The Irrelevance of Silas Chandler

News comes via Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory that his long awaited (and much-mentioned) article on Silas Chandler, coauthored with Myra Chandler Sampson, is about to appear.  I’m sure that the article will offer a far richer context about Silas Chandler’s story than did the episode on PBS’s History Detectives, which offered little in terms of information that anyone armed with a computer, a search engine, and access to the internet would not have found on their own.

However, I have a sneaky feeling that however compelling this article may be, it will be far from the last word on Silas Chandler, let alone on the tales of African Americans, enslaved and free, who flocked to serve the Confederacy as soldiers and who embraced the goals of the Confederacy.  In fact, I take that as a sure bet after reading this post, including the comments section, where someone who sounds a bit like a proslavery apologist declares that slavery was no more than an “unfortunate circumstance.”

Well, that’s one way to put it.

So now that we are at this point in time, I think it behooves serious scholars to discuss what, if anything, they might have to say about the experience of black people in the Confederacy.  What lines of inquiry do you think should be followed?  How much of this research should be driven by a debate among non-scholars, many of whom show no interest in actual scholarship, and how much should be driven by scholarly curiosity and a quest for understanding?

Yes, I understand that it’s important to deal with debates on the public sphere, no matter how tangential those debates may be when it comes to historical reality.  I’m not discounting that (or its impact on issues of history education).  However, I’m not interested in privileging it, either, and I think it’s a different discussion to wrestle with that issue, about which I have some different ideas and a well-circulated proposal.

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5 thoughts on “The Irrelevance of Silas Chandler

  1. Hi Brooks,

    I completely agree with you that the article will likely have little impact on the broader debate. The post you referenced clearly shows just how easy it is to ignore the evidence or offer distractions from the issue at hand. That said, I’ve always kept my focus on those people who are interested in learning more about a given subject. They are my audience. I have no interest in engaging someone who characterizes slavery as an “unfortunate circumstance.”

    As to what scholars should do, it seems to me they’ve done quite a bit already. There are plenty of books and journal articles that explore the role of blacks in the Confederacy. Perhaps you are asking about the extent – if at all – to which historians should frame their research around the popular discussion of black Confederates. Perhaps I missed your point, but if not than I think the answer is that they shouldn’t spend much time worrying about it. Their research should come out of the questions that they hope to answer.

    To be completely honest, I am gradually losing interest in this subject. It’s hard to maintain a sufficient level of interest in a myth rather than the actual lives of African Americans, who lived through the Civil War. That leaves us with the question of how scholars can engage the general public and how much time they should spend debunking myths. Again, I don’t think there are any hard and fast answers here. Your blog is, in part, a reflection of your own interest in engaging folks beyond the halls of academia. I see scholars engaged in this efforts in myriad ways.

    • There are many people out there who appreciate your efforts on this issue.

      While I don’t think scholars should explicitly frame their research agenda around the question of black involvement in Confederate armies, I do think that simply looking at what blacks did under Confederate rule would go far to answer many questions about the activities and motivations of enslaved and free blacks. For example, I think it’s easy to explain why some blacks escaped to freedom while others remained where they were, and that has to do with the proximity of opportunity. Moreover, as you have said, there’s a great deal of scholarship already out there. I think that scholarship indirectly questions the underlying agenda of the proponents of the Black Confederate Myth, because it opens the door on issues of motivation and action in ways that undermine the argument that blacks voluntarily, willingly, and eagerly supported the Confederacy because they concurred in its goals, including the perpetuation of slavery.

      What those proponents will do when faced with that information is, I think, predictable. However, those minds were never going to be changed, anyway. The case is different with a larger public interested in these questions, and that’s a public worth addressing. If anything, I fear that much of the good work on this subject involves historians writing for other historians instead of making that information available to a wider audience.

  2. You said: “If anything, I fear that much of the good work on this subject involves historians writing for other historians instead of making that information available to a wider audience.”

    I completely agree. I suspect that the traditional monograph is not the best way to go about engaging those interested in this subject, which raises the issue once again of a website.

    Finally, I assume you voted, “all of the above”. :-)

  3. Quick response between various responsibilities:

    What lines of inquiry do you think should be followed? An integrated social history of the US (including the slave states) during the war would be really useful; it may exist, in which case I need to do the reading, but a synthesis of recent focused work on various social and demographic strata would be really useful, I think.

    How much of this research should be driven by a debate among non-scholars, many of whom show no interest in actual scholarship, and how much should be driven by scholarly curiosity and a quest for understanding? The propaganda has to be addressed, but scholars are the ones to do it, and actively; otherwise the propaganda perculates into pop culture.

    Well done to both of you for standing up on this issue.

    All the best

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