The secret history of the photo at the center of the black Confederate myth

This story might have remained, like many others, just another Civil War tale passed down from one generation to the next, if it weren’t for an astonishing tintype of the two men, armed to the teeth in Confederate uniforms, taken in 1861. The image has helped bolster the claims of the community of amateur historians, hucksters, and Confederate sympathizers committed to defending the Confederacy from the charge of racism, who insist that thousands of black men fought and died for the rebel cause. “Ever since the SCV posthumously honored Silas,” Levin wrote in 2012, “accounts of black Confederate troops have surged in popularity.”

It is a community that has grown more vocal and irate as black and white activists have successfully sought to strip Confederate emblems from places of honor around the country. After the massacre of nine black parishioners in South Carolina by a white supremacist, the South Carolina SCV defended the Confederate flag then flying on the state capitol grounds by invoking “Black Confederate soldiers” who “fought in the trenches beside their White brothers.”

In this community, the two Chandlers, master and slave, have become icons of Southern virtue, proof of the benign nature of the Confederacy and the harmonious antebellum relationship between blacks and whites. Confederate websites like Dixie Outfitters sell merchandise celebrating the “Chandler Boys” and their battle-forged friendship. Here, they say, is proof that the cause of the Confederacy was not slavery, not the eternal gospel of white supremacy, but freedom. After all, how could a racist society have inspired such loyalty from its black subjects?