It’s not unusual to see mention of the Civil War in my local newspaper; after all, I do live in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy. When I moved here twenty-odd years ago, I had no idea that the “War of Northern Aggression” was still a subject that aroused such heated debate. My eyes were opened by reading the impassioned Letters to the Editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Silly me, I thought it was all in the dusty past.
Distracted and inattentive reader that I’ve become, I count my lucky stars that I didn’t blow right past a recent Civil War article, but it caught my eye because of two personal hot buttons: vintage photography and slavery.
A 150-year old tintype has just been donated to the Library of Congress by collector Tom Liljenquist who recently purchased the photograph, but declines to disclose its price or identify the seller.
We can ballpark the price range though. Five years ago it was appraised on Antiques Roadshow for between $30,000 and $40,000. Why on earth is it worth so much? Because it is rare, “breathtakingly rare,” according to historian Wes Cowan.
Meet Sgt. Andrew Martin Chandler, age 17, of the 44th Mississippi Regiment and his “servant,” Silas Chandler, probably 25. The year is 1861 and the country is arming for war.
Why breathtakingly rare? One simple reason: we know the names of both men pictured. Other images exist of Confederate soldiers with their slaves nearby; they stand in the background, sometimes out of focus and never named, as seen here:
Yet the two Chandlers appear as comrades-in-arms. They sit by side by side, their elbows and knees touching, almost as equals. They are both in uniform, although Andrew Chandler’s uniform is the more elaborate of the two. Their expressions appear amiable. And most startling, Silas is armed. He’s holding a knife, a shotgun, and has a pistol tucked in his jacket. We know the Mississippi of 1861 didn’t allow slaves to read and write, never mind bear arms. So what to make of this photo?
The tintype has been passed down through both the black and white sides of the Chandler family for generations, and when one of them brought it in for appraisal to the Antiques Roadshow, the hubbub began.
Here’s what the family knew about the photograph:
- Silas was granted his freedom by the Chandler family prior to the war.
- Or maybe Silas had saved his pennies and bought his freedom. Either way, he was free.
- Andrew Martin Chandler and Silas Chandler enlisted together, as free men, to serve in the Confederacy.
- During the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863, Andrew Martin was seriously wounded in the leg. Silas prevented Confederate surgeons from amputating his leg, and somehow got A. M. home safely to have his leg treated by less saw-happy surgeons.
- After the war, as a show of gratitude, the Chandler family granted Silas and other freed slaves the land upon which they eventually built their church.
- A.M. Chandler signed the application for pension submitted to the state of Mississippi in 1916 as an “indigent Servants of Soldier or Sailor of the late Confederacy.” At the bottom of the form, Silas had made his mark, an “X.” The pension was approved.
The tintype has ignited heated debate among historians and Civil War buffs. Some believe it proves that warm relationships did exist between master and slave, or that there were instances of brotherly bonds so strong they compelled even free blacks to enlist and serve nobly in battle with their former masters.
Civil War photo historian Ronald S. Coddington says this is one of the most important photographs to come out of the conflict.
“There’s not another image like it, in terms of having an identified solder and identified servant, that you can track. There’s some bond that brought these guys together and held them together. Was it fear? Was it friendship? We don’t know.”
Lonnie G. Bunch of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture takes a slightly different view:
“It’s an image that historians have debated because of the discussions of whether or not African-Americans voluntarily served in the Confederacy. The overwhelming sentiment is that African-Americans who participated in the Confederacy were really coerced. They were owned. They were enslaved.”
To those who think that Silas looks like a willing participant, eager to engage on the opposing side of a conflict designed to free him, Bunch has this to say:
“Enslaved people learned how to wear masks, how to cover their true feelings. So I would argue that this image is somebody saying, “I’ve got to do this. I’m forced to pose. But I will not look like I’m forced to pose, because that might get me into trouble.”
Eventually the PBS television show “History Detectives” got wind of the story and launched their own investigation into the family legend of Silas Chandler. Put it this way, A. M. Chandler did get shot in the leg, but as for the rest of the story? Poppycock.
- It was illegal to free a slave in Mississippi in 1861. Period. Nor could any slave be permitted to buy his way out.
- Slaves could not enlist or fight in the Confederate Army at the time this photograph was taken. Many slaves served the Confederacy, but did not serve in it. Big distinction there.
- The uniform Silas wore was probably his, the weapons not. They were most likely photographer’s props.
- We don’t know if Silas talked Confederate surgeons out of amputation, but somehow A. M. was returned home intact.
- After the war, the Chandler family sold, not gave, for $100, enough land to a group of former slaves upon which they built the Palo Alto Baptist church. Silas was never a member of this church.
- Instead he moved away after he was freed to West Point, MS, about fifteen miles from Palo Alto, where he was a founding member of the Mt. Herman Baptist Church.
- He was living there fifty years later when he applied for his pension.
The white descendant, Mr. Chandler Battaile, handled the debunking of his family’s long-held fable with aplomb. History might be written by the winners, but personal stories are in the hands of the survivors and are more likely to be molded into what Battaile calls “comfortable and comforting to believe.” Yes, I’m sure it was, as so many family stories can be.
And a good lesson about the reliability of family lore in telling the truth about the past, that “foreign country, where they do things differently.” I hope to remember that myself in my role as self-appointed family historian.
The truth, pesky thing that it is, surely does force us out of our “comfortable” zones, doesn’t it?
And thanks for reading,