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A remarkable civil war photo

Dressed to go fight for Johnny Reb

 Sgt. Andrew Martin Chandler, of the 44th Mississippi Regiment, left, and his slave, Silas.

Library of Congress

Sgt. Andrew Martin Chandler, of the 44th Mississippi Regiment, left, and his slave, Silas.

It is 1861 and the two men are going off to war. They sit side by side before the camera, their elbows and knees touching. They wear the uniform of the Confederacy and are armed with pistols, knives and a shotgun.

But one is white, the other black; one the master, the other his slave. Both stare at the photographer, as if told to be still, and there seems to be a faint look of wariness in the eyes of the slave.

The striking 150-year old tintype, one of the most enigmatic images from the Civil War, has just been donated to the Library of Congress by a local collector who bought it to give to the library.

The photo shows Sgt. Andrew Martin Chandler of the 44th Mississippi Regiment and his "servant," Silas Chandler, who was one of 36 slaves owned by the soldier's mother. Andrew Chandler is about 17 in the picture, according to records. Silas Chandler is in his mid-20s.

The photo is a tiny window into the past, but it also presents modern Americans with an enduring image of the role of race in the United States. It portrays two men who are bound, willingly or unwillingly, in a common story. And it raises the question: Why does a slave appear to be in arms against the crusade that would gain him his freedom?

"It is an extraordinary photograph," said Helena Zinkham, head of the library's prints and photographs division. "You look at those faces and you want to know more. Just look at the expressions. ... Look at their body language."

Civil War photo historian Ronald S. Coddington, who researched the photo for his 2012 book, African American Faces of the Civil War, said it is one of the most important photos to come out of the conflict. "There's not another image like it, in terms of having an identified soldier and identified servant, that you can track," he said. "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 III, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, said he was familiar with the photo. "It's an image that historians have debated because of the discussions of whether or not African Americans voluntarily served in the Confederacy," he said. "The overwhelming sentiment is that African Americans who participated in the Confederacy were really coerced."

But could the two men have been friends?

"There's no doubt that there were relationships between owners and the enslaved," Bunch said. But they were unequal relationships. "Even if they played together as boys, they clearly were told there were distinctions based on race."

The photo was donated by Virginia collector Tom Liljenquist, who has turned over 1,200 exquisite Civil War-era photos to the library in the past four years. Almost all are pictures of average soldiers or civilians, rather than generals, and are available online.

Liljenquist bought the photo from descendants of Andrew Chandler on Aug. 15 and immediately gave it to the library. He declined to say how much it cost. But five years ago, on the Antiques Roadshow television program, the photo was said to be worth $30,000 to $40,000.

Since its appearance on Antiques Roadshow and later on an episode of History Detectives, the photo has generated debate over Silas Chandler's depiction as a willing Confederate.

"Enslaved people learned how to wear masks, how to cover their true feelings," Bunch said. "So I would argue that what 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 in trouble.' ''

Coddington, the historian, said he had found no evidence that Silas Chandler was ever a combatant, and Mississippi pension records indicate his wartime role was that of a servant. Andrew Chandler was "very young when he went to war," Coddington said. "And his mom, who was the owner of the slaves in the family, sent (Silas) along with Andrew."

Coddington said it appears that the Chandler family hailed from Virginia, where Silas Chandler was born. The family migrated to Mississippi. By the time of the Civil War, Silas Chandler was married, had a child and was a skilled carpenter.

Family history has it that Andrew Chandler was badly wounded in the leg at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863, Coddington said. Silas Chandler is said to have prevented surgeons from amputating the limb and helped his master get home.

Silas Chandler was then dispatched back to the war with Andrew's younger brother, Benjamin, who joined a Mississippi cavalry regiment.

• • •

About 50 years later, in July 1916, Silas Chandler, then 78, filled out via typewriter Mississippi's pension application for "Indigent Servants of Soldier or Sailor of the late Confederacy." He indicated "nearly four years" of wartime service to the Chandler brothers and swore that he was indigent. At the bottom of the form, where it read "signature of applicant," he made his mark — an X.

Andrew Chandler, then 72, signed an affidavit verifying that the application was accurate.

A month later, the pension was approved.

Dressed to go fight for Johnny Reb 08/26/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2014 4:18pm]
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