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Civil War mystery on 'History Detectives'

A tintype shows an African American man in a Confederate uniform. The PBS show aims to find out what it means.

October 12, 2011|By Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times
  • Andrew Chandler, left, sits with Silas Chandler in this tintype.
Andrew Chandler, left, sits with Silas Chandler in this tintype. (Rob Booth / PBS )

The image on the Civil War tintype is at once both simple and striking: Two armed men in Confederate uniforms pose unsmilingly side by side, so close their legs touch.

But a closer look reveals something more startling. One of the soldiers is African American. The photograph reignites a long-standing historical debate: Did African Americans take up the Confederate cause, which defined them as slaves?

That question is at the center of Tuesday's episode of PBS' "History Detectives," which investigates the tintype and the identity of the two soldiers — Andrew Chandler, who was white, and Silas Chandler, who was black.

Adding more delicacy and resonance to the exploration is the unlikely friendship between two descendants of the men in the photo: Chandler Battaile, a descendant of Andrew Chandler, and Bobbie Chandler, a descendant of Silas Chandler. The two men, who live in different states, have been close for a couple of years after bonding over the tintype, but investigating the story behind the photo could have easily destroyed that. American slavery in the abstract is one thing, but sitting across from a man whose family owned yours is quite another.

"Picking at the scab of slavery is never satisfying," said Wes Cowan, the historical Americana expert who stars in "History Detectives" and is a featured appraiser on PBS' "Antiques Roadshow." "It is emotional, and I certainly thought this would affect their friendship."

Mary Frances Berry, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the question of whether African Americans served in the Confederate Army has percolated for years. The idea, as some historical evidence suggests, that slaves willingly joined the Confederate Army is controversial today, not to mention deeply troubling to many African Americans.

"It's obvious that the two persons in the picture had a non-adversarial relationship," said Berry, who participated in the inquiry. "It immediately raises the question — what is this? What are they doing? Is this one of the missed stories about the people of the Civil War?"

Both descendants were eager to find out the truth, and believed their friendship could survive whatever what was uncovered.

Said Battaile, 45, a fundraiser for National Public Radio who lives in Alexandria, Va., "Our two families have had a close relationship, during and after the Civil War. We made a connection 23 months ago. Having that shared history, even though it's complex and based on oppression, has not changed that closeness."

Chandler, a retired Washington Times production manager, said, "I was concerned when I first looked at it. I wanted to know if he was a slave or a Confederate soldier. But whatever the outcome, I knew Chandler [Battaile] and I would still be friends."

Cowan initially appraised the tintype during a January 2010 episode of "Antiques Roadshow" when it was brought to him by Battaile. The tintype, which has been with his family since 1861, was appraised by Cowan as being worth $30,000 to $40,000.

After that broadcast, producers received a stream of messages and inquiries about Silas Chandler, the African American in the photo. Was he a slave or was he a Confederate? Was he free or was he serving his owner? Other than the suggestion that the two men were close, the photo offered few clues.

"It was a pretty amazing piece," said Cowan of his first impression. "I have seen images of African Americans dressed up as Confederate soldiers, but I had never seen an image of an African American in Confederate uniform seated next to a Confederate soldier in uniform. It's an amazingly powerful image."

Added Cowan, "When you peel back the onion, it speaks volumes about the issues of slavery, and it raises the whole issue of blacks in the Confederacy."

But one fact that arose during the investigation was that Andrew Chandler's mother owned 39 slaves. Cowan said, "Whatever feelings there were between these two men, it was colored by the fact that the mother owned slaves."

Investigators learned that it was illegal for African Americans to enlist in the Confederate Army until the war was almost over. Other clues, such as how Andrew Chandler is apparently seated higher than Silas Chandler, give more insight into their relationship.

But Battaile and Chandler say they are both pleased with the conclusions that were reached by "History Detectives."

"I feel much better now," said Chandler. "Silas was doing what he had to do. I think he will rest in peace now."

greg.braxton@latimes.com

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