Civil War Enigma: A Comfortable Story

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One Sunday paper – two Civil War articles. Welcome to Richmond.

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.

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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:

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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.

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Chandler Battaile (l), Bobby Chandler (r)

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.

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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,

Barbara

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About Silver in the Barn

Life in a 1915 farmhouse in Central Virginia. Blogging about whatever happens to catch my fancy - sometimes nonsense, occasionally not.
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72 Responses to Civil War Enigma: A Comfortable Story

  1. I enjoyed reading this, Barbara from the Antiques Roadshow angle, and the way stories get twisted. Terrific job, thanks.

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  2. Pat S. says:

    Barbara, this was superbly written. I, too, had seen the picture and read the article. Thank you for bringing it to the attention of your faithful readers.

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  3. ritaroberts says:

    A superb post Barbara, I am going to Re-blog. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful story !

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  4. ritaroberts says:

    Reblogged this on Ritaroberts's Blog and commented:
    This is such a wonderful story I thought worth a Re-blog

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  5. carolwallace says:

    “Personal stories are in the hands of the survivors…” — what a great point, Barb. And ultimately, as you show us here, there’s no drawing a line under the past. It keeps on shifting as successive generations reinterpret it. Great post!

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  6. markbialczak says:

    This is a superb post exploring a fascinating subject, south or north, Barbara. Thank you for opening this window today. People truly do believe what makes them feel better about the actions of those that came before them. I am going to reblog your piece.

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    • Thanks so much, Mark! That means a lot to me. It’s interesting to note that the black side of the Chandler family had at least a few members who stuck to the story that old Silas was a slave in this photograph. The truth soldiers on!

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  7. markbialczak says:

    Reblogged this on markbialczak and commented:
    Wonderful writer Barbara from Silver in the Barn takes a deep look into the history of a family’s tale tied to an issue that still raises passion in our southern states. This should be your Tuesday read.

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  8. Jodi says:

    What an interesting and though-provoking story to start my day, Barbara. I have similar hot buttons – vintage photography and slavery. 🙂 I was never interested in history when I should have been in school, but the older I get, the more it intrigues me. I have so much catching up to do though… I love the picture of the two Chandler men and have so many more questions that I’m sure will buzz around in my brain all day. I hope to think they were rebelling and sending a message to future generations. Trail blazers. Thanks for sharing! I always enjoy your posts.

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    • Thank you, Jodi. Slavery has always held a dark fascination for me. I once saw a plantation ledger which listed the slaves as “livestock.” If you really think about that, it leaves your blood cold. When I was growing up there was one TV and we watched what my Dad wanted to watch which was, inevitably, history of some kind. Contagious stuff!

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  9. bkpyett says:

    What an interesting story Barbara. I did enjoy reading this post with the marvellous photos. certainly history can be changed when it is written down. Makes one think about the responsibility we hold in our hands. 🙂

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  10. As a history teacher know much re Civil War but put those texts away. Read collections of personal letters of soldiers to families. They are so tearful for me as a reader to understand men so bravely facing imminent death….

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    • Hi Carl! You are so right, of course. I bet you bring the war to life for your students and help them understand what it was really like. My father, a passionate Civil War autodidact, has a collection of letters from a Union soldier named Ed Mahogany.I forget how he got these letters, but they are fascinating stuff. Ed managed to survive some of the major skirmishes of the war, and then went back home to resume normal life. Dad even tracked down Ed’s grave in New Hampshire. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  11. Barbara, As always, another fascinating post. Following in my grandmother’s footsteps tracing our family genealogy, has lead to a few ancestors who fought in the Civil War (Union), including one who was killed outside of Petersburg, VA. I have several who fought in the Revolutionary War also, and am unnerved when I see accounts of their slaves, or baptism & marriage records where they are listed “so-and-so’s negro”. This photo is an amazing look into the time period–wish it had been in the Anniversary of the Civil War exhibits over the past few years in Wash. DC, and NY (MMA) that we went to. History is always thought provoking…

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    • Thank you, Cindy. I am intrigued by your Revolutionary War ancestors. Did they live in the north or south? We know at that time northerners also held slaves, so I am curious! “Unnerved.” Yes, that’s the perfect word for it. I always try to remember that the “past is a foreign country” and they did indeed do things differently there.

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      • As a New Jersey girl, all the ancestors I have traced were from the North–they came from England & Holland–some (of the Dutch) helped settle New Amsterdam (1640’s) some (of the English) came over on the Mayflower— so I have ancestors in NJ, NY, MA, NH, CT, VT. Most that I have found slaves referenced were the ones in New Jersey–

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      • You are one of the very few Americans able to trace ancestors that far back. Seems so many of us have the door slammed shut at Ellis Island, so you are a lucky one. I know much more about my German side than the American, but we do know that we, too, are Dutch on my father’s side. Brull was the family name. Are we related by chance??

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      • I have many Dutch surnames in my family, Barbara, but unfortunately, Brull is not one! Broek, Wortman, Quick, Stoel, Van Auken, Warnaar, Van Tilburg, Van Capel, Ten Hove, Ten Eyck, Hollander, Van Hattem, Van Luijk, Boender, Van Andel, etc !!!!!!

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      • Mama Mia! You are the Dutchiest girl with an Italian last name I know!! LOL! Seriously, I think it is very cool you have this much traceable lineage. Darn it, I was hoping you were my eighth cousin twice removed.

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  12. This is really fascinating and so well told! I’ll confess I’m a bit relieved the theory that a freed slave would voluntarily fight for the Confederacy was debunked.Slavery – such a stain on the world. And continues to be so. It is when one human being fails to see the humanity in another that terrible things occur.

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    • Thank you! And, H., I wouldn’t doubt that Civil War aficionados can dredge up some instances of a former slave serving in some capacity at some time in the war. Towards the end of the war, in utter desperation, Jefferson Davis, Confederate President, did allow slaves to fight. Much like Hitler did in the waning days of WWII, recruiting fourteen-year olds and old men.

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  13. Parnassus says:

    Hello Barbara, Historical discussions usually tell more about the time when the discussion takes place than about the earlier events portrayed. Too often people project their own opinions and feelings when interpreting past events. Evidence should be the only criterion that carries any weight. Evidence is also subject to interpretation, but at least it should prevent the wilder flights of fancy.
    –Jim

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  14. Dianna says:

    How interesting! I had not seen that photo. I do have a Civil War era photo that was found in some old family pictures — it’s damaged, though, and there’s no information on it as to whom it might be. So sad.

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  15. nrhatch says:

    Well told tale, Barbara. My great grandfather and his younger brother fought in the Civil War and wrote lots of letters home to Vermont. My grandfather, then my father, and now my older brother have the letters. I’ve read many of them. Fascinating stuff.

    We just watched BELLE ~ based on a true story in England in the 1700’s which addresses a court case involving jettisoned “cargo” (a shipment of slaves) at sea and the judge’s home life as guardian for his mulatto niece We both enjoyed it.

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    • Even more horrific than slavery, if it’s possible, was the passage from Africa on the slave ships. The Zong story is haunting but drives home more clearly than just about any other that the black man was nothing more than property, inconveniently in need of food and water. I have heard mixed reviews on this movie, Nancy, good to know you enjoyed it.

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  16. We see a photograph, an image, and promptly interpret it in the thought process of our own social group in our period.
    We need to think about modern slavery too…I am horrified that a British government can allow families from the Gulf to enter the country and ‘import’ slaves whose passports they retain.

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    • Helen, please forgive my ignorance. Are you referring to kafala? I, too, find that system just abhorrent to everything decent. You’re absolutely right that modern slavery is something that more than warrants our attention; we have not come so very far from the days of yore at all.

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      • Sorry to be confusing! I was referring to the U.K. where families from the Gulf states – and doubtless other rich persons – bring with them domestic workers who are in effect slaves, whose passports are held by the family and whose plight is ignored by the British government.
        They would do well to read the judge’s summing up in Shenley v Harvey or read Knight’s case…….but there – what am i thinking? The rule of law has gone down in the dust in the U.K……

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      • Ah yes, I understand. And the British government’s defense?

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  17. Eliza Waters says:

    Great and thoughtful post, Barbara. I think every family’s oral history evolves with each generation’s telling, so ‘accuracy’ is a muddle of remembrances, fact and fiction. My siblings oftentimes remember the same occurrence differently, such as it is!

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  18. ksbeth says:

    what a fascinating story within a story. wonderful, barbara.

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  19. agwink1942 says:

    I found this story fascinating Barbara. And I started following you because of it. Beautifully written and it sheds light on what most of us would accept as truth at face value if not for your story showing the truth. thank you. I find Civil War history interesting, and I think I would have been a Rebel, had I lived in that era. And since my state, Kentucky, was a border state, neither north or south, we had both sides represented in that state of aggression.

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    • Hello agwink1942 and thanks for reading and following. You know, by sheer virtue of being a Kentuckian or a Virginia, you probably would have been a Reb. Of course you don’t know this but I have NEVER been to Kentucky. I really need to rectifiy that situation, don’t I?

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      • agwink1942 says:

        Oh my yes, you should definitely come to Kentucky. Come to Owensboro on the weekend of Mother’s Day and join the fun of our International Barbeque Festival. You will have to sample our food of the gods, a dish called “burgoo”, thicker than soup, but not a stew either. Just plain old delicious.

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      • Food of the gods, eh? How could I possibly resist?

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  20. Sheryl says:

    I enjoyed reading this. I especially liked you explored the various perspectives and angles. And, I liked the way you tied up the post with a thought-provoking discussion about roles and responsibilities of family historians when they tell family stories.

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  21. purpleviolas says:

    Thanks for sharing this story. History and ancestry fascinates me too and it is heart warming to see some of it retained and documented.

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  22. joannesisco says:

    A great story on such a difficult and complicated time in American history.

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  23. Hello, Barbara,
    I grew up in Petersburg, Virginia during the 1950s, and the Civil War (referred to as “The Woha”) was still very recent in the minds of the locals — Petersburg had been the site of the famous Battle of the Crater only 90 years before. I was going to grade school there and remember that the history was a little skewed, even though we were taught that the North had won. I still remember my fourth grade teacher commenting that, while Lee had worn his best uniform to the surrender, Grant had not! Yes, history is skewed by the victors, but by the losers, too!

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    • Hello, Mark. I had no idea you grew up in Petersburg! They are working very hard to revitalize that city today and I hope their efforts succeed. Steven Spielberg shot a fair amount of “Lincoln” there and in Richmond, of course. Yes, now that you mention it, I seem to remember hearing at Appomattox mention of the great affront to R. E. Lee by Grant appearing with muddy boots. Damn Yankees!

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  24. Wow – that’s really interesting. It’s amazing the stories that some of those photos hold. I know a lot about my husband’s family’s past, not much about my own. (It’s handy to be descended from royalty and the movers and shakers of history, as they keep those family trees around…) Have you seen the show “who do you think you are?”? You would probably like it.

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    • Hi Cherity! Oh yes, I’ve seen it and I DO like it. Also there is one on PBS….Henry Louis Gates, “Finding Your Roots” which is super good too. Wouldn’t it be great to have a team of historians go in seek of your story? I would love that…..I think!

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      • I think it would be fascinating. I guess Davy Crockett is back somewhere in my family tree, by marriage, but other than that I know almost nothing.
        My husband is direct line from William Wallace, is related to the guy who killed Richard III, and bunches of other nobility…so his is a bit easy…

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      • I thought you were being tongue-in-cheek about your husband’s nobility. How fascinating! I’m assuming he’s truly American and requires no bowing and scraping, right? LOL!

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  25. No bowing and scraping, though I think he would enjoy that immensely. He used to quip that he should have a castle in Scotland, so last year I bought him his gift from here: http://www.highlandtitles.com/?set_currency=2&gclid=CPS2qanPjMECFaY-MgodMlwA7A

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  26. Wonderful story, Barbara. I always love knowing the stories that the history books don’t tell us. My folks were real civil war history enthusiasts.

    I was fascinated by Ken Burns’ PBS series and his quotes by historian, Shelby Foote. They both shed light on a terrible war where brother fought against brother, and father against son.

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  27. timelesslady says:

    Wow! Fabulous Signs. I thought of taking part in this challenge too, but still haven’t thought of anywhere I’ve seen a good sign. Perhaps I’ll jump on my bike and just pedal around town and see what I can find. 🙂 Thanks for the inspiring photos.

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    • Hello timelesslady and I’m sorry I didn’t reply sooner…just saw this in the Civil War post! No matter, I love hearing from you regardless of where you comment lands! Remember, the best signs are often found in restrooms!!

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  28. caffienna says:

    This one has really had me thinking the last couple of weeks. There is a song I love by Kate Campbell called “Look Away” (which I saved on Pinterest) about growing up in a beautiful south and most of us only knowing/believing what was comfortable and in some cases true. The smell of flowers and sipping iced tea on the porch ….what can one do but “look away” from old Dixie. You would not believe some of the things that we were told about “Yankees” . I love the way that you write. Thanks for letting me read. Peace to your heart. Sarah​

    On Tue, Sep 30, 2014 at 7:03 AM, Silver in the Barn wrote:

    > Silver in the Barn posted: ” 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 “

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  29. reocochran says:

    I like to listen to family stories, all generations. I have not heard any Civil War stories in our families, but do think the movies and books on the subject are very informative. Your photo, although damaged, ‘tells a story.’ I think it makes anyone feel better that they were comrades in arms, with the slave’s freedom given. It is awesome that both names are given, didn’t know how rare this was, until you told us this. Thanks for sharing this interesting and factual story with us!

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  30. Outlier Babe says:

    My goodness. There I was, sucking it up, believing every stupid, unlikely word. Double-duh-dumb.

    Great tale.

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