The PBS show, History Detectives, has completed filming an episode on Silas Chandler in West Point, Mississippi. A few weeks ago I mentioned that I would be taking part in this show, but I recently learned that producers decided to take the story in a different direction and would not need my assistance. I was a bit disappointed, but ultimately I just hope they get the story right. Well, I have it on good authority that not only did they correct the mistakes made on the Antiques Road Show episode, but that investigators uncovered additional material that puts the nail in the coffin of the story that the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others have spread on their websites and other materials for years. The show is scheduled to air in July or August.
Matt Isham has published a thoughtful post in which he assesses the black Confederate controversy over at A People’s Contest. While I appreciate Matt’s positive assessment of the attention that I’ve given the subject over the past few years, his critique misses the mark. Consider the following:
Of course, the person who has done yeoman work on this issue is Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory. He has challenged black Confederate mythmakers with vigor and gusto for several years now and shows no signs of slowing down, as he will be publishing a book on this subject soon (find his latest post on the topic here). Levin consistently has pointed out the basic historical illiteracy of the mythmakers, particularly their inability to understand how 19th century Americans conceived of citizens, slaves, and the citizen-soldier.
This, of course, is all well and good, especially the heavy lifting Mr. Levin has done on this issue. After all, it is one of the most important aspects of our mission as educators to expose the public to the fraudulent nature of such myths as the black Confederate story. I wonder, however, if historians are not in danger of sinking down into the mire of this debate by continuing to pay attention to every continued claim from the mythmakers and supporters and every rebuttal in the blogs and the news media. To be honest, I’m not sure where I stand on this, but I feel as though this debate is beginning to yield diminishing returns. Surely, the public has been educated about the debate and the shortcomings of the black Confederate thesis. Carrying on the debate with members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other true believers yields nothing, for they are resolved to support their position regardless of whatever evidence and logical analysis is marshaled to expose the fallacy of their belief.
I recently re-read Philip D. Dillard’s essay, “What Price Must We Pay for Victory?: View on Arming Slaves from Lynchburg, Virginia and Galveston, Texas, which appeared in a collection of essays honoring the career of Emory Thomas. Dillard argues that the slave enlistment debate was shaped by a localities proximity to Union military threats. While Lynchburg was forced to deal with a Union advance in the Shenandoah Valley by late 1864, Galveston remained relatively isolated from the threat of war. Dillard reminds us that sentiment in connection with the enlistment debate was shaped directly by the perceived threat to slavery. Residents of Lynchburg eventually came to grudgingly endorse a resolution supporting enlistment while Galveston’s location allowed its residents to consider the threat to slavery and the racial hierarchy in isolation from the threat of war.
One editorial in the Galveston News authored by “Pelican Private” who was stationed in the Galveston defenses caught my attention:
The discussion is untimely and fraught with evil; it engenders panic when there is no danger. Shall we sell slavery, the legacy of our fathers–a legacy halloed by the best blood of the Caucassian race–to purchase independence: Go to the red fields of Manassas, Sharpsburg and Shiloh…and tell their whitened bones that you are so base, so low, so abject that you are ready to abandon the cause for which they fell.
I have no idea whether this individual was a slaveholder, but I don’t think it matters. What I find interesting in the account is the difficulty involved in imagining slaves as soldiers. While the residents of Lynchburg eventually endorsed such an idea we ought not to make the mistake of assuming that supporters eagerly embraced the measure. In fact, that it came so late in the war suggests just how committed white southerners were to a slave society. It also reflects their commitment to the concept of the citizen-soldier. White southerners were obligated to serve their nation because of their status as free men. Slaves were not simply property, they were not citizens of the country. Pelican’s editorial must be understood, in part, as a plea to maintain the status of all white men.
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.
My talk last night in Roanoke on Silas Chandler and black Confederates went very well. Of course, I heard that a phone call had notified organizers that a protest was likely, but it never materialized. In fact, the audience was attentive and they asked some excellent questions during the Q&A. It’s easy to exaggerate the significance of that small, but vocal group of partisans who clearly have an emotional stake in this “debate” rather than an intellectual or scholarly interest in this subject. Last night reminded me that there is a general public that is curious about this subject, but doesn’t quite know what to make of it. Many in the audience had heard about the Virginia textbook scandal from last year. What I love about this topic is that it gives me the opportunity to educate the general public about a widely misunderstood topic as well as the dangers of doing research Online.
By focusing on Silas Chandler I am able to steer clear of the numbers game and address more important aspects of the discussion, including the problem of utilizing Internet sources. Most importantly, by poking holes in the standard account of Silas, which pervades the Web, I can demonstrate what is wrong with the state of this discussion in its entirety. Silas really is the poster boy of this subject.