Get notified when new episodes come out.
A listener voicemail sends us deep down the rabbit hole into one of the most toxic myths of the Confederacy.
JACK HITT: A little while back we put out a call for voicemails … we asked you to tell us your Civil War stories... the myths that you wanted us to take on… or the family lore you wanted us to investigate...
CHENJERAI KUMANYIKA: You shared a lot of great stories... but there was one in particular that got our attention...
John Sims: Hi, my name is John Sims. um - I - I have a really conflicted past with this thing. When I was a teenager I was a part of an organization called the Sons of Confederate Veterans. And you know and over the course of like 2 to 3 years as I was a teenager I slowly came to realize how terrible the Civil War really was and how messed up the Confederacy was ... And, so I, I don’t know, this subject is really like close to my heart and uh if you want to talk to me some more give me a call. My number is beep. Thank you.
JH: When it comes to the Civil War, most people’s opinions are pretty fixed.... How often do you hear about someone actually listening to new information… and then completely changing their mind? We knew this was a story we had to hear.. So we called John up, and asked him to start at the beginning…
JS: So I grew up in a little town just north of Lubbock, called Earth, Texas. Flat, empty sort of country town, population’s about 2,000 people. Like every, every time I tell people that I was from Earth, Texas they'll just say, "I'm from Earth too!" At which point you wanna give them the millionth person to a joke-prize.
JH: John’s father was a fifth generation Texan and a cotton farmer… John has three siblings - and they were all homeschooled… so growing up, John had plenty of time to develop his own interests….
From an early age he read a lot of history… and he remembers the first moment he fell in love with the Confederacy…
JS: So when I was probably uh, eight or nine my uncle gave us our first computer, right. It was an old Dell Computer, right. And there was a game that was loaded onto it that was a Civil War themed game. You could move the little soldiers around on a map, plan the strategies out for how they were going to attack each other and things like that. The thing that appealed to me about the video game was that it painted this picture of the South fighting a-against a vastly superior army. They were outmanned, they were outgunned. They were the underdogs. And that really appealed to me. And you know as an 8 or 9 year old, I walked into the kitchen where my mom was and I went, "Mom! I, I think the wrong side won."
CK: As time went on, John became sure the wrong side won… Before he knew it he was deep inside the world of Confederate revisionism…
And he connected to other people who felt the same way. And it was there, that he got caught up in spreading of the one of the most toxic modern Civil War myths… Black... Confederate... Soldiers…
JH: I’m Jack Hitt
CK: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika
JH: And this… is Uncivil
CK: The show where we ransack America’s past
JH: And find that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still puttin’ on its boots.
JH: So here’s John Sims… 9 year old Confederate sympathizer, playing Civil War battle games on his family’s Dell computer…
And he really got into it… He learned that he had ancestors who fought for the Southern cause. He started reading Civil War books written from the Southern perspective... By the time he was a teenager, John’s whole identity was wrapped up in Rebel pride...
JS: I had a belt buckle that had a Confederate flag on it, I had a shirt that had Robert Lee's face on it and I had a Confederate hat. It was a Confederate kepi, which is a round sort of hat with a flat bill on the front of it, that's gray in color. And it was the same kind of hat that a Confederate soldier would have worn. I, I took it a step further too. One Christmas I got a Confederate sword. I'm not even kidding-
JS: -I literally had a Confederate sword for a while.
JH: As he got older it became the one thing he felt really confident about…. It was his thing. He’d go on long diatribes about Northern hypocrisy to anyone who would listen.
JS: This is how I imagine most Alex Jones viewers must feel on a daily basis, right? Like, "I - everyone else out here is a sap, but I'm, you know, I'm away from these sheep, you know. I have some sort of uh, truth that no one else does."
JH: When people tried to convince him that the Confederacy was wrong, he wouldn’t give an inch. There was no argument he couldn’t counter…
JS: My, my dad at one point said, "but the South, they had slaves, they-" It seemed like such a basic point. But he said, "the South owned slaves, son. Like, you know, you can't get out of that. They did do that." And I said something along the lines of, "[exasperated sigh] yeah, but you gotta look at how racist the North was too. And uh, also remember that um, the South, like not all of them owned slaves. Like a lot of people uh, were too poor to afford slaves and so uh, they weren't really involved with that.” And I guess that was enough at the time...
CK: At this point… no one John was close to really shared his passion for Civil War... he was a solo Confederate enthusiast… And it probably would have stayed that way. But there were people looking to recruit kids like John...
JS: We had a family historian that was on my mom's side and he attended a family reunion one time, and we started talking. And he said, "Hey, it looks like you know, you're interested, in the Civil War and stuff!" And I said, "Yeah, I am!" And he's like, "you're interested in the South?" And I said, "Yeah, for sure!" And he said, "OK, well, I tell you what um, you should be a part of this organization called the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
JS: We go around and we be sure that the true history of the South is represented fairly, And you know, me being, like, probably 13, 14 when this guy came along, I said, "Sure! Sign me up!"
CK: The idea of joining a group was really appealing to John. As a homeschooled kid he didn't have many friends. And his growing obsession with the Civil War was making him even more of an outsider. Joining The Sons of Confederate Veterans would give him a chance to find his community… He had all the requirements. He was male, and he was the descendant of a Confederate soldier.
Since John lived in a pretty remote part of Texas, he couldn't attend meetings in person... and so he signed up to get involved online.
And the Sons of Confederate Veterans were happy to have him.
JS: They, I think, saw me as somebody who was kind of a hope for them, you know, "maybe we can get young people interested in this thing. The young people generally wind up doing things like running the newsletter, or the website, or whatever tech gigs that you know, that the older folks aren't quite able to do. And so I started running the website.
CK: 13 year old John found fellowship online and recognition for his work…
JS: I got an award one time from uh, the Sons of Confederate Veterans for you know Second Best Website, or something like that. I mean it’s not- it wasn’t a tough competition as you can imagine.
CK: And not long after he’d joined the group, John came across something that excited him more than anything else he’d learned about the war: Black… Confederate… Soldiers…
JS: I was scrolling through my inbox looking through my emails that had to do with Sons of Confederate Veterans. And an email came through, and it had to do with Black Confederate Soldiers"
CK: Groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans talk about black Confederate soldiers a lot… and here’s what they’re saying… free black men enlisted in the Confederate army alongside the very men who were fighting… to keep them enslaved…. Let that sink in…
JS: I thought, "well hey, this, this explains it. This shows that the institution of slavery was not as atrocious as, as many historians portray it. “It shows that it must not have been you know as terrible as many people see it today if people were willing to go out and fight and die for it who were on the slave side of that institution.”
CK: Aiight… let’s just stop right there… This idea that there whole regiments of free black men that were fighting for the Confederacy. That’s that bullshit.
Enslaved people were on the front lines with their masters, but they were enslaved... None of them were enlisted as soldiers…
KEVIN LEVIN: in all of the years that I have been, you know, researching Black Confederate Soldiers, I have yet to find, uh, a single wartime account of a Confederate soldier, or a politician, uh, or even, you know a civilian on the homefront who claimed, that these men were serving in the army as soldiers.
CK: That’s Kevin Levin… he’s a historian who has researched this myth for almost a decade
KL: You don't find that at all and I think that tells us something really important about this, about this myth.
KL: It tells us that whatever slaves were doing, in camp, on the march, on the battlefield even, that Confederates themselves did not consider what slaves were doing as constituting the work, uh, or the responsibility of soldiers.
CK: Towards the end of the war when the Confederacy got really desperate… they told slave owners that they could enlist their slaves as soldiers.…
But this happened just two weeks before the end of the war… so it’s unlikely that even these forcibly enlisted black men ever saw battle.
JH: But the story of black Confederates willingly going into battle throughout the war to defend slavery... it's all over the internet…. On message boards and in blogs and in articles … including one written by John Sims…
JS: I wrote an article for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Put it in their newsletter, and it was on Black Confederate Soldiers.
JH: The idea of black Confederates proved to John that the war wasn’t about slavery. Slavery was just a pretense the North used to violate the rights of Southern states.
After John put that article about black Confederates in the newsletter... he expected praise and admiration from his new friends. He thought they would love it.
JS: The response I actually got was either crickets, just nothing, no response at all, or, or grumbling. Like a, a response of almost like, "why would you lump them in with our people." Like, “why would you lump in these- these, um, African-Americans with the- the valiant soldiers of the South?”
The thing is it solidified to me was there were segments of this organization that certainly were, you know, racist.
CK: John started feeling like the Sons of Confederate Veterans weren’t interested in history… they were interested in what they thought the past should have been…
But John’s view of the Confederate history really started to fall apart after he dug a little more deeply into his own family’s past.
John Sims: The moment where things really started to break up for me was- I was under this notion that none of my family had owned slaves, right? And this is an argument the Sons of Confederate Veterans makes, is that most of the people who were in the South, the white Southerners, did not own slaves. So I was under this impression that, “Maybe, um, my ancestors didn't participate in that dark, but small, part of the South," And I couldn't find any documentation that said that they were slaveholders, or that they were racist, and so I just, you know, I brushed it off, right?
CK: But all that changed when he found an old article about his ancestor Charles Burkham.
JS: It seems several slaves had run away from the plantations of Captain Charles Burkham and Levi Davis, and the two men decided to hunt them down.
CK: What John found out that day was not only that Charles Burkham own slaves… he hunted them down…
JS: And I was uh I think, alone at the time when I read it, and I didn't know what to do. Like after, after I read the thing I, I literally kind of like froze for a minute.
And now I had to go, "no, my family was a direct participant in the events that led up to the Civil War." They were commiters of the atrocities that were brought on the slaves, the African-Americans. And it like always had been there! That's the thing! All of these atrocities had always been there, right. But it didn't quite hit home until I read that.
And I, I closed it and I walked outside. And we were in middle of the country, and I just walked around for like 30, 45 minutes, right. And was like, "Well, shit! Like, this, this is terrible!”
JH: After that moment… John just sort of backed away from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He says he stopped making the newsletter. Stopped returning their emails. And stopped paying his dues. He quit.
JS: Like that part of me just slowly disappeared and I thought, in the back of my head, “well, maybe this is all a bad dream.” And I would just throwaway armfuls of Confederate related materials. And just lived in fear of people knowing about it, or people remembering it, or anything that had to do with me being involved in it.
JH: But John hasn’t fully left the Confederacy behind. He’s still on Facebook, chatting with people who try to relive the glory of the war. But now, instead of building myths… he’s tearing them down….
JS: I’m definitely close to people who were, I mean were in, have, you know, friends and family who are still very sympathetic towards that cause, you know?
CK: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
JS: You know, I have, um, a nephew that's named after one of these Confederate veterans. Every time there's an argument about the statues and stuff it comes back again, you know? And I've got (laughs), I've got two things I gotta do when that comes up. I need to, you know, be public again about who I was, right. And then I've gotta, you know, argue with people who are still in that place and try and, you know, pull people away from it as best I can, you know?
CK: Imagine you were writing an article about Black Confederates today, right?
JS.: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
CK.: With everything that you know. What would you say in that article?
JS.: Oh, man. Well, I would start the article by saying that it's a, like, a centerpiece of slavery deniers. Right? It’s used to justify slavery and the Southern narrative of the Civil War.
I mean in the South, it wasn't like we had hordes and hordes and hordes of African-Americans who said, "Yes, I stand with the Confederacy," you know? (laughs) "I'm here to fight with my brothers." That- that's not what happened.
CK: I mean this myth is such blatant bullshit that it made us wonder… how did it ever take off? And when we dug into black Confederate myth… what we found… is that this revision history is actually pretty recent.
According to historian Kevin Levin, we can trace it back to its beginnings about 40 years ago….
KEVIN LEVIN: The first accounts of, of black Confederate soldiers really doesn’t appear until the end of the 1970s… And in large part in response to the success of the television series Roots.
[ROOTS TV SHOW AUDIO CLIP]
AMES: Get up Toby. Dammit, boy! If you don't understand my meaning, I got a dictionary in the butt end of this whip that'll make my meaning clear!"
FIDDLER: You do what Mr. Ames says now, Toby!
CK: For eight consecutive nights in the fall of 1977… families gathered in their living rooms to watch the story of nine generations of an African-American family. The story starts in Africa but spends most of its time exploring their lives under the brutality of American slavery…
Since the end of the Civil War, kids like John had grown up on the Confederate narrative …. that slavery was a benevolent system with kind masters. That slaves were happy...
Now, American families were watching stories that changed all that. Roots showed in graphic detail, African-Americans being forced to change their names... being beaten and killed… but also that they had resisted slavery all along.
JH: Confederates, who had tried to control the narrative for so long… felt it slipping away
KL: You begin to pick up chatter among Sons of Confederate Veterans who are very worried that this very popular account of slavery, painted the Confederacy in a negative light. They're worried, uh, that their own preferred narrative is, is jeopardized.
JH: Confederate enthusiasts had to respond… so they poured over Civil War accounts…looking for any black men near the front lines that they could portray as soldiers…. And they found them… enslaved men in the camps…
KL: One way they can do that is by, starting to talk about camp slaves as soldiers, right? As full soldiers in the Confederate army that served in integrated units from the very beginning of the war.
JH: So they rewrote these men’s stories to fit their narrative... and they circulated these revised histories among themselves… in Sons of Confederate Veterans meetings and other rallies… and eventually they got the story out of their private clubs… and into the media….
In the 1990s… there were two Washington Times features that suggested... there were Black Confederate Soldiers…
CK: And the story started to gain traction in other places... with even bigger audiences….
After the break, the story of Black Confederate Soldiers finds its way onto popular television….
[ANTIQUES ROADSHOW AUDIO CLIP]
(ANTIQUES ROADSHOW THEME) Welcome to Antiques Roadshow. Hi I’m Mark Walberg and we’ve got thousands of people here who’ve brought their items from home all the way to the appraisal table. That’s no easy task, some people got…
JH: Antiques Roadshow is a program on PBS where people bring in their most treasured items to be appraised by experts… hoping to learn that their family heirloom is worth thousands of dollars… think of it like a big pawn shop... on television.
In a 2009 episode of the show… the black Confederate myth took center stage.. a man brought in an old photograph of a white Confederate soldier seated next to a black man in a Confederate uniform....
ANTIQUES ROADSHOW: The gentleman on the left is Andrew Martin Chandler my Great-great-grandfather the gentleman on the right is Silas Chandler, his slave, or as we’ve always called him, manservant.
JH: The appraiser tried to give context here… mentioning that it wasn’t unusual for a Confederate officer to go to the frontlines attended by what he called a “manservant.”
And while the descendant on the air makes it clear that his ancestor owned Silas...he also describes the two men in weirdly modern terms... like they were friends.
ANTIQUES ROADSHOW: They’re about the same age, joined the Confederate Army when Andrew was 16, Silas was 17 and they fought in four battles together
The men grew up together, they worked the fields together, and continued to live closely throughout the rest of their lives.
CK: But there was one family watching the segment who knew that Silas didn’t enlist willingly... and wasn’t Andrew’s friend…
MYRA CHANDLER SAMPSON: I was on the phone talking with my sister and her daughter was flipping through the channels and she started screaming, "The slave, the slave, our great grandfather." And my sister said, "Oh, turn on Antique Roadshow. they're talking about Silas."
CK: That’s Myra Chandler Sampson… the great-grand-daughter of Silas Chandler, the enslaved man in the photo…
MCS: Oh, I was furious. I thought, "How could he? This is is ridiculous."
CK: Myra had seen this photo growing up…. Many times. ...but where Andrew’s descendant saw two Confederate army buddies… Myra saw something else …
MCS: Ok when I see this picture I see Andrew sitting straight, and tall, and proud. And he’s thin. And he’s- He just looks like an ordinary Mississippi white man.
I see Silas scrunched down. Almost scooted forward. To make him look shorter. And I don’t know if he’d been told to- that’s the way he had to appear when he’s with Andrew.
JH: And, and when I look at that picture… to me, you can’t help but look at Silas and think, “the man is just miserable…”
CK: Yeah, I mean to me, it looks like he’s just looking at the camera going, “Do y’all see this bullshit?”
CK: But Myra says no matter what you see when you look at this photo… there are basic facts about Silas and his life that make his relationship to Andrew and to the Confederate war effort... abundantly clear.
For one -- the pension application that Silas filed…..describes Silas as a servant of a Confederate soldier…
Myra also found a letter from the Chandler family that lays out Silas’s real day-to-day responsibilities… and they didn’t include battle…
MCS: Transporting packages, transporting messages from the plantation to the battlefield. That’s what his, his job was
CK: Eventually by researching Silas’ life, Myra was able to put together the story of Silas the person and what she found was a very different Silas than the manservant she saw presented on Antiques Roadshow…
Myra told us Silas’ family was likely taken from Ghana… he was born in Virginia and taken to Mississippi, when he was 2 years old.
JH: Before the war, Myra says, Silas was already a carpenter…. He helped in the construction of many buildings on the plantation…. And he was loaned out to help build the courthouse in West Point, Mississippi.
MCS: When he went away to the war he had just married and his wife was pregnant. and so his son, his first son, was born while he was away with Andrew. And I’m sure that if Silas didn’t have a family, if he didn’t have a wife back home, and he had a chance to escape, I’m sure he would have. He obeyed his oppressor, and followed directions because he wanted to survive, and he wanted his wife and his unborn son to survive.
JH: After the war… Silas went on to have seven more children… he continued to be a builder and taught his sons his trade… Silas Chandler lived until 1919…
MCS: He’s buried in the Greenwood Cemetery in West Point, Mississippi.
MCS: That’s the black cemetery, the African-American cemetery.
JH: When Silas died, his family had a mason symbol engraved on his headstone -- to acknowledge his work as a carpenter.
But almost a century later, the Confederate supporters came up with a different idea about how to memorialize Silas Chandler
MCS: I believe it was 2003 the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of the Confederate Veteran uh, they, they put an Iron Cross on his grave and a Confederate flag. And they declared Silas a Confederate hero.
It was on all the TV stations and throughout the state of Mississippi. I, I was invited to the ceremony but I told them there was no way in hell that I would attend a ceremony like that.
CK: But of course, that didn’t stop them… and it went far beyond just the ceremony… pro-Confederate groups turned Silas into an icon….There are posters… even t-shirts with his likeness... One t-shirt features Andrew Chandler wounded in battle...
MCS: And Silas is down on his knees, uh wrapping Andrew’s leg. And Silas has on a Confederate uniform with a Confederate cap at that time. And believe it or not I ordered that T-shirt ‘cause, ‘cause I wanted to see it.
JH: These groups… had taken Myra’s ancestor away from her…... They had redefined who Silas was.
MCS: It brought out a temper in me that I didn’t know I had.
If I lived in Mississippi believe you me, I would have taken that Iron Cross off. I would have taken it off and burned it, and made a video, and put it on, on YouTube so they could see it.
They re-enslaved him when they put the Iron Cross and Confederate flags on his grave. And made these t-shirts, and these posters that they sold. Making profit off of a dead slave - they have no soul. They have no soul - just like their ancestors had no soul in order to keep someone a slave and to profit off of their labor.
JH: In the years of Myra’s research and fighting to get the confederate flags and the Iron Cross off Silas’s grave... that picture from the Antiques Roadshow went up for sale. It was sold to a private collector who immediately donated it to the Library of Congress.
JH: when people come into the Library of Congress, and, and go to look at that picture, what, what would you want them to see?
MCS: They should see what a slave was forced to do in order to save his life and the life of his family. If Silas had not done what he did, I would not be here, and my family would not be here. So, they should see a love story.
JH: Uncivil is produced by Chris Neary, Chiquita Paschal, and Saidu Tejan Thomas. We also had help from MR Daniel. Our senior producer is Kimmie Regler. Editing by Caitlin Kenney.
CK: Our show is mixed by Bobby Lord. The music for Uncivil was composed by Bobby Lord and Matthew Boll in collaboration with Ann Caldwell & The Magnolia Singers.
Additional music features JC Brooks, Son Little, Haley Shaw and Saidu Tejan-Thomas.
JH: Fact checking by Michelle Harris… Our secret weapon is Christopher Peak.
Special thanks to Marsha Bailey Ashley…
Kevin Levin’s forthcoming book is called Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth from UNC Press. You can check out more of his research on his blog, CWMemory.com.
CK: Uncivil is a production of Gimlet Media. Our website is uncivil.show. We’re on Twitter and Facebook at Uncivil Show. And don’t forget to join our facebook group: Uncivil Podcast.
JH: I’m Jack Hitt
CK: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika
JH: We’ll see you soon.