The yearbook photo that appears on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s personal page, featuring a man in blackface and another in a Klan robe, looks to me like a modern update of a familiar image from the Civil War, of a Confederate soldier from the slaveholding class posing with his body servant. The history of the Civil War pairing clarifies the meaning of the Northam scandal.
Perhaps the most famous of the soldier-slave photographs depicts Sergeant Andrew Chandler and his uniformed body servant, Silas Chandler. Andrew served in the 44th Mississippi Infantry in the Army of Tennessee from 1861 to 1863. Camp slaves such as Silas were expected to oblige their masters’ every need, including by preparing food, tending to horses, and carrying personal supplies during long marches. Silas likely experienced many of the challenges of military life in camp, on the march, and even, on occasion, the battlefield.
Camp slaves performed essential tasks in an army that was always outnumbered and short on supplies. The historical record makes clear that they were not, on the whole, happy participants in the war effort; they routinely committed acts of disobedience, including running away to join the Union army. But the photograph of Andrew and Silas—likely taken early in the war, when enthusiasm was at its height—reinforced the widely held belief among white Southerners that slaves supported the Cause. The presence of men such as Silas reassured Confederates that invasion, battlefield loss, and even emancipation itself could not sever the strong bonds of fidelity between master and slave.
Indeed, the photographs and stories of camp slaves occupied a central place in how former Confederates reimagined antebellum society following surrender in the spring of 1865. The Silas photo was part of a larger Lost Cause narrative that emphasized Confederate generals as Christian Warriors, a united home front, and especially the loyalty of the black population. Popular lithographs such as Prayer in “Stonewall Jackson’s” Camp, for example, showed the famous general leading a prayer service during the war, his men listening attentively and using their swords as tools of prayer. Alongside Jackson stands his “loyal” slave.
Confederate veterans waxed poetic about their former camp slaves in their memoirs and later in the pages of Confederate Veteran magazine. Carlton McCarthy spoke for many when he wrote, “Never was there fonder admiration that these darkies displayed for their master.”
If slaves were willing to fight alongside their masters, the story went, then the institution of slavery was not brutal, as abolitionists claimed, but an outgrowth of the “natural” power imbalance between whites and blacks. White Northerners, white Southerners told themselves, simply couldn’t understand that white supremacy was both normal and accepted by everyone below the Mason-Dixon Line, including blacks.
The myth of the loyal camp slave took on new importance during the Jim Crow era. Confederate veterans’ reunions often included black men, sometimes dressed in uniforms they had procured during the war. Their participation—which may not have been optional, given the continued power of white landowners over their black employees—reminded a new generation of white Southerners not only of the supposed loyalty of former slaves to their masters, but of the kind of compliant behavior that was expected from African Americans during a period of intense racial unrest.
Monuments and memorials built during this period provided another way for white Southerners to pass down their stories of loyal slaves to a new generation and to maintain and justify white supremacy at the turn of the 20th century. The Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery, dedicated in 1914, features a bronze tableau of Confederate soldiers marching off to war, including a young black man wearing a uniform and kepi. Colonel Hilary Herbert, who chaired the executive committee of the association responsible for the monument, described this scene as “illustrating the kindly relations that existed all over the South between the master and slave.”
More recently, the myth of loyalty took on a different form: The camp slaves weren’t camp slaves at all, some claimed, but actual soldiers who took up arms against the Union.
In the late 1970s, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), which had long defended antebellum Southern society, found itself on the defensive as ordinary Americans became more aware of the true conditions of slavery. The so-called commander of the organization wrote to the membership to describe a plan of action: “To counteract the drive of NAACP to ban the display of the Confederate Flag, the playing of Dixie, etc. and to counteract such propaganda movies as ‘Roots,’ I have persuaded Compatriot Francis W. Springer, a historian and talented Virginia writers to write a book on the contribution of Negroes in the south to the Confederate war effort.”
Springer did indeed produce such a book, and in newsletters and other self-published works, the SCV pressed the idea that blacks had “contributed” substantially to the war effort. The photo of Silas and Andrew Chandler, and others like it, were circulated as “proof” of this fact, with Silas elevated from camp slave to full-on Confederate soldier.
At first, this distortion was confined to the SCV membership base, but the internet transformed the myth of the black Confederate soldier into a viral sensation. Wartime photographs of camp slaves posing in uniform alongside their masters, including the famous image of Silas and Andrew Chandler, now populate thousands of websites.
Unsuspecting visitors to these sites are, of course, never informed that the Confederate government resisted calls to recruit slaves as soldiers until a few weeks before surrender in April 1865. Many Confederates would have agreed with General Howell Cobb, who insisted, “The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong but they won’t make soldiers.” Only a small number of men were enlisted into service, but the war ended before they could be deployed.
The real Silas Chandler will never have an opportunity to come forward, his true story obscured in the service of the lie that slaves served their masters willingly, even happily. Doesn’t the Northam yearbook photograph send a similar message, if only subconsciously? The performance of blackface reinforces the belief that blacks smiled through slavery, and later, the post-Reconstruction period of white-supremacist terrorism, on through the indignities of Jim Crow—that these darkest periods of American history were, in fact, not so dark, but joyous times when all people knew their place. The man in blackface stands next to a man in Klan costume, like Silas next to his master, preposterously content in the company of his oppressor.