Tag Archives: Sons of Confederate Veterans

Understanding Governor McDonnell’s Apology

By now many of you have read Governor McDonnell’s apology for failing to recognize slavery in his proclamation designating April as Confederate History Month.  It directly addresses the concerns expressed by many that by failing to address the crucial issue of slavery the proclamation distorts the very history that it claims to celebrate and promote for further study.  The governor’s announcement included the following amendment to the original proclamation:

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history…

I think it’s safe to say that this is not what the Sons of Confederate Veterans had in mind when they asked the governor to reinstate the proclamation.  Let’s face it the last few years have not been kind to the SCV; consider the recent controversy surrounding their attempt to place a statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber next to the Lincoln-Tad statue at Tredegar in Richmond.  I was surprised that the governor decided to wade into these waters after two previous administrations decided to discontinue the practice.  McDonnell could have set aside April as a month to remember the Civil War in a way that was much more inclusive rather than resorting to the old Lost Cause saw.

While the governor’s change of heart will be applauded by some let’s not delude ourselves in thinking that McDonnell happened to pick up a book by Ira Berlin or David Blight and had one of those moments of insight.  These statements and subsequent decisions must be understood as political.  We should remember that the Civil War memory outlined in the original proclamation would have gone unchallenged only a few decades ago and it would have gone unchallenged because it reflected the view of the ruling class.  The governor implies as much in his apology:

When I signed the Proclamation designating February as Black History Month, and as I look out my window at the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, I am reminded that, even 150 years later, Virginia’s past is inextricably part of our present.

Perhaps what the governor failed to appreciate is that the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial is the result of a fundamental shift away from a not-too-distant past when white Virginians controlled local and state government. It reflects the sacrifices that white and black Virginians made to bring about a more inclusive society.  That political monopoly that existed throughout much of the twentieth century extended to control over how the state would remember its history in public spaces and through public proclamations.  It’s not that the story of black Virginia only recently appeared.  It was always there.  Is anyone really surprised that black Virginians would be upset at the issuance of a proclamation whose very content essentially reflected a time when only white Virginians were in control? Had black Virginians been able to voice their concerns and frustrations from within city and state government in the past they would have done so.  The governor’s proclamation clearly did not satisfy the “shared history” that many have come to embrace in recent years.  I am not surprised and I applaud their commitment to stand up against a Lost Cause narrative that is infused with racism and distortion.  The governor is absolutely on target when he noted that “Virginia’s past is inextricably part of our present.”

Finally, the governor would have us believe that the proclamation was meant solely to promote tourism and education:

The Confederate History Month proclamation issued was solely intended to promote the study of our history, encourage tourism in our state in advance of the 150th Anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and recognize Virginia’s unique role in the story of America. The Virginia General Assembly unanimously approved the establishment of a Sesquicentennial American Civil War Commission to prepare for and commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the War, in order to promote history and create recognition programs and activities.

While I don’t believe the governor intended to cause any undue anger and frustration within the black community it is difficult to believe that given the content of the proclamation his sole motivation was education and tourism.  It’s also hard to believe that just this kind of fallout was not raised by one of his political advisers when the document was framed.  My suggestion is to allow the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission to act as the voice of the state government.  Anyone remotely familiar with this organization will know that they have done an outstanding job of promoting both education and tourism throughout the state.  Again, there was absolutely no reason for this proclamation.

I think that what happened today is significant.  It demonstrates once and for all that a substantial voting block of Virginia’s population will no longer tolerate the sanctioning of a Lost Cause narrative by state officials.  That’s a good thing for those of us who hope to see a sesquicentennial commemoration that asks its citizens to face the tough questions of the past in hopes of building a shared history of the conflict that may help us to push forward as a community.  I remain hopeful.

 

Skyping With Skidmore

A few weeks ago I was contacted by Prof. Gregory Pfitzer, who is currently teaching a course in American Studies at Skidmore College.  His students are examining various aspects of Civil War memory and as part of their reading Prof. Pfitzer assigned one of my blog posts on the recent controversy surrounding the SCV’s Davis-Limber statue that was supposed to be placed on the grounds at the Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond.  I agreed to respond to their comments.  I did my best to respond to every student and on more than one occasion the give and take resulted in lengthy threads.  The students’ comments were incredibly thoughtful and forced me to rethink some of my own assumptions about this story. [Skidmore comments begin with #17 on March 11]

Prof. Pfitzer and I decided to follow up the assignment with a Skype interview, which we thought would give students a chance to ask further questions about the subject or anything else on their minds about Civil War Memory.

Untitled from Kevin Levin on Vimeo.

 

Looking For Silas Chandler

Update: Thanks to TF Smith for the following comment, which I decided to add to the post.  He offers some very interesting observations about this image that are worth serious consideration. Your thoughts are much appreciated.

Actually, this was obviously a posed studio portrait, and there’s probably a case to be made the weapons – or at least most of them – were props. As examples, the individual I take to be AM Chandler has two revolvers, one (possibly an 1861 model Army or Navy Colt) stuck in his belt and another (fairly small) in his left hand, plus the weird machete/gladio-like edged weapon – only the large revolver looks like anything one would go to war with in 1861.  The weapons that the individual I take to be Silas Chandler has an even weirder assortment of weaponry:  the long gun, which appears may be a shotgun, rather than a rifle; some sort of pistol (pepperbox?) stuck into his shirt; and the large knife – again, not exactly standard equipment for your typical CSA infantryman, in 1861 or any other time.  Given the studio element of the photo, the possibility that some or all the weapons are props is quite possible, which raises the question of whether the uniforms were as well. It is entirely possible the photo was, to be frank, a joke. . .

Last Sunday evening I had a wonderful talk with Ms. Myra Sampson, who is the great granddaughter of Silas Chandler.  We talked for about an hour about her family’s history and quite a bit about Silas, who as you all know is one of the most visible “black Confederates” on the Internet.  You may remember that Ms. Sampson left a very thoughtful comment on a post about the well known image of the “Chandler boys” that was recently featured on Antiques Roadshow.  Her concern about the image and the chance to learn more about her ancestor led to a private email exchange, which ultimately led to the phone conversation.

Ms. Sampson is committed to challenging the distorted history about Silas that can be found on multiple websites and more specifically by the Sons of Confederate Veterans who placed an Iron Cross on his grave marking Silas as a Confederate soldier.  Even without my communication with Ms. Sampson there is reason to doubt what has become the standard story, but based on what I’ve learned over the past few weeks it is clear to me that little of the SCV’s story holds up.  I am convinced that the best way to tackle the mythology of black Confederates is not simply by making sweeping generalizations, but by challenging individual stories head on.  That has been my approach in cases involving Weary Clyburn, John Venable, and Bill Yopp to name just a few.  Most of the accounts of black Confederate soldiers revolve around a small number of individual names, which reflects the overall weakness of the argument.  Again, Silas is one of the most visible, in large part, because of the image of him with Andrew Chandler.  One of the things that I wanted to talk with Ms. Sampson about is the possibility of writing an essay about Silas Chandler for one of the popular Civil War magazines.  I’ve already had an editor express interest in the story.  It would be an effective way of sharing a more complete history of the man as well as to demonstrate how these stories so easily evolve into myth and distortion. Over the past few years Ms. Sampson has worked hard to collect historical documents in hoping to set the record straight about her famous ancestor.  I am hoping to help her in that endeavor.

One of the things that I’ve become interested in over the past few years is how African American families remember the Civil War and other aspects of the American past.  Ms. Sampson was very gracious in sharing her own personal story with me.  Much of it broadened my understanding of black historical memory while other aspects fell into line with other interviews that I have conducted over the past few years.  I will share just a few facts that are relevant to this story.  Ms. Sampson grew up in West Point, Mississippi in the years before the Civil Rights Movement.  She attended an all-black Presbyterian High School and was taught by both black and white teachers.  Interestingly, the history textbooks used were new editions in contrast with the older editions that were used in the nearby white public schools.  The amount of attention given to black history is unknown.  While her family did not share stories about the Civil War or slavery, Ms. Sampson does remember hearing quite a bit about Silas.  These stories came directly from her grandfather, George, who was Silas’s son.  It is commendable that Ms. Sampson has not relied simply on oral stories, but has worked in local archives to provide a richer history of her great grandfather.

Silas Chandler

A short biographical sketch of Silas at the 37t Texas website offers the standard story that can be found on numerous SCV websites.  It’s not so much a history of Silas, but a history of the “Chandler Boys” and their collective experience in the Civil War. Rarely do these websites consider these men on their own terms.  A few excerpts will suffice to make this clear.

37th Texas: “Enlisting in the Palo Alto Confederates in 1861 from his home in Palo Alto, Mississippi, at age 15 Andrew Martin Chandler was mustered into Co. F of Blythe’s Mississippi Infantry, 44th Mississippi Infantry. He participated in several campaigns with his childhood playmate, friend and former slave,  17 year-old Silas Chandler.”

Silas was born a slave on January 1, 1837 in Virginia on the Chandler family homestead plantation.  Andrew Martin Chandler was born April 3 , 1844 on the homestead plantation in Clay County Mississippi.  Much of this story hinges on the false belief that Andrew and Silas were childhood playmates and left for the war as close friends.  All of the Chandlers moved to Mississippi and all bought plantations in Clay County in 1839.  At that time Silas was 2 years old.  There is no record of Silas’s parents.  It is possible that they were sold by the Chandlers before they moved to Mississippi.  Given the age difference between the two it is difficult to believe that they were childhood playmates.

37th Texas: [includes the following from a 1950 typed transcript of handwritten notes from an interview with Andrew Martin Chandler conducted in 1912] “While there, he told me of another Silas Chandler that served with him in the Army. This Silas was a former slave owned by his parents, who was papered out just before the war. Even though he was granted his freedom, he insisted on going off to war with Andrew, partially because of their friendship, and partially because since Silas was a little older, he felt that he needed to protect Andrew.”

No service record exists for Silas in the 44th Mississippi Infantry.  The Confederate Army files at the Tombigbee Regional Library in West Point show that Andrew Chandler enlisted on August 16, 1861 at the age of sixteen years and took his slave Silas with him.  The available evidence demonstrates that Silas was a slave at that time and ran messages and packages back and forth from the plantation to Andrew. The record shows Andrew participated in battles at Shiloh and Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Chickamauga, Georgia.   Again, there are no service record for Silas.  It is well documented that Silas made many trips back and forth from from Andrew in the Army to the plantation in Mississippi.  There is  absolutely no evidence that he ever fought while present with the army.

37th Texas: “Andrew gave Silas land adjoining one of the the Chandler plantations on which Silas built a church for the Black population of Palo Alto…. Andrew and Silas returned to Palo Alto, remained fast friends, lived close by each other and, in 1878, Andrew signed the papers which resulted in Silas receiving a Mississippi Confederate Veteran Pension.”

The white Chandlers claim that the family gave Silas land adjoining theirs.  Land records in the Chancery Clerk’s office in West Point indicates that Silas and Lucy (wife) purchased some land and paid off their debt prior to the due date.  Silas applied for a pension in July 1916, but there is no record that he ever received one.  There was a Silas Chandler that received a pension in 1833 in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  This, of course, was for the Revolutionary War.  Given the sloppiness that can be found in many of these accounts it is likely that our Silas Chandler is being confused with this individual.  I did not discuss the construction of a church by Silas with Ms. Sampson, but we did talk a bit about his career as a carpenter following the war.  Interestingly,  Silas helped to construct a new courthouse in West Point, Mississippi after the war and during his own life Silas’s son, George, also worked on the building.  I find it ironic that a former slave and the son of a slave would end up working on what became a symbol of white supremacy during the Jim Crow Era.

37th Texas: “Andrew’s Great-grandson, Andrew Chandler Battaile, still lives in Mississippi, while Silas’ Great–grandson, Bobbie Chandler, lives the Northeast. About eight years ago, the two men reunited and restored the family relationship.”

It should come as no surprise that there is much more to the story.  This version of the story was essentially reaffirmed by the Chandler descendant who appeared on the Antiques Roadshow.  According to Ms. Sampson the story is simply not true.  While there are indeed a few white and black Chandlers who have reunited the history of family relations has been one of separation.  There has been nothing close to a family reunion.  These stories function more to satisfy our own desire for reunion and a narrative of the war that steers clear of the tough issues of race and slavery.  Silas himself was severely wounded at one point during the postwar era when he defended his family from a white vigilante group called “the Raiders.”

The Photograph

I was most interested in talking with Ms. Sampson about her thoughts concerning the photograph of Silas and Andrew Chandler.  Ms. Sampson shared that she owned a German Shepherd dog, which I thought was a strange thing to share until she added that posture is very important when handling this particular breed.  It should come as no surprise that a firm posture is essential to reinforcing the authority of the owner over the dog.  Looking at the image of Silas and Andrew I understand exactly what she means.  I never noticed it before, but Silas is clearly hunched over; remember he is seven years older than Andrew.  The image is not one of two childhood friends going off to war, but of a slave whose future now hinges on the boy next to him.

I am looking forward to the opportunity to work with Myra Sampson and the rest of the family in helping them to share the rich history of their ancestor with the rest of the Civil War community.  Silas Chandler along with the countless other slaves and black workers who spent time in the Confederate army deserve to have their stories told.  They deserve to be understood on their own terms rather than as pawns in the agendas of organizations who are committed to distorting the past for their own selfish purposes.

 

South Carolina Rejects Secession Monument

Update: “The board of the Patriots Point Development Authority on Tuesday split 3-3 on whether to allow the Sons of Confederate Veterans to place an 11 1/2-foot granite monument to the ordinance signers at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. The tie vote meant the idea failed.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is hoping to erect a monument commemorating the 170 South Carolinians who signed the ordnance of secession in December 1860. The South Carolina division is proposing to install an 11 1/2-foot-tall stone memorial as the centerpiece of a 40-foot by 40-foot landscaped plaza at Patriots Point. According to the news article:

The name of each of the signers and the wording of the secession document would be among the text and images engraved on each side of the monument. Albert Jackson, chairman of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ monument committee, called the secession debate and the subsequent unanimous approval of the ordinance “a significant action” for South Carolina. Most people are not aware of the history behind it, he said.

Mr. Jackson is no doubt correct that “most people are not aware of the history behind” South Carolina’s decision to secede from the Union within weeks of Abraham Lincoln’s election. Here is South Carolina’s Ordnance of Secession:

AN ORDINANCE to dissolve the union between the State of South Carolina and other States united with her under the compact entitled “The Constitution of the United States of America.”

We, the people of the State of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, That the ordinance adopted by us in convention on the twenty-third day of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and also all acts and parts of acts of the General Assembly of this State ratifying amendments of the said Constitution, are hereby repealed; and that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the “United States of America,” is hereby dissolved.

Done at Charleston the twentieth day of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty.

Continue reading

 

Engaging Students From Skidmore College

You can imagine my surprise when I returned from my trip to Shepherd University to find an email from Prof. Gregory Pfitzer of Skidmore College.  Prof. Pfitzer is currently teaching an American Studies course that focuses on Civil War Memory and has been using this blog as a resource.  Students are focusing specifically on a series of posts that I did on the Gary Casteel statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber that is currently located at Beauvoir. Prof. Pfitzer thought it might be a good idea for his students to engage me on one of the posts, which I was more than happy to do.  You can follow the discussion here.  I am quite impressed with their enthusiasm as well as their ideas.  Check it out.