I’ve taken a great deal of heat for much of my commentary on how Civil War battlefield preservation is typically framed for public consumption. The most recent example can be found here. This morning I read John Hennessy’s description of a recent NPS event that marked the anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. Some background for the event:
The program had its genesis in an article that appeared in one of the Civil War magazines (I believe Blue and Gray, but could be wrong). The writer had earlier done celestial calculations showing how and why the tides at Tarawa had been so exceptionally and disastrously difficult during the amphibious landing there in November 1943. His latest calculations showed that the arrangement of celestial bodies on May 2, 1996 would match precisely those of May 2, 1863, the night of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville–same moonrise, same moon phase, etc. Though amazed that anyone had the time to figure such a thing out, the park staff–atuned to subtle connections like that–thought it was all pretty cool, and so we decided to do a program at the site of Jackson’s wounding that night, May 2, 1996. We issued the standard press releases about the event and prepared for it like a hundred others.
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.
I’ve learned a umber of things in the course of my research on the Crater and public history/historical memory. For any number of reasons we’ve underestimated the level of interest in the Civil War within the African American community. In Petersburg public interest could be found in the postwar years in local churches, in black militia units, and in local schools. A heightened awareness of the role of African Americans in the Civil War can be found in the 1950s and 60s in such popular magazines such as Ebony and Jet. Over the course of the past year we’ve seen ample evidence of African Americans embracing the Civil War. The level of interest is directly related to the wide range of events that can be found in museums, historical societies, educational institutions, and other private organizations. Despite what the mainstream media would have us believe, we are witnessing a profound transformation in our collective memory of the war compared with just a few short decades ago.
The National Park Service has led the way in broadening the general public’s understanding of the war and the meaning of our most important historic sites. Consider John Hennessy’s recent tour of Fredericksburg, titled, “Forgotten: Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg”, which attracted roughly 70 members from the area’s historic black churches. John’s optimism is tempered somewhat by the comments he heard from a few people:
“Are you going to get in trouble for doing this? You know…your bosses. I didn’t think you guys were allowed to do things like this.” During the day, I received a number of comments along the same line, suggesting surprise that we, the NPS, would do a tour dealing with slavery.
I have little doubt that the public perception of the NPS among African Americans will continue to improve with continued programming that reaches beyond traditional narrative boundaries. The NPS in Petersburg has also taken steps to reach out to the local black community with, among other things, a series of walking tours of downtown Petersburg. Again, all of these things bode well for the future.
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.
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.