The Real Black Civil War Soldiers

With all of this talk about black Confederates it is easy to lose sight of the fact that African American soldiers did indeed exist.  Next weekend Harrisburg, Pennsylvania will commemorate the Grand Review of United States Colored Troops that took place in November 1865.  Information for the event can be found here.   An event focused specifically on black Civil War soldiers reflects just how far our collective memory of the war has come.  One would be hard pressed to find anything of this scale in the 1960s during the Civil War Centennial.  That said, we should resist the urge to celebrate ourselves too much.  I suspect that most people who attend this event will do so with images of Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman in the back of their minds.  The movie, Glory is an important milestone in our popular understanding of the war and while it introduced Americans to a long neglected aspect of this history it may have pushed even further away the real significance of the sacrifice of these men.  To address it would have run the risk of raising the specter of white guilt.

In reference to Glory what stands out to me is the emphasis on a progressive story where the individual characters as well as the unit itself becomes more closely connected or identified with the national goal of emancipation and nationalism.  Col. Shaw (played by Broderick) volunteers his regiment in the attack on Battery Wagner as a means of impressing upon the nation the sacrifices and bravery displayed by his men.  Tripp (played by Washington) begins the movie with an overtly selfish perspective, gradually comes to see the regiment as family, and finally falls in battle while holding the stars and stripes.  Even Thomas, who represents the free black men of the regiment and comes to learn during training that he has more in common with fugitive slaves, finds redemption and self-respect by volunteering to carry the flag before the assault on Wagner.

The decision to end the movie with the failed assault at Wagner solidifies this progressive theme, which links the men to one another and, supposedly, the goal of the United States by the middle of the war.  The final scenes depict the grim reality of the battlefield, including shoe-less dead black soldiers, and a mass grave in which both Shaw and his men are buried.  As the movie ends the viewer is told that the performance of the 54th Massachusetts led to the recruitment of upwards of 180,000 men and that President Lincoln credited these men with turning the tide of war.  The upshot is that the viewer finishes the movie with the impression that the story of the 54th has been brought to its completion, in large part, because of the death of Shaw.  It’s as if the mission of the unit, in terms of its contribution to the Civil War and American History, has been fully realized.  It is through defeat and death in the regiment that the nation experiences a new birth of freedom. Continue reading “The Real Black Civil War Soldiers”

Ebony Magazine Remembers USCTs

One of the richest sources for a black counter-memory of the Civil War is Ebony magazine.  Throughout the Civil War Centennial in the 1960s and beyond the magazine published articles that addressed the crucial role that African Americans played in Union victory.   No topic received more attention than USCTs.  You can view old issues through Google Books and it has proven to be incredibly helpful as I write about how black Americans remembered the battle of the Crater during this period.

One particular article written by Lerone Bennett Jr., (October 1975) about the battle of Chaffin’s Farm caught my attention.  In addition to Bennett’s text there are five sketches by Orville A. Hurt that add quite a bit of depth to the essay. You can find Hurt’s illustrations in multiple issues of the magazine.

Hurt’s illustrations emphasize the bravery and manliness of USCTs as well as the sacrifice made on the battlefield.  The image above is by far the most powerful.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a stark image of a black soldier plunging his bayonet through a Confederate officer before the movie Glory.

Virginia Delegates Commemorate Confederate History Month…

but probably not in the way that the Sons of Confederate Veterans intended.

Today members of the Virginia Assembly in Richmond wore arm bands to commemorate the sacrifices of Virginia’s slaves.  From the Virginia Politics Blog:

The move was prompted by McDonnell’s proclamation declaring April Confederate History Month. When first issued, the proclamation did not include reference to slavery. McDonnell has subsequently apologized repeatedly for what he called a “major omission” and amended the proclamation to include reference to slavery as an abomination and the cause of the Civil War.

“This is why I can celebrate Confederate History Month,” said Del. Jeion A. Ward (D-Hampton). “I am celebrating the thousands of African slaves brought to this Commonwealth for forced labor and in spite of societal restrictions and countless tribulations, they became some of the most learned men of all time. Yes, they found a way out of no way.”

“I celebrate because they endured unimaginable pain and suffering… I celebrate those who escaped slavery only to return to help others escape, like Harriet Tubman and her underground railroad. She made 13 missions to help rescue other slaves. It is for her I celebrate. I celebrate them all because finally they were able to find a way out of now way. So today I and some of my colleagues wear this black ribbon as a symbol of our profound sadness for the horrors our ancestor faced and had to endure under the institution of slavery. But we also join in are celebrating with you because they finally found a way out.”

At Ward’s motion, the House of Delegates also agreed that they will adjourn today “in the honor and memory of the thousands of slaves who played an important role in the building of the wealth of the commonwealth and for those who called Virginia their home.” The House regularly adjourns in memory of prominent Americans or Virginians. The House agreed it will also today adjourn in memory of civil rights leader Dorothy Height.

Triumph, Not Trauma

There is an interesting article over at Psychology Today, if only because it takes a different perspective on the controversy surrounding Confederate History Month.  Molly Costelloe Fong suggests that Governor McDonnell’s proclamation may have certain psychological effects within the black community owing to the long-term legacy of slavery:

When one group deliberately inflicts suffering on “others” as through slavery, the victimized group suffers certain psychological effects: shame, humiliation, guilt, and a decreased ability to be assertive.  McDonnell’s blundering declaration reinforces shared mental images of Black oppression within our national psyche and will likely perpetuate feelings of victimization for African-Americans.

The author suggests that the governor’s proclamation may trigger those “unconscious” feelings of victimization and oppression:

When mourning is unfinished business — the trauma is handed down to future generations. This is done through stories, feelings, and unconscious behaviors that “deposit” images of an injured self into one’s children and other descendants.  In these ways, a younger generation is asked to perform certain unresolved psychological tasks. “Confederate History Month” may also contribute to the perpetuation of historic trauma across generations.

Since I am not a psychologist I don’t feel comfortable commenting on the assumptions at work in these short passages.  On the fact of it it looks like an incredibly weak argument.  My real interest, however, is with the picture of black history that is implicit in this piece.  At first I thought I was reading something out of Stanley Elkins’s thought-provoking study of slavery which uses the structure of the concentration camp system to understand the relationship between slave and master along with its psychological consequences for its victims.

Few people will deny that the horrors of slavery had both short- and long-term consequences for the African-American community. I am not so sure that they can be reduced in the way that Fong asserts, but I must assume that her analysis fits in somewhere within the overall analysis.  The problem for this author is the tendency to interpret the response within the black community to the governor’s proclamation as somehow stemming from the experience of slavery, which no one today experienced first-hand.  It also portrays black Americans as victims and their collective story as a history of victimization.  Historians who have written about American slavery since Elkins have tended to move away from such a narrative to one that explores the myriad ways in which slaves and free blacks struggled to shape their own lives within the confinements of terrorism and legal discrimination through much of the twentieth century.  What we have here in Dr. Fong’s analysis is a short description of how she views black history; I would dare say that her limited understanding of this collective story has been made to fit into her psychological analysis.

What Dr. Fong has missed is the extent to which the reaction of the black community and the subsequent apology and amendment by Gov. McDonnell reflects a story of triumph and perseverance and not some lingering collective trauma.  There was some anger expressed by certain individuals (Roland Martin), but for the most part I read what I consider to be fairly moderate reactions.  Very few people suggested that Confederate soldiers ought to be dropped from any public commemoration; rather, African Americans argued that the Confederate soldier does not encompass the entire story of the war in Virginia.  In short, African Americans have stated openly and forcefully that they do not share the governor’s vision of how to remember and commemorate the Civil War in Virginia.  As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, it is a response that was not possible just a few decades ago.  That it is possible now – on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial – can be traced to the sacrifices and determination of African Americans since the Civil War who were determined to force the United States to live up to its ideals of freedom and equality.  Since the 1960s that has translated into increased involvement on all levels of government and it is that involvement that was at work last week in the wake of the governor’s announcement.

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.