Tag Archives: black Confederates

An Unremarkable Letter About Black Confederates

Thanks once again to Vicki Betts for passing along documents related to the controversial issue of black Confederates.  This latest gem is a letter from John C. Breckinridge’s cousin (Matilda Breckinridge Bowyer, of Fincastle, VA) recommending her son to recruit black soldiers, dated March 26, 1865.  What is so striking, however, is how unremarkable it is.  The document fits perfectly within the narrative accepted by professional Civil War historians and serious students of the war.  Not until March 1865 did the Confederate government authorize the enlistment of a limited number of slaves into the Confederate army.  There is nothing unusual about a mother with close ties to high political office, who attempts to advance her sons career following the passage of new legislation.

It is also worth commenting on what this letter fails to acknowledge.  At no point does Matilda Breckenridge acknowledge that slaves were already serving in Confederate units.  Nor does she suggest that her son had any experience with or prior understanding of the recruitment of slaves as soldiers.  In fact, I have never seen a letter written by a Confederate civilian, soldier or politician that points to the presence of a significant number of slaves serving as soldier in the Confederate army.

Stephanie McCurry on Power and Politics in the Civil War South

One of the most important books published last year was Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Harvard University Press, 2010).  This talk was given at Duke University and I highly recommend it if you have not had an opportunity to read the book.  McCurry spends a great deal of time laying out her hemispheric explanation of the Confederate slave enlistment debate.

Interviewed About Virginia Textbook Scandal

Yesterday I was interviewed by Patricia Gay, who is a reporter with the Weston Forum in Weston, Connecticut.  You might wonder why a Connecticut paper is so interested in this story.  Well, it turns out that Five Ponds Press is located in that town.  In fact, it turns out that author Joy Massoff is married to the publisher, Louis Scolnik.  Now that’s an interesting and disturbing turn.  We talked mainly about the issue related to the references of black Confederates, which was the catalyst for this story.  I am pleased to see that a large chunk of our discussion was included in the article.

Silver Lining

Although Ms. Masoff and Mr. Scolnik have come under considerable media and political scrutiny, Kevin Levin, a Civil War scholar and history teacher at a private high school in Charlottesville, Va., said there may be a silver lining to be gleaned from the debacle.

In a telephone interview with The Forum, he called mistakes in the textbook “mindboggling” and “disappointing.” But he also said the incident brought to light an important issue — the importance of teaching children how to judge information they get from the Internet.  “Ms. Masoff admitted she got her information about black Confederate soldiers from the Internet. If you search the terms ‘black’ and ‘Confederate’ online you will get Web sites put up by private individuals with no credentials,” he said.

Mr. Levin explained that most of those Web sites are written by “lost cause” Southerners who are still bitter about the South’s defeat in the Civil War. They hold on to a number of historically skewed tenets, including the belief that slavery was a benign institution and slaves were happy to serve their masters and volunteered to fight in the war, he said.

“Robert E. Lee had thousands of blacks with his army during Gettysburg. But they were performing services as impressed slaves and personal body servants. They were not soldiers. That distinction is a fundamental mistake,” he said.  In this electronic age, Mr. Levin said it is all too easy for kids to make the same mistake Ms. Masoff did, and assume all data found in a Google search is true.  “As teachers, we have a real opportunity here to teach students how to judge the information they get online,” he said.

Another positive thing, Mr. Levin said, is now when an Internet search is done for “black Confederate soldiers,” articles from the textbook ordeal will show up alongside ones written by the “lost cause” individuals.  “Before this incident, the issue of black Confederate soldiers was a preoccupation by a relatively small group. Now it has been introduced to a broader range of people,” he said.

Stacy D. Allen Responds

This afternoon I received a response from Stacy D. Allen, who is the Chief Ranger at Shiloh National Military Park, regarding their photo exhibit on Andrew and Silas Chandler.  As I indicated in the post I never had any doubt that I would receive a response as well as an indication that the necessary changes would be made.

We greatly appreciate you contacting us concerning the Andrew and Silas Chandler photo exhibit at the Corinth Civil War Interpretative Center in Corinth, Mississippi, in conjunction with the continuing research you are performing on the relationship of Andrew and his slave Silas.  Attached is a proposed rewrite I have drafted to replace the incorrect text accompanying the Chandler image on display at the Center, to more accurately reflect Silas’ service as a slave with his master during the conflict. Please feel free to comment on the proposed draft.  We would be most interested to know if your research into the master – slave relationship of Andrew and Silas has discovered whether Silas was or was not present with Andrew at Shiloh?

I looked over the proposed rewrite and can report that the necessary changes were made to reflect their relationship as well as the type of pension that Silas received in 1916.  While Silas indicates in his pension that he accompanied Andrew on August 8, 1861 I cannot confirm that he was present at Shiloh.  Of course, I will keep them updated as my research progresses.  Special thanks to Stacey Allen – a top-notch historian in his own right – and the rest of the staff for giving this the attention that I believe it deserves.  It’s a testament to the hard interpretive work that they do on a daily basis.

The National Park Service’s Black Confederates (Part 2)

Andrew and Silas Chandler

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a deep respect for the work of the National Park Service.  Not only do they do an outstanding job of preserving the physical landscapes of many of our most important Civil War sites, but they help us to better understand what took place there and what it means.  For any number of reasons that job has proven to be incredibly difficult over the past two decades.  Still, no one is perfect and as a historical institution they are bound to make mistakes.  Unfortunately, this is one of those instances that must be pointed out given how widely the subject has been misunderstood and even intentionally distorted.

As you can see this is the famous image of Andrew and Silas Chandler, which is often used to buttress arguments concerning the existence of black Confederate soldiers.  It is one of the most popular images that can be found on the many websites on the topic.  In this case the image is part of an exhibit at the Corinth Interpretive Center at Shiloh.  Before proceeding, I should point out that I am currently co-writing an article with the great-granddaughter of Silas Chandler, which we hope to publish in a magazine in the coming year.  The brief description under the image could not be more misleading.  First and foremost, not once is the visitor told that Silas was a slave and not a soldier.  According to the 1880 U.S. Census, Silas was born on January 1, 1837, while Andrew was born on April 3, 1844, which placed them seven years apart rather than two.  It is often suggested that the two boys were childhood friends; however, there is no evidence to suggest such a relationship.  That is not to suggest that the two were not acquainted with one another and it certainly should not prevent us from looking into how this master-slave relationship was shaped by the hardship of war.  Finally, Silas did receive a pension for his participation in the war, but it was not as a Confederate veterans.  Like other slaves Silas received a pension under the “Application of Indigent Servants of Soldiers and Sailors of the Late Confederacy.”  The application clearly indicates servants were not recognized as a Confederate soldiers, but were entitled to a pension owing to his service to his master.

This is not the first time that the NPS has stepped into the black Confederate morass, but let’s hope that as in that case they step up and make the necessary corrections.