Andrew Chandler signed up for the Confederate Army in 1861. His mother sent along one of her thirty-six slaves, Silas, with him. Sometime thereafter, Andrew and Silas sat down for a photograph. A century and a half later, it became famous among those who would have us believe that veritable legions of black Americans signed up and willingly fought alongside their white neighbors for the cause of Southern independence. These same people believe this evidence that the South fought for something, anything at all, except slavery. The conclusion came before the evidence, but looking at the photograph in isolation and not knowing about Silas status as legal property, you could come away with the idea that two buddies sat down with their guns and we need not inquire further.
As property, Silas didn’t really choose to go along. While he and other enslaved people might have shaved off some small portion of self-determination at the margins of their condition, that same status precluded their making major life decisions for themselves. A slave who just decided to leave the camp could expect challenge by patrols and might face violent seizure by any white man who noticed. Resistance would mean risking assault. Whatever the personal relationship between Andrew and Silas, their condition separated them.
Kevin Levin, working on a book about actual black camp followers and personal slaves in the Confederate military, posted the photograph with some context. He notes that few pictures of Confederate soldiers with their slaves exist and most have the slave standing and somewhat behind. Does the Chandler picture indicate a more equitable arrangement between Andrew and Silas? One must note that he and Silas pose similarly, both armed and brandishing knives. The barrel of Silas’ rifle rests on Andrew’s knees. That makes for a superficially plausible reading and fits with American folk ideas about how armed people hardly make good slaves.
However, Kevin points out that Andrew and Silas display a comical amount of weaponry. Andrew has a pistol in his belt and another in hand. His other hand has a big knife. Siolas has a rifle, a knife, and a pepperbox pistol stuffed in his jacket. When you add it all up they sound like they belong in the pages of a deplorably stereotypical early Nineties comic book. They have guns and guns for their guns. Kevin suggests that they bear mostly studio props:
We would do well to remember that Andrew was only 17 years of age in 1861. Silas was about 24 years of age. Andrew must have been anxious to capture those feelings of youthful exuberance and the anticipation of martial valor for his family. One can imagine a wide-eyed Andrew as he spotted the props and quickly found a way to include as many as possible. Perhaps that is why Silas is seated. Observing the image from this perspective, it’s hard not to chuckle.
He asks what Silas must have thought of all this. We can’t know, but what do we see? Any answer must speak as much about us as for the image, but I’ve considered it. Given Silas’ age, he might have shared some of the excitement that Andrew had. If he sat there idly thinking about using the knife on Andrew, it doesn’t show. I doubt he did not because he felt content with his lot in life, but because few people idly consider doing bloody murder. Either way, a slave would probably know by his age not to betray any too-visible sign of irritation in these circumstances.
I see the same slouch as Kevin does. Silas faces the camera, but with more casual pose. I read him as seasoned enough from a lifetime of slavery to know when he has to play a part. The slouch could serve that purpose, emphasizing as he must for his own safety that he did not fancy himself Andrew’s equal. More than that, he looks resigned to the business. Andrew’s going to have his photograph and Silas just has to sit there and do it, just like he might have to do Andrew’s laundry.
I don’t see deference. The fact that Silas has a slouching, resigned attitude strikes me as a kind of subtle resistance. He could have put on a more conspicuously dutiful face, or arranged himself somewhat more subserviently. That might make for an odd tableau with all the arms, but he could have. Maybe he did, but Andrew or the photographer “corrected” him to get better show the weapons. I see two young men next to each other, touching or close to it, but with a vast gulf between them. Andrew might not see it, taking this all as perfectly natural, but Silas could not afford to miss the distance. The two might share memories, laugh at the same jokes, eat together, and otherwise do all the things friends might, but Andrew had the power to change it all at any moment. Silas could not. Nor could he forget all the other tasks which Andrew surely assigned him every day. Ultimately, the two did what Andrew dictated, when he dictated it.
Taking the image as a whole, I see a boy and his toys. In another century, Andrew would pose with his bike or his car. He might still have the guns, but might instead wield a guitar or beer bottle. Silas, while a person every bit as much as Andrew, serves as a prop twice over: with his body he displays more arms and so signals further manly virtue. But whatever else Andrew might feel toward Silas, he owns the enslaved man’s body. Displaying it shows his family’s wealth and his own ability to master another. Giving Silas the weapons and sitting next to him without fear shows that Andrew does not fear his human property. Brave Andrew can control him, even armed to the teeth. He could cloak Silas in the garb of a man and then unman him at a whim.
Every slave knew that. For a moment, Silas and Andrew might look like equals. They might seem as together as the photograph suggests, close as their two bodies. But Silas had to know that holding the prop guns and knives did not make it so. With that in mind, I see a young man thinking that he has one more damned thing to do, then one more, with no end in sight. He will do what he must to get by, taking the rare moments of satisfaction and relief when they come but knowing that they too will end when Andrew’s whims turn.
All of this requires reading a general narrative of slavery into Silas’ relationship with Andrew. Every generalization will have its exceptions. They might, in whatever way and slave and owner could, have gotten on well. People who share company for a long time find ways to get along. An enslaved person had, if anything, far stronger reason to manage than most. But ultimately he faced the same realities as the rest of the nation’s four million slaves. Whatever else Andrew and Silas felt toward one another, the law of the land and the dictates of Andrew’s culture made Silas also an object which existed for his betterment.
Update: Andy Hall points out in the comments that the misuse of the Chandler photograph fits in snugly with similar uses of reunion photographs:
Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century images of African American men at Confederate reunions are tossed out all the time, cited as photographic proof of their former positions as soldiers. The actual written accounts of these events tell a more complex story, in which the old black men are welcomed and encouraged to adhere to antebellum stereotypes — living, breathing affirmation of the “faithful Negro,” cheerful, obsequious, and loyal. They performed exactly the role H. K. Edgerton does now.