Monday, October 10, 2011

Silas Chandler

Warning: this post is NOT about my life in Cape Verde... it's just about life, family, history, and slavery. In that sense, I guess it is related to Cape Verde, one of the historic hubs of the Atlantic slave trade. But if you're looking for a travel blog that rambles on about all the cool stuff here, you can skip this entry.

My guess is that most of you have NO idea who Silas Chandler was... well, he was my Great Great Grandfather, who was the last slave in my family, and the first to "get free." A few years back a tintype of him was appraised for a pretty penny on PBS Antique Roadshow. Since then, his memory and story has been (mis)appropriated by many, including some "historical societies" seeking to propogate or reinforce the myth of the Lost Cause.

Last year while researching my family, I came across a blog called CWMemory (Civil War Memory), hosted by a high school history teacher in the South. The blog included a recent post called "Descendants of Silas Chandler Speak Out" which featured a real dose of truth from my cousin Myra, who I actually did not know at that point. After reading her post, I emailed the history teacher, Kevin Levin, to offer my perspective as another descendant of Silas Chandler and to request an introduction to my cousin. Mr. Levin featured my email in the next post, along with his response to it.

Here it is:


Afew weeks ago I shared an email I received from a descendant of Silas Chandler, who is one of the most popular “black Confederates.” I’ve been in contact with two descendants and am planning a telephone conversation, which I hope will lead to an announcement of some ideas I have to help bring a more complete story of this individual to the general public. Yesterday I received an email from yet another descendant, [Andrew Williams]:

(italics added by Kevin Levin for emphasis)

I am a direct descendent of Silas Chandler from California. Over the years, I have heard many versions of Silas’ story, from family, on the web, and from Confederate historical societies. Thank you to Ms. Sampson for shedding some light on the subject from a reliable, direct source.

I remember when my great, great grandfather Silas was awarded the Iron Cross posthumously, and some members of my family attended the ceremony. While I’ve always had mixed feelings about it, it has ultimately become [a] source of pride for me, not offense. I may never be exactly sure how it went down, but I know that I have Silas to thank for my freedom. Believe me, I have no love for the Confederacy or its symbols… I’m just also no big fan of the Yankees, and have no illusions about why the Civil War was fought.

I also know that some of the greatest men in history end up being “honored” by their enemies. This would not be the first time that history has been rewritten to make folks look more sympathetic or benevolent (see the movie “Glory” and the mounds of misinformation that it contains).

Anyone that thinks that Silas joined the Confederate army out of some “love” for his master is naive at best, and stupid/racist at worst. That being said, there were many slaves that were dragged into the field to fight against their own self-interest. This happened in the Civil War, and in the wars for centuries and millennia before.

Honestly, I just hope this discussion unearths as much truth as possible. Thank you again to the Chandler family for helping to set the record straight. I look forward to learning more.

Andrew Foster Williams
Oakland, CA

The (in)famous tintype of Andrew & Silas Chandler

I, [Kevin Levin], am featuring this comment for a couple of reasons.

Most importantly, it reflects a memory of the war that is much more complex than anything the Sons of Confederate Veterans or United Daughters of the Confederacy would have you believe about the legacy of the Civil War within the African-American community. Both organizations reduce their narratives down to loyalty to master and cause and they do this by commemorating slaves as soldiers. Their preferred narrative has nothing to do with understanding the story of black men in the army or helping families uncover their histories; rather, it is an attempt to dissociate the Confederate war effort from slavery as well as the Lost Cause myth that slavery was benign. Unfortunately, both organizations have been successful in convincing black families to take part.

What I appreciate about Mr. Williams’s response is the extent to which his narrative fails to support or vindicate either a Lost Cause or Emancipationist view of the war. It sits uncomfortably in the middle. On the one hand Mr. Williams has little patience for stories of a loyal Silas Chandler, but he is also suspicious of the assumptions that reduce the United States to the moral cause of emancipation.

Mr. Williams's comment may also tell us something about why African Americans have been absent from public commemorations of the Civil War and why they may stay away during the Civil War Sesquicentennial. After all, much of our public remembrance and memory of the war is wrapped up in the dichotomies of North v. South and Union v Confederate. Where does Mr. Williams's memory of the war fit into all of this? It's no wonder that many African Americans are suspicious of Civil War Memory.

- Kevin Levin

March 10, 2010


After this exchange Mr. Levin introduced me by email to y cousin, Myra Chandler Sampson, who took it upon herself to do some serious research to set the record straight. So why am I posting this on Live From Tomorrow, today? Simple reason: tonight PBS is doing a special that will (hopefully) tell the true story Silas Chandler, and the now-infamous tintype that sparked off the controversy. Unfortunately, I will not be able to watch it live because I am in Cape Verde. So, please watch for me!!! I promise it will be interesting. I'll let PBS take it from here... long live the truth!!!

Pura Vida,


Silas and Lucy Chandler on their Wedding Day 1859/60. They were still slaves at the time.

No comments:

Post a Comment