Andrew and Silas Chandler
Yesterday I posted on the Civil War Memory Facebook page an NPR interview with Noah Andre Trudeau that focused on Robert E. Lee and recent commemorative events of the Civil War. I didn’t listen to it straight through so I missed this little gem of a comment on black Confederates. It’s a bit disappointing given his work on black Civil War soldiers that I used throughout the research phase of my Crater study.
This is from Jim in Birmingham: I’ll celebrate my ancestors in north Alabama who joined the First Alabama Cavalry USA and fought the slaveholders in Alabama and served with Sherman on the march to the sea.
And Andy Trudeau, that reminds us: This is not a simple conflict.
Mr. TRUDEAU: No. There are so many complex threads involved here. You cannot say something never happened. And right now, I’m a little concerned that there’s a polarization and that there’s groups that claim it was only about states’ rights. There’s another group that’s saying that it’s absurd to think that a Southern African-American would even consider doing anything to support the Confederacy. And they just block any effort to make mention of that, when, in fact, I don’t think you can deny that some of that happened. We’re talking small numbers, but clearly, this is a very complex community. There are bonds of intertwining trust and friendship between black and white that carry forward into the war. And it’s not unusual, I think, especially in some small units, to find African-Americans serving with their white – I guess you’d have to call them their masters. But it happened – not a lot, but it happened.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with this brief comment. First off, I can’t discern whether Trudeau is referring to slaves or soldiers; this confusion is all too common in this debate. If he is referring to slaves than we are talking about large numbers that were present with Confederate armies throughout the war. Kent Masterson Brown suggests that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia included thousands of servants and impressed men in the summer of 1863, who performed an array of jobs. As for “bonds of intertwining trust” I think it is safe to say that we are on much shakier ground. I have no doubt that the war probably brought master and slave together in close contact and I have no doubt that certain bonds were formed. The problem for any historian researching this, however, is that there is almost nothing available to help fill in the blanks. It should come as no surprise that I have yet to see a wartime account from a slave that references how he felt about his master while in the army. Working on my article on Silas and Andrew Chandler it is easy to imagine the two conversing about how much they miss being away from loved ones, but I don’t have access to one shred of evidence that might help me to better understand Silas’s perspective. If Trudeau is referring to soldiers than he is simply misinformed, which is unfortunate. I would have him talk to Robert K. Krick about the presence of black soldiers in Lee’s army. Continue reading
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.
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.
I know some of you are probably already sick and tired of the frequency of posts on black Confederates. Well, get use to it. I am in the process of co-writing an article about Silas Chandler and in the beginning stages of what I hope to be a book-length manuscript on the subject. Tomorrow I am finally going to film my segments for a documentary on the subject, which is being produced by a film professor at East Carolina University. As a Civil War enthusiast who is interested in memory I couldn’t be more intrigued by this subject. The most frustrating part of this debate for me is the way the question is all too often framed: Were there black Confederates and, if so, how many? As I’ve said before, if we are talking about soldiers than it is a pretty straightforward process of providing enlistment papers to demonstrate this particular status within the army. Anything else, including pension papers must be seen as inconclusive given what we know about the process. As I see it the number is so small that any account will have to demonstrate how the individual soldier managed to maneuver through the strict enforcement that the Confederate government instituted when it came to the recruitment of free and enslaved blacks. That, of course, will be an interesting story and one that I would love to hear more about.
More importantly, the contours of this debate prevents us from honestly exploring the lives of individual free and enslaved blacks during the war. We lump all of them together as “loyal” “devoted” servants, who along with their white comrades “sacrificed” all for the Confederacy. In this we learn next to nothing about the individuals themselves and how they understood the experience of camp life/battle and the time away from loved ones. Consider the number of narratives that include the servant/slave bringing home his wounded master. Just about all of these accounts come from the postwar period, but I’ve never come across an article written by the slave in question, which, of course, is not surprising given the illiteracy rates. We know that Silas Chander escorted Andrew Chandler home after the latter was wounded in battle. In most Online accounts this is reduced to his supposed faithfulness and devotion to Andrew, which fall neatly into the broader postwar slave narrative. Now there is little doubt that servants shared the challenges of camp life and even, on occasion, the dangers of the battlefield with their masters. As historians we must be receptive to the ways in which the war shaped the relationship between slave and master. I have little reason to doubt that certain bonds of affection would have been established as a result, but this cannot be the beginning and end of our analysis of these men. In the case of Silas he had a wife and child back in Palo Alto, Mississippi. But even if Silas did not have a family we should not be surprised that he might choose to bring his master home. After all, he was still legally bound to his owner and may have viewed running away as more of a risk even though thousands of fellow slaves did just that. What I find the most troubling about all of this is the extent to which slaves like Silas and even those who turn out to be legitimate soldiers (however small the number) will be ignored because it turns out that most people are not really interested in recounting their experiences. The approach is to engage in hard-headed reductionism that may satisfy those desperate to vindicate a certain view of the past, but gets us nowhere in terms of understanding these men and the unique challenges they faced as black southerners. Unfortunately, I suspect that in just about all of these cases we will be able to say very little because of a lack of sufficient documentation. Of course, this will not stop the SCV from continuing to butcher this part of the past by placing headstones that distort the distinction between slave and soldier. They did it with Weary Clyburn and in the case of Silas Chandler they placed an “Iron Cross” in front of his marker. This needs to be denounced, not simply as bad history, but as a blatant attempt to use the lives of others as a means to an end.
My point is simple. We have got to get over ourselves when confronting the past. I do not claim complete objectivity when doing history nor do I believe anyone achieves such a perspective, but we can help ourselves by asking the right questions and by exercising a healthy dose of skepticism.
I am slowly gathering materials for my next book project on “black Confederates” that I agreed to write for Westholme Publishing. A few weeks ago I ordered the two volumes on the subject published by Pelican Press, which includes Black Southerners in Confederate Armies and Black Confederates – both edited by Charles Kelly and J.H. Segars. In addition to these two books I also have on hand James Brewer’s study of Virginia military laborers, Ervin Jordan’s study of slaves and free blacks in Virginia, and Bruce Levine’s excellent analysis of the debate to arm slaves in the Confederacy. Of course, there will be plenty of additional material utilized for this study, but there are very few decent book-length treatments of this particular subject.
Given the quality of books published by Pelican I have to say that these two books will be extremely helpful, but I suspect not for the reasons intended by the editors. Both books include a wide range of primary documents, including newspaper accounts, pension files, cartoons, service records, photographs, and historical markers. There is very little commentary and what is included is entirely useless as historical analysis, but very helpful when it comes to understanding how the subject has been remembered. These books can be found as references on many neo-Confederate websites and SCV sites that focus on this subject. What is so striking, however, is that even a cursory glance at the information provided in these two books reflects and incredibly complex and fascinating subject and yet most people can’t seem to get beyond the Lost Cause language of “loyalty” and “devotion” along with the common refrain of numbers and claims of cover-ups. I’ve never seen primary sources so poorly interpreted and under utilized for their historical value.
Both Pelican books include references to Silas Chandler. A few days ago I received an email from a descendant of Silas Chandler, who has agreed to provide me with archival material that she has collected over the years. Better yet, this individual has agreed to co-author an article with me on Silas for one of the Civil War magazines. This will give me the opportunity to explore questions and issues that will be addressed in much more detail in the book-length project. It will be quite satisfying to be able to use the Pelican books for their primary sources on Chandler and at the same time demonstrate just how shallow and, at times, inaccurate the information provided is.