The vast majority of black Confederate accounts on the Internet follow a well-worn narrative. First, we are somehow to believe that servants/slaves volunteered to accompany their owners to war and in doing so solidified a bond of friendship and a commitment to the achievement of Confederate independence. Many of these postwar accounts offer rich descriptions of servants who rush onto a battlefield to rescue their wounded master or secure the dead body for the long trip home. These stories were and continue to be told by whites as a way to minimize the horrors of slavery and as a vindication of the Confederate cause. African Americans almost never come out from under the shadow of white storytellers. To put it another way, African Americans remain an extension of the white storyteller’s will or as part of his chosen memory of the past. It should come as no surprise then that many of these accounts paint a picture of peaceful relations between former master and slave following the end of the war. We see this clearly in the case of Silas and Andrew Chandler. Even Andrew Chandler Battiale, who appeared on the Antiques Road Show for an appraisal of the famous tintype suggested such a relationship: “The men grew up together; they worked the fields together, and continued to live closely throughout the rest of their lives.”
Like many of you, I am looking forward to tomorrow night’s History Detectives segment, which will investigate the story behind the famous tintype of Silas and Andrew Chandler. At various points during their investigation I offered advice on what I had learned about the story as well as my understanding of the mythology that has emerged surrounding so-called black Confederates. My co-author, Myra Chandler Sampson also assisted the producers of the show at various points. Both of us were scheduled to be interviewed for the show this past spring, but producers made a last minute decision to talk to someone else. It just so happens that I will be giving a talk on Tuesday evening about Silas Chandler to the North Worcester County Civil War Roundtable in Worcester, MA.
As I wait for my flight back to Boston I wanted to share a little bit about my experience this weekend in Richmond at the ASALH. First and foremost, I was self conscious throughout of the fact that for the first time I was in the racial minority at an academic conference. A good friend of mine jokingly remarked, “Bottom rail on top”. We shared a good laugh over it, but it left me with questions about what it must be like for African Americans, who are usually in the minority at most academic conferences focused on American and Southern history.
As I mentioned in the last post, the range of participants also adds a unique quality to this gathering. I heard talks from academics, a USCT reenactor, amateur historians, genealogists, and public historians. The quality of the presentations definitely covered a wide spectrum, but that was far outweighed by the enthusiasm by both the presenters as well as the audience. I would also say that the presentations leaned heavily toward the narrative as opposed to analysis. The discussions were incredibly animated. There was a buzz in the audience that I have not experienced before. It was so nice to engage in conversation with people with so many interests and backgrounds. I was especially struck by the emphasis on the recording of names. No doubt, some of this comes back to the genealogist presence, but I suspect that the interest is much broader within the African American community to record names that in many cases can only be uncovered through a great deal of archival work.
Next week PBS’s History Detectives will air an episode on the famous image of Andrew and Silas Chandler. We anticipate that this episode will help to correct some of the many myths that have revolved around these two individuals. The famous photograph of Andrew and Silas is arguably the most popular image on the Web purporting to demonstrate the existence of thousands of loyal black slaves, who served in the Confederate army. The research and writing that I conducted with Myra Chandler Sampson shows that this was not the case. Silas served his master as he had done for his entire life. Our research will be published in the 50th anniversary edition of Civil War Times magazine, which should be available in December. We hope that both the PBS show, as well as our article, will help to correct some of the misconceptions about Silas and the larger subject of the role of slaves in the Confederate war effort.
In light of both these efforts, Ms. Sampson has asked me to publish a petition demanding that the SCV and UDC discontinue the practice of placing a Confederate flag and Iron Cross in front of Silas’s gravestone.
Why African Americans will never accept the black Confederate myth: “If, for example, one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history. And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all. If you have to lie about my real role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself. You are mad.” — James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers” (1963)
Here are a couple of updates that I thought you might find interesting. The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star published my response to a recent editorial by Calvin Crollier and Kevin Crowder. The paper decided to title it, “Black Confederate Soldiers? In Your Dreams“, which I thought was kind of funny. In a little over a week I will travel to Richmond to take part in the annual meeting of the Association For the Study of African American Life and History. I will take part in a panel organized by Emmanuel Dabney, titled “Black Confederates in the Civil War: History, Myth, Memory, and Make-Believe”, which will also include Ervin Jordan and Jaime Martinez. I recently learned that C-SPAN will cover the conference so there is a chance that you may be able to catch this at some point. This should be a lively session.