Silas Chandler Redux

Silas Chandler

Descendants of Silas Chandler Reading About Their Famous Ancestor

You didn’t really think that I would allow the publication of a column on Silas Chandler in The New York Times to pass without comment, did ya? Thanks to Ronald Coddington for bringing the story of Silas (r) and Andrew (l) to the Disunion blog. [Ron and I shared a stage last year at the Virginia Festival of the Book to discuss our research.] As many of you know it is the story of Silas and Andrew that launched me down the road of taking the myth of the black Confederate soldier seriously. My relationship with Myra Chandler Sampson and our subsequent essay published in Civil War Times about her famous ancestor reinforced for me on so many levels why it is important that we correct these stories of loyal and obedient slaves that continue serve the interests of a select few.

Given the photograph above it should come as no surprise as to why Silas became the poster boy for some of the wildest claims about the presence of black soldiers in the Confederate army. It should also come as no surprise that the 1994 ceremony at Silas’s grave site organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans convinced at least one member of the family that he was indeed a soldier.

The event prompted mixed reactions from descendants of Silas and Andrew. Silas’s great-granddaughter, Myra Chandler Sampson, denounced the ceremony as “an attempt to rewrite and sugar-coat the shameful truth about parts of our American history.” She added that Silas “was taken into a war for a cause he didn’t believe in. He was dressed up like a Confederate soldier for reasons that may never be known.”

But Andrew Chandler Battaile, great-grandson of Andrew, met Myra’s brother Bobbie Chandler at the ceremony. He saw the experience a bit differently. “It was truly as if we had been reunited with a missing part of our family.”

Bobbie Chandler, for his part, accepts the role his great-grandfather played in the Confederate army. He observed, “History is history. You can’t get by it.”

It was an episode of The History Detectives back in 2011 that prompted Bobbie Chandler’s “History is history” comment only after he had been introduced to the evidence that demonstrated conclusively that Silas had never served in the Confederate army. No one in the Sons of Confederate Veterans has ever formally acknowledged this fact. Unfortunately, the SCV continues to manipulate the past for its own purposes and in the process has taken advantage of others, who want nothing more than to see their ancestors acknowledged.

Last month the SCV once again honored Mattie Rice, who is a descendant of Weary Clyburn, with the Horace L. Hunley Heritage Defense Award. That name should ring a bell because I’ve spent almost as much time writing about Clyburn as I have about Silas. Their stories overlap in numerous ways.  The SCV claims that both were soldiers.  In this video of the ceremony SCV Commander in Chief Michael Givens says as much at the beginning.

The state of North Carolina never acknowledged Clyburn as a soldier.  He was a slave, who like Silas, followed his master to war. He didn’t legally serve or fight for the Confederacy. He was owned by a Confederate officer, who was engaged in a war that, if successful, would have kept Weary Clyburn in bondage.

It would be nice to see this story corrected out of respect for Ms. Rice and the rest of her family.

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13 comments… add one
  • Neil R. Hamilton Sep 25, 2013 @ 21:14

    As my friend Andy Hall has said:

    “That’s gonna leave a mark.”

    Good one, Matt.


  • Matt McKeon Sep 25, 2013 @ 16:11

    What purpose is there in characterizing enslaved people as soldiers of the Confederacy? Why is the time and effort being expended? Not because the men themselves are being honored. They are always mute in these little rituals. It is an attempt to burnish the reputation of the Confederacy, to try to elide the fact the Confederate project was about preserving and extending slavery.

    Why continue to torture the English language in an attempt to equate the enslaved servants of Confederate soldiers with actual soldiers? Why the deception? Because even Robert E.Lee seems cooler with a black friend.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 25, 2013 @ 16:12

      Because even Robert E.Lee seems cooler with a black friend.


  • R. Alex Raines Sep 25, 2013 @ 14:25

    I will be willing to bet this issue is never discussed by the Southern Heritage Preservation Group on Facebook. I would post it myself to see what happens, but they just kicked me out for, best I can tell, engaging in dialogue where I maintained that the C.S.A. was, mainly, fighting about chattel slavery.

  • Christopher Coleman Sep 25, 2013 @ 7:50

    First off, involuntary servitude is never a good thing, in whatever form it may take. That being said, if slaves were taken against their will by their masters, uniformed as Confederate soldiers and then risked life and limb while so serving, even in a noncombatant role, it is I think splitting hairs to say they weren’t “soldiers.” World history provides many examples of “slave soldiers” as antagonistic as this concept is to our own sensibilities.

    If anything, such Blacks deserve more honor and praise than the volunteers of either side for their effort; not because of the cause they served, but for their own fortitude to endure and persevere within a system that put them in harm’s way for no compensation, material or political or social. (Actually, some did apply for pensions from the states after the war).

    Bear in mind, moreover, that many whites in the Confederate army were also in a state of involuntary servitude as well. Jefferson Davis instituted the draft before Lincoln did and many whites in the South were violently opposed to fighting for the Secessionist government; more so, in some cases, as any Black or white Abolitionist. This occurred, not just in Appalachia, but in pockets of resistance throughout the Confederacy, (ever hear of the “Republic of Jones?”) as well as by individuals who risked life and limb to oppose secession in their own home counties and states. Lest we forget, the myth of the Lost Cause has whitewashed these individuals as well.

    The actual number of Black soldiers in the Confederate army was very small, but their story deserves to be told. Unfortunately, obtaining accurate information about such individuals is well nigh impossible at this point in time–but that does not mean we should not try.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 25, 2013 @ 8:41

      That being said, if slaves were taken against their will by their masters, uniformed as Confederate soldiers and then risked life and limb while so serving, even in a noncombatant role, it is I think splitting hairs to say they weren’t “soldiers.”

      It is not splitting hairs because what it meant to be a soldier was directly connected to citizenship. Slaves were not citizens. The draft was a function of the reciprocal relationship between individual and state and ought not to be equated with slavery.

      The actual number of Black soldiers in the Confederate army was very small, but their story deserves to be told.

      Sure, but based on what research are you making the claim re: numbers?

      • Pat Young Sep 25, 2013 @ 9:47

        There were many non-citizens in both armies. One of the causes of the NYC Draft Riots was the renegging by the Lincoln administration on Seward’s promise that non-citizens would be draft exempt.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 25, 2013 @ 10:03

          Thanks for the correction. That was a sloppy comment. I was thinking specifically of the debate toward the end of the war re: the arming of slaves which revolved, in part, about whether service in the army must change their legal status.

  • KG Sep 25, 2013 @ 3:12

    What is the purpose of ‘honoring’ them now? Is it to claim that slavery wasn’t bad, or the slaves were willing?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 25, 2013 @ 3:17

      Yes, on both counts.

      • HM2_Sam Sep 26, 2013 @ 5:11

        Personally, my understanding is more one of trying to reinforce states rights in the modern political climate. If that were the entire point of the “War of Northern Aggression” the case of states rights as the core issue would be made. It would be even more reinforced by the idea that those enslaved and disenfranchised rising up to support it. Another point of contention might be that they think the issue of slavery could have been otherwise handled. To that I agree – but it may have taken at least another 100 years which is entirely unacceptable to me. I think we all would like to not have such an ugly war in our history, but, “history is history.”

        • Kevin Levin Sep 26, 2013 @ 5:22

          Both points you raise are related. Minimizing or ignoring the centrality of slavery and white supremacy to the Confederacy makes it easier to argue the popular states’ rights position. The claim that slavery would died out on its own is also very popular with this crowd. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests just the opposite was the case.

          • grandadfromthehills Sep 26, 2013 @ 15:09

            jsseh9 doing my genealogy research, I must agree that the usage of slaves seemed to be on the increase by farmers as their wealth and land increased. However, in other areas, it seemed to be waning. As far as racial bias – I witnessed it among those I respected the most as devout Christians. Our culture has come a longways in my lifetime, but has further to go. I appreciate your work, Kevin, to help us remember what we must never allow again.

            Sam Vanderburg
            Still enjoying Texas!

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