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.
One of my readers was kind enough to pass on the following video, which was originally used as part of a training course for National Park Service interpreters. The video includes interviews with various interpreters on the necessity and challenges associated with introducing the cause of the war on Civil War battlefields. There are a number of perspectives presented, but all convey the importance of doing so.
This morning The Takeaway radio show, which is a national news radio program produced by WNYC, New York Times radio and the BBC, aired a segment on the subject of black Confederates. It was incredibly disappointing and a number of people, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, brought attention to it. The producers decided to do a follow-up show and a number of people suggested that they get in touch with me. Well, I just finished talking with one of the producers and we are set to do a live interview tomorrow morning at 7:20am. We began our discussion on the issue of numbers, but I quickly moved the conversation to the more substantial issues of how African Americans were viewed by the Confederate military and government as well as slaveholders. Hopefully, we can provide some context for this misunderstood topic and move beyond some of the more statements of Nelson Winbush and Stan Armstrong. I will provide a link to the interview if you don’t have a chance to listen live.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the black Confederate debate is the tendency on the part of a select few to warp the definition of a soldier to a point where it becomes meaningless. These individuals may have made room for their preferred picture of the Confederate army, but it fails to reflect anything resembling what white Southerners, both in the army and on the home front, would have acknowledged in the 1860s. Given the difficulty involved in acknowledging a distinction between a soldier and noncombatant (personal servant/impressed slave or free black) in the Confederate army, perhaps it will help to take a quick look at the Union army.
Gary Gallagher’s new book, The Union War (Harvard University Press, 2011), opens with an interesting chapter on the Grand Review, which took place in Washington, D.C. in May 1865. After dealing effectively with the claim that African American soldiers were intentionally prevented from taking part in the parade Gallagher analyzes newspaper coverage of the racial profile of Sherman’s army: