Category Archives: Lost Cause

Skyping With Skidmore

A few weeks ago I was contacted by Prof. Gregory Pfitzer, who is currently teaching a course in American Studies at Skidmore College.  His students are examining various aspects of Civil War memory and as part of their reading Prof. Pfitzer assigned one of my blog posts on the recent controversy surrounding the SCV’s Davis-Limber statue that was supposed to be placed on the grounds at the Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond.  I agreed to respond to their comments.  I did my best to respond to every student and on more than one occasion the give and take resulted in lengthy threads.  The students’ comments were incredibly thoughtful and forced me to rethink some of my own assumptions about this story. [Skidmore comments begin with #17 on March 11]

Prof. Pfitzer and I decided to follow up the assignment with a Skype interview, which we thought would give students a chance to ask further questions about the subject or anything else on their minds about Civil War Memory.

Untitled from Kevin Levin on Vimeo.

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.

Commemorating Joseph Johnston In His Final Hour

A statue of Confederate General Joseph Johnston was dedicated today on private land as part of the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Bentonville.  The Smithfield Light Infantry, a local camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, asked the property owner to donate land for the memorial and launched a private fundraising effort to pay the $100,000 cost of the statue.  One of my readers was kind enough to share this photograph, which he took at the dedication.

Can someone tell me what Johnston is supposed to be pointing to?  Have some fun with it.

The statue depicts Johnston with his left arm raised. It’s a call for his troops to hold the line against Yankee forces, Booker said. “And,” he added, “to hold the line against political correctness.”  Political correctness, in Booker’s view, has recast Confederate symbols and distorted history. “These days, political correctness means a lot of things aren’t mentioned or aren’t defended in the proper way,” he said. “But that will not happen in this case, I assure you.” Booker pointed out that the plaque at the foot of the statue did not require anyone’s approval. It reads: “Defender of the Southland to the End.”John M. Booker, Lt. Commander, Smithfield Light Infantry, SCV

Descendants of Silas Chandler Speak Out (Part 2)

A few weeks ago I shared an email I received from a descendant of Silas Chandler, who is one of the most popular “black Confederates.”  I’ve been in contact with two descendants and am planning a telephone conversation, which I hope will lead to an announcement of some ideas I have to help bring a more complete story of this individual to the general public.  Yesterday I received an email from yet another descendant:

I am a direct descendent of Silas Chandler from California. Over the years, I have heard many versions of Silas’ story, from family, on the web, and from Confederate historical societies. Thank you to Ms. Sampson for shedding some light on the subject from a reliable, direct source.

I remember when my great, great, great grandfather Silas was awarded the Iron Cross posthumously, and some members of my family attended the ceremony. While I’ve always had mixed feelings about it, it has ultimately become [a] source of pride for me, not offense. I may never be exactly sure how it went down, but I know that I have Silas to thank for my freedom. Believe me, I have no love fort he Confederacy or its symbols… I’m just also no big fan of the Yankees, and have no illusions about why the Civil War was fought.

I also know that some of the greatest men in history end up being “honored” by their enemies. This would not be the first time that history has been rewritten to make folks look more sympathetic or benevolent (see the movie “Glory” and the mounds of misinformation that it contains).

Anyone that thinks that Silas joined the Confederate army out of some “love” for his master is naive at best, and stupid/racist at worst. That being said, there were many slaves that were dragged into the field to fight against their own self-interest. This happened in the Civil War, and in the Wars for centuries and millennia before.

Honestly, I just hope this discussion unearths as much truth as possible. Thank you again to the Chandler family for helping to set the record straight. I look forward to learning more

Andrew Foster Williams
Oakland, CA

I am featuring this comment for a couple of reasons.  Most importantly, it reflects a memory of the war that is much more complex than anything the Sons of Confederate Veterans or United Daughters of the Confederacy would have you believe about the legacy of the Civil War within the African-American community.  Both organizations reduce their narratives down to loyalty to master and cause and they do this by commemorating slaves as soldiers.  Their preferred narrative has nothing to do with understanding the story of black men in the army or helping families uncover their histories; rather, it is an attempt to dissociate the Confederate war effort from slavery as well as the Lost Cause myth that slavery was benign.  Unfortunately, both organizations have been successful in convincing black families to take part.

What I appreciate about Mr. Williams’s response is the extent to which his narrative fails to support or vindicate either a Lost Cause or Emancipationist view of the war.  It sits uncomfortably in the middle.  On the one hand Mr. Williams has little patience for stories of a loyal Silas Chandler, but he is also suspicious of the assumptions that reduce the United States to the moral cause of emancipation.

Mr. Williams’s comment may also tell us something about why African Americans have been absent from public commemorations of the Civil War and why they may stay away during the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  After all, much of our public remembrance and memory of the war is wrapped up in neat dichotomies of North v. South and Union v. Confederate.  Where does Mr. Williams’s memory of the war fit into all of this?  It’s not wonder that many African Americans are suspicious of Civil War Memory.