew Chandler enlisted on August 16, 1861 at the age of sixteen years and took his slave Silas with him.  The available evidence demonstrates that Silas was a slave at that time and ran messages and packages back and forth from the plantation to Andrew. The record shows Andrew participated in battles at Shiloh and Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Chickamauga, Georgia.   Again, there are no service record for Silas.  It is well documented that Silas made many trips back and forth from from Andrew in the Army to the plantation in Mississippi.  There is  absolutely no evidence that he ever fought while present with the army.

37th Texas: “Andrew gave Silas land adjoining one of the the Chandler plantations on which Silas built a church for the Black population of Palo Alto…. Andrew and Silas returned to Palo Alto, remained fast friends, lived close by each other and, in 1878, Andrew signed the papers which resulted in Silas receiving a Mississippi Confederate Veteran Pension.”

The white Chandlers claim that the family gave Silas land adjoining theirs.  Land records in the Chancery Clerk’s office in West Point indicates that Silas and Lucy (wife) purchased some land and paid off their debt prior to the due date.  Silas applied for a pension in July 1916, but there is no record that he ever received one.  There was a Silas Chandler that received a pension in 1833 in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  This, of course, was for the Revolutionary War.  Given the sloppiness that can be found in many of these accounts it is likely that our Silas Chandler is being confused with this individual.  I did not discuss the construction of a church by Silas with Ms. Sampson, but we did talk a bit about his career as a carpenter following the war.  Interestingly,  Silas helped to construct a new courthouse in West Point, Mississippi after the war and during his own life Silas’s son, George, also worked on the building.  I find it ironic that a former slave and the son of a slave would end up working on what became a symbol of white supremacy during the Jim Crow Era.

37th Texas: “Andrew’s Great-grandson, Andrew Chandler Battaile, still lives in Mississippi, while Silas’ Great–grandson, Bobbie Chandler, lives the Northeast. About eight years ago, the two men reunited and restored the family relationship.”

It should come as no surprise that there is much more to the story.  This version of the story was essentially reaffirmed by the Chandler descendant who appeared on the Antiques Roadshow.  According to Ms. Sampson the story is simply not true.  While there are indeed a few white and black Chandlers who have reunited the history of family relations has been one of separation.  There has been nothing close to a family reunion.  These stories function more to satisfy our own desire for reunion and a narrative of the war that steers clear of the tough issues of race and slavery.  Silas himself was severely wounded at one point during the postwar era when he defended his family from a white vigilante group called “the Raiders.”

The Photograph

I was most interested in talking with Ms. Sampson about her thoughts concerning the photograph of Silas and Andrew Chandler.  Ms. Sampson shared 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.

I am looking forward to the opportunity to work with Myra Sampson and the rest of the family in helping them to share the rich history of their ancestor with the rest of the Civil War community.  Silas Chandler along with the countless other slaves and black workers who spent time in the Confederate army deserve to have their stories told.  They deserve to be understood on their own terms rather than as pawns in the agendas of organizations who are committed to distorting the past for their own selfish purposes.

The NAACP and the Confederate Flag

Thousands of Americans are expected to crowd the streets of Columbia, South Carolina today to demand the removal of the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds.  This is the 10th such rally in South Carolina.  I published this post back in 2008, but thought it might be appropriate to highlight it once again.

By now most of you are aware that the NAACP is once again pushing the state of South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds. In 2000 the flag was removed from atop the Capitol dome to a position near the Confederate Soldier Monument. First, let me say that I believe the NAACP has the right to protest a symbol that they believe to be offensive. Anyone who knows the history of that flag, especially during the era of “Massive Resistance”, must understand the perspective of African Americans. The idea that any one individual has a monopoly on the proper interpretation of such a divisive symbol is simply to fail to understand the epistemology of public symbols. I also want to say that I support the mission of the NAACP even though I do not agree with all of their programs and public positions. I say this this to preface the fact that I do not understand their decision to continue this protest in South Carolina.  Continue reading

A Glaring Omission

It’s difficult to tell whether much of anything is going to happen here in Virginia this weekend in acknowledgment of Lee-Jackson Day.  Yes, there is the parade tomorrow in Lexington, but that’s not surprising given the fact that the city serves as their final resting place.  It would be very strange indeed if the city didn’t mark the day with a public celebration, especially one organized by the SCV.  Given the apparent lack of interest, perhaps we need a new holiday.  So, which Virginians do you believe deserve his or her own day as a state holiday?  Don’t be shy.

I’ve been giving this some thought, not so much in the context of a state holiday, but in reference to our collective memory here in the good state of Virginia.  We have such a rich history here and there are plenty of important and obscure individuals who deserve to be remembered in one way or another.  It seems to me that the one glaring omission is the lack of any kind of monument to Nat Turner.  That’s right, I said Nat Turner.  I’m not suggesting that what is needed is something overtly celebratory, but some kind of acknowledgment of his role in Virginia history and the broader civil rights movement.  The fact that we still do not have a public site dedicated to Turner (even in Southampton County) tells us quite a bit about how we choose to remember our past.  More specifically, it tells us what we as a community have difficulty coming to terms with.  We will see this on Monday as the nation remembers Martin Luther King, Jr.  Schools will perform the mandatory rituals and local news teams will cobble together the standard narrative that celebrates King’s commitment to non-violence and his role in singlehandedly bringing an end to racial injustice.  Perhaps we will see a few hoses from Birmingham.  The point is that most Americans would much rather celebrate the expansion of freedom in this country as emerging through non-violent means rather than through violence.

Turner raises all of these issues and more.  Can you imagine a Nat Turner day here in Virginia?

Update: Thanks to everyone who stopped by today. Friday is usually slow around here, but yesterday’s- and especially today’s posts clearly made an impact. My stats counter went through the roof. There is something quite powerful about blogging. On this Lee-Jackson Day I managed to steer at least a small portion of the public discussion in the direction of another Virginian who I believe deserves to be acknowledged in a more public way. [Please keep in mind the nature of a blog post.  Most of my posts reflect topics that I think about over time and rarely reflect conclusions that are set in stone.  Please feel free to challenge me and offer a different perspective.  I have nothing to lose, but ideas that I had not considered.]  A number of Yahoo groups picked up the post as well as the Civil War Talk Forum.  Even my friend in Fredericksburg, who never fails to point out how unimportant I am, chose to link to one of my comments. It’s a sign of just how unimportant I am that he would devote his blog to me on this Lee-Jackson Day. I am truly blessed with so many devoted readers.

A Civil War Centennial Education

Over the past few days I’ve been rummaging through research files that cover the history of the Crater during the 1950s and 60s.  Thankfully, I’ve been making steady progress on my manuscript revisions.  I am playing around with an opening to this post-WWII chapter that tries to imagine what a family would have seen and read between the visitors center and wayside markers at the Petersburg battlefield.  Perhaps I will share it with you to get some feedback.  Anyway, here are some notes I took while looking at a collection of Civil War Centennial pamphlets.

UVA: Civil War Centennial Information: “Virginia’s Opportunity: The Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965″ [published by the Virginia Civil War Commission, Richmond, Va, 1960]  Manual was prepared for Civil War centennial committees and teachers “who are trying to interpret the meaning of this momentous era to the youth of Virginia.”

“But the Centennial is no time for finding fault or placing blame or fighting the issues all over again.  Americans from every section produced the divisions which led to war.  These divisions grew out of hate, greed and fear, ignorance and apathy, selfishness and emotionalism—evils from which this generation is not free.”  “This is the time to recognize these divisive forces; but this is also the time to honor dedication and devotion, courage and honor, integrity and faith—qualities plentifully demonstrated in the War of 1861 to 1865—and needed for our survival in the years to come.” (from the Foreward)

Opening day, Sunday, January 8, 1961

Va’s opening day: April 23, 1961 on the day that R.E. Lee accepted command of Virginia armed forces.

“The chief purpose of the Centennial is to strengthen the unity of the country through mutual understanding—an understanding derived from the realization that there was dedication and devotion on both sides.  North and South, there were those who gave all they had in support of what they sincerely believed was right.”  “In the Centennial the spotlight will be on character in men—for was is the ultimate test of character.  The stories of the Civil War are full of lessons for present-day living.  By these examples we can teach children and adults the moral values so needed in America today. (p.8) Continue reading

A Quick Thought About the Coates-Smith Interview

I don’t know how I failed to comment on this, but the discussion early on in the interview is important.  It is unusual to hear two African-American men talk about the importance of the Civil War as one of the most important democratizing events in American history.  Of course, Coates is referring to the end of slavery and the service of black men in the United States army.  It’s not that he acknowledges the history as much as that he acknowledges its importance within the sweep of the nation’s history rather than simply within the context of African-American history.  Seems to me that this is an important mental step.  In a recent post I offered a bit of advice on the shared goal of making the Civil War Sesquicentennial attractive to African Americans.  I still maintain that this is going to be difficult given what I perceive to be a disconnect between the African-American community and the history of the Civil War or at least the suspicion among black Americans that the Lost Cause will continue to define public commemorations.  It would be interesting to hear what Coates and Smith have to say about this challenge.