TV NotesTelevision shows reopen debate over black confederates
By Frank Reeves, Pittsburgh Post-GazetteThe one-of-a-kind Civil War photograph is at the center of
a hot debate over whether black men fought for the Confederate
army. Was Silas Chandler, the black man in a Confederate uniform,
slave or free? What was the relationship between him and Andrew
Chandler, the man at left? (Photo: Chandler Battaile)
For five generations, a white Mississippi family has cherished a photograph, likely taken during the first months of the Civil War, of two young men dressed in Confederate army uniforms.
The photograph -- to be precise a tintype -- probably would have been little noted outside the Chandler family, except that one of the men in the picture is African-American.
Two years ago, a great-great-grandson of Andrew Chandler, the white man in the photograph, and a great-grandson of Silas Chandler, the black man, brought the picture to the PBS program "Antiques Roadshow," where it was appraised for between $30,000 and $40,000.
Thousands of viewers wrote into the show, helping to reignite what Wes Cowan, one of the show's guest experts, described as "a fiery debate about African-Americans bearing arms for the Confederacy."
Many questioned "whether the African-American in the picture was a slave or a free man and whether so-called black Confederates were a myth," said Mr. Cowan, who is also a co-host of the PBS program "History Detectives."
That debate is likely to be renewed this week. Many stations will rebroadcast the episode of "Antiques Roadshow" in which Chandler Battaile, 45, and Bobbie Chandler, 80, introduced the photograph.
On Tuesday, in a new episode of "History Detectives,"
investigators led by Wes Cowan try to discover the true story behind the photograph. That program will be aired at 8 p.m. on many PBS stations
Fueling the debate over the photograph is the story that the descendants of Andrew Chandler, the son of a slaveholding family who settled in Mississippi in the 1840s, passed down along with it.
Shortly after the Civil War began in April 1861, Andrew, recently turned 17, joined a Mississippi infantry unit. Throughout Andrew's tour of duty, he was accompanied by Silas, who regularly returned to the Chandler plantation to fetch supplies for Andrew.
In September 1863, Andrew was severely wounded in the right leg during the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia. Confederate army doctors, in keeping with the accepted medical practice of the day, wanted to amputate his leg. But Silas pleaded with the doctors not to cut off the young man's leg.
The doctors agreed. And according to Chandler family lore, Silas carried Andrew to the nearest railhead, where he placed him in a box car and accompanied the wounded man to Atlanta. Doctors there were able to save Andrew's leg, although he was crippled for the rest of his life.
Over time, the story has been embellished by modern neo-Confederate groups and others.
In one version, published by Desert Rose Productions, an independent education and documentary film company based in Nevada, Silas is said to have "received his free papers just before the war began but chose to stay with his friend [Andrew] and followed him off to war."
When doctors wanted to amputate Andrew's leg, according to the Desert Rose account, "Silas pulled out a gold coin that the boys were saving to buy some whiskey. Bribing the doctors to let [Andrew] Chandler go, he then carried the boy on his back to the nearest train."
For the descendants of Silas Chandler, the photograph and its legacy have been a source of friction. Bobbie Chandler -- who grew up in West Point, Miss., before moving to Washington, D.C., in the late 1940s -- said he always regarded the story of Silas and Andrew as one of "friendship and loyalty." But others in the family haven't always seen it that way, he said.
Many found it hard to believe that a black man would fight willingly for the Confederacy, which, as the Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens famously said, rested "upon the great truth that the [N]egro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."
And if Silas did, there were some among his descendants who wanted nothing to do with his memory.
These tensions flared on a rainy September day in 1994, when local chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy held a dedication ceremony at Silas Chandler's grave in his hometown of West Point, Miss., where he had been buried in 1918 in the black section of the segregated Greenwood Cemetery.
But on this day he was hailed as "a black Confederate soldier," and a grave marker in the form of a Southern Cross of Honor -- also known as the Iron Cross of Honor -- was placed on his grave. He was the first African-American in Mississippi whose grave was so designated.
The service concluded with a 21-gun salute fired by Confederate re-enactors.
Some of Silas' descendants attended and participated in the ceremony, but others signed a petition objecting to the placing of the Iron Cross marker and a Confederate flag on his grave.
Suspense is at heart of most good detective stories, so there is no need to disclose the findings of the "History Detectives" investigation. But the story of Silas and Andrew does need to be seen in a larger context.
Since the 1970s, there has been an organized campaign "to memorialize 'black Confederates,' " according to historian Bruce Levine of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has studied the phenomenon.
For example, in a fact sheet for Black History Month, prepared by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the authors assert that "easily thousands of blacks served the Confederacy as laborers, teamsters, cooks and even as soldiers."
Most scholars reject these claims as a misrepresentation of history. Mr. Levine in a recent work, "Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War," makes a persuasive case that the idea that blacks fought in large numbers for the Confederacy is a myth. And to arrive at these inflated numbers of black Confederates, some "simply elide the distinction between soldiers and military laborers," Mr. Levine notes.
Efforts by groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans to memorialize black Confederates, Mr. Levine says, are part of a larger effort "to whitewash the Confederacy" by downplaying the significance of slavery and race as a cause of the war. They also seek to portray the Confederate army as "a multicultural institution by rescuing the Confederate army from the reputation it deserves as an instrument to preserve slavery and white supremacy," he said.
Hand-in-glove with the assertion that thousands of blacks fought for the South is the desire to improve slavery's reputation by portraying it as a benign, paternalistic institution.
When the Civil War began, there were about 9.1 million people living in the South, of which about 3.5 million were African-American slaves.
Enslaved people were a key part of the labor force, producing not only cotton and other valuable staple crops but food as well. As the conflict progressed, slaves increasingly were enlisted in the war effort as laborers and cooks as well as skilled workers in the South's iron works.
So desperate was the South for manpower that the Confederate government authorized the impressment of slaves into the army. Their owners were paid a fee for each slave requisitioned by the government. Owners were also compensated if a slave was killed or deserted.
In the North, the Lincoln government was slow to accept blacks into the armed forces. But eventually about 180,000 blacks, many of them former slaves from the South, served in the Union army and navy. These black soldiers served in segregated units, commanded by white officers.
But the Confederate government did not authorize the enlisting of black troops until March 1865, when the war was nearly over and lost. Significantly, the law didn't free any of the slaves who might have been released by their masters to fight, according to Mr. Levine.
The unsettling contradiction of having slaves fight for the Confederacy was not lost on some southern leaders. "If slaves will make good soldiers," one influential politician said, "then our whole theory of slavery [predicated on the belief in the racial inferiority of blacks] is wrong."
In the wake of defeat, the loyalty of the slaves during the war was often celebrated by champions of the South's "Lost Cause." Stories of the loyal slave dutifully following his master into battle abound.
But in 1864, a Confederate general, Joseph E. Johnston, had little confidence in the loyalty of slaves to the southern cause. "We never have been able to keep the impressed Negroes with an army near the enemy," he said in a letter to a member of the Confederate Senate. "They desert."
That rush to the Union lines by thousands of black people, who wanted to be free, accelerated as the Union armies advanced deeper into the South.
But along with stories of the "loyal slave," there were other stories -- cherished by Union veterans -- of the kindness they had been shown by the slaves. Many slaves, at great risk to themselves, spied for the North and helped Union prisoners to escape or elude capture by the Confederates.
Remembering his own experience, one Union veteran offered his own benediction: "God bless the poor slaves. If such kindness does not make one an abolitionist, then his heart must be made of stone."
For Mr. Battaile and Mr. Chandler, this week's episode of "History Detectives" has brought clarity and reconciliation. Both said it gave them understanding of the story of their forebears.
With so many competing versions of history circulating, it's clear why the photo of Silas and Andrew is so intriguing to people beyond their descendants. It captures a historic moment, gives an unexpected glimpse of two men and presents a puzzle as to the nature of their relationship to each other and to the South.HISTORY DETECTIVES
Tuesday at 8 p.m. on PBS (check your local listings)http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11282/1180490-85-0.stm