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.
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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.
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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.
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I couldn’t be more excited about this talk. This is my first public presentation on the subject and my first opportunity to formally outline my own thinking about the kinds of questions that need to be explored as well as the pitfalls involved in the current debate and reliance on the Internet as a reliable source. The story of Silas and Andrew Chandler is the perfect case study for such a presentation.
I am also excited to announce that I will be involved in a production of an upcoming episode of the History Detectives, which will explore the life of these two men. You may remember that the Antiques Road Show recently featured the original photograph of Silas and Andrew. A number of people, including yours truly, raised serious questions about Wes Cowan’s interrogation of the artifact as well as his overall understanding of the subject. It’s good to see that PBS is taking the time to dig deeper. Filming will take place in May and I will keep you updated.
I haven’t done a Civil War Roundtable talk in some time, but I almost always enjoy the experience, especially the Q&A with folks who share my passion for this history. Today I accepted an invitation from the North Worcester County Civil War Roundtable to give a talk on black Confederates. The talk is scheduled for October 11. I couldn’t be more pleased as this will be my first talk in my new home of Massachusetts. My talk is going to explore the evolution of the black Confederate narrative over the past few decades through a close look at the story of Silas Chandler. I am also going to talk about the perils of digital sources, which I recently explored in my NYTs op-ed piece.
One of the things I worried about was moving to a place outside of my main interest in the Civil War, but I am now much more confident that I can find outlets in which to share my fascination with the history of the South and the Confederacy. Perhaps I can establish myself as the go-to guy on certain topics, especially during the next few years. I am hoping to schedule a few more talks on this subject at least through the next year or two. As soon as I get established in Boston the plan is to finish up the black Confederate book. I’ve been collecting source material and sketching out ideas. While I want to write a scholarly study I also want to explore how this narrative has played out in popular culture. Think of it as: academic study meets “Confederates in the Attic”. I am hoping to work with one of the major publishers on this one. Once I finish this book I am going to look into writing something about the Robert Gould Shaw memorial in Boston.
Upcoming Talk on Black Confederates:
“Searching for Black Confederates in History and Memory” Historical Society of Western Virginia, Roanoke, Virginia, April 2011.
“Black Confederates and Media Literacy in the Classroom” Civil War Preservation Trust Annual Teachers Institute, July 2011.