Was he a ‘heroic black Confederate’ fighting for the cause?
In 1994 the Sons of Confederate Veterans placed a Southern Cross of Honor on the Mississippi grave of Silas Chandler, a black man. By honoring Silas, the SCV helped transform a hazy story about an obscure slave into a full-blown legend. Films, prints, photos and T-shirts soon followed, all promoting him as a loyal son of the South who became a Confederate soldier, heroically battling Yankees alongside his white owner. Highlighting Silas’ military career is a way of suggesting that Southern blacks were just as eager as whites to fight back against the invaders. It is a position consistent with the belief that the war did not ignite over slavery but over predatory Northern acts. The Cross of Honor, created in 1900 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, was intended for Confederates who performed acts of valor on the battlefield, and the award was recently bestowed on soldiers descended from Confederate veterans. So what role did Silas really play in the war, and why did he choose to fight for the South—if he actually did? One thing is clear: Ever since the SCV posthumously honored Silas, a body servant who accompanied his white master into service, accounts of black Confederate troops have surged in popularity, with some now claiming that upwards of 100,000 blacks fought willingly in Southern ranks.
No scholarly investigation has turned up evidence of thousands of black Rebel warriors, but stories about African Americans fighting to preserve the Confederacy have made their way into museum exhibits in recent years, as well as a fourth-grade social studies text distributed in Virginia. In Our Virginia: Past and Present, published in 2010, Joy Masoff wrote that “thousands of Southern blacks fought in Confederate ranks, including two battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” After Carol Sheriff, a historian at the College of William & Mary, and others denounced Masoff ’s claims, it came out that Masoff’s “research” on black Confederates had amounted to little more than an Internet search.
So what do the facts reveal about Silas Chandler’s war? A closer look at the surviving records undermines the popular theory that he was a fighting man eager to serve the Confederacy.
Silas was born a slave on January 1, 1837, in Virginia. In 1839 his owner, Roy Chandler, moved his family and 39 slaves to Palo Alto in Clay County, Miss., where he received a land grant after an 1831 treaty that displaced American Indians opened up 11 million acres of farmland in the state to white settlers. Chandler’s new plantation prospered, and high demand for cotton soon allowed him to increase his landholdings.
Roy’s son Andrew was born on April 3, 1844, when Silas was 7. Andrew had to grow up quickly, assuming responsibilities on the plantation after his father died when he was only 10. Though they shared a last name (slaves generally assumed their masters’ surnames), by 1860 Andrew and Silas were living radically different lives: one filled with privilege, the other defined by servitude.
The outbreak of war put both young men on a shared path. In August 1861, Andrew enlisted as a private in a company that became Company F of the 44th Mississippi Infantry. That regiment eventually became part of the Army of Tennessee and fought at Belmont, Shiloh, Murfreesboro and Chickamauga. Silas accompanied Andrew into service as his body servant, one of tens of thousands of slaves who worked in military camps throughout the war.
Unfortunately, no source in Silas’ own voice has been found to show how he viewed the war as a whole or his role in it. But in recent years, self-serving speculation has increasingly filled in the gaps. The famous image of Silas armed and in uniform alongside Andrew, shown on pages 32-33, has so far proved the most powerful ingredient in promoting the legend of Silas as a Rebel soldier. Though the photo is undated, it was likely taken around the time the men left Mississippi. But the image actually begs more questions than it answers. Chandler’s military-style jacket and weaponry are assumed to testify to his status as a soldier. But in fact it wasn’t uncommon for body servants to be issued military clothing. And the shotgun, large knives and small pistol shown in the picture could just as easily have been a photographer’s props as a soldier’s weapons.
Speculation also surrounds Silas’ status at the beginning of the war. Several websites, such as Desert Rose Films’, claim that Silas “received his free papers just before the war began” but chose to remain with the Chandler family because he had a close relationship with Andrew. No legal documents have surfaced to support that claim. Moreover, the Manumission Law of 1842 made it illegal for a slave to be freed in Mississippi.
Whether Silas was free or enslaved at the outbreak of the war, the Confederacy barred all African Americans from combat posts. Free and enslaved blacks were used as cooks, teamsters and laborers, but slaveholders resisted efforts to employ blacks in this way, viewing any military appropriation of slaves as a direct violation of their owners’ property rights. Only in the final few weeks of the war did the Confederacy adopt a policy permitting combat roles for African Americans (see ‘We Must Make Free Men of Them,’ by Paul D. Escott in our June 2010 issue).
W hat Silas and other black servants in the military camps often gained was a small taste of freedom. They were frequently used as liaisons, moving unhindered between the armies and home-front plantations. Silas was in fact employed in that manner. During the Union occupation of Corinth, Miss., in the summer of 1862, for example, Andrew expressed concern in a letter to his mother that Federal cavalry might intercept Silas as he was traveling to and from Palo Alto.
Thousands of slaves took the opportunity to escape to Federal lines during the war; the fact that Silas did not try to escape on his travels has further fueled a narrative—unsubstantiated by factual evidence—that he remained loyal to both Andrew and the Confederate cause.
Silas likely gained even more freedom of movement when Andrew was wounded and captured at Shiloh in April 1862, and then imprisoned at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio. For several months—until Andrew was released in a prisoner exchange in September 1862—Silas traveled between Mississippi and Ohio, likely on his own.
Andrew would return, with Silas, to the 44th. But at the September 1863 Battle of Chickamauga, Andrew was once again wounded, this time suffering a near-crippling injury to his right leg. Internet accounts of that episode make much of Silas’ reaction to his master’s injury. To quote the Desert Rose Films’ website: “During the fighting at Chickamauga, Andrew Chandler suffered a great wound to the leg, which the surgeons were ready to amputate off. But Silas pulled out a gold coin that the boys were saving to buy some whiskey. Bribing the doctors to let Chandler go, he then carried the injured boy on his back to the nearest train. They rode all the way to Atlanta in a boxcar. Once there, the hospital doctors saved the boy’s leg and life.”
Though no evidence supports the gold coin story, research does indicate that Silas helped Andrew to return home. But through a closer examination of the historical record, Silas’ attachment to his own family—not loyalty to the South, as some now claim—was a more likely motive. A letter by Andrew’s mother shows that Silas had a wife and newborn child back home at that point. On March 26, 1863, she wrote: “I think I ought to tell Silas that Lucy has a fine boy. They call him General Bragg.” Even without a family waiting for Silas back in Mississippi, he would have been likely to help his master return home. Deemed human property, he was legally bound to Andrew.
In the final year of the war, Andrew Chandler’s injury apparently kept him from service. But Silas rejoined the war effort—this time as a servant to Andrew’s relative, Benjamin Chandler. In January 1864, Benjamin S. Chandler joined the 9th Mississippi Cavalry, the unit that escorted President Jefferson Davis to safety after Richmond was abandoned on April 2, 1865. Records show that on May 7, 1865, Ben Chandler’s unit separated from Davis’ group near Washington, Ga., where the Rebels were ordered to surrender on the same day that Davis was captured.
What became of Silas Chandler then? Some advocates for the black Confederates theory have looked at the postwar lives of Andrew and Silas for evidence they maintained a strong relationship through Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era. Andrew Chandler Battaile, a descendant of Andrew who recently appeared on an episode of the TV show Antiques Roadshow, suggested the two men remained lifelong friends. He also claimed that Andrew donated land to Silas to build a church. A “Black Confederates” website repeats that claim, stating, “the Chandler family gave Silas land after the war.”
Land records in the Chancery Clerk’s office in West Point, Miss., do not record any donation of property to Silas. They do indicate that Silas and his wife, Lucy, purchased some land and paid off their debt. Silas never owned any land in Palo Alto, where the Chandler plantation was located.
A story that may have contributed to the assumption that Andrew gave Silas some land appeared in the West Point Daily Times Leader on January 4, 1950, written by Andrew’s son, B.S. Chandler. It states that after Silas had constructed a shelter, a group of former Confederate soldiers attempted to destroy it. When Silas resisted, the men threatened to kill him, backing off only when Andrew came to his defense.
Claims can also be found on the Internet that Andrew helped Silas to receive a pension in 1878 for his “service” in the Confederate Army. No evidence corroborates that statement.
Silas became a successful businessman, building many houses in and around West Point as well as the town’s first courthouse. He helped start the first African-American Church in West Point. He was a member of the Masons. And his descendants went on to become physicians, engineers, ministers and school administrators. Impressive as they are, none of those accomplishments are mentioned in the websites that purport to honor Silas Chandler.
In Silas’ final years, troubled by failing vision, he more than once applied for a pension. It was approved at least twice by 1916, three years before his death at 78. But the pension that he— along with thousands of former servants living in the former Confederate states—received after the war was defined as an “Application of Indigent Servants of Soldiers or Sailors of the Late Confederacy.” The paperwork Silas Chandler submitted clearly indicates that, as a servant, he was not recognized as a Confederate soldier.
Myra Chandler Sampson, who lives in Texas, is a descendant of Silas. Kevin Levin maintains the blog “Civil War Memory”; the University Press of Kentucky will publish his book Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder in the spring of 2012.
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.