How Mary Bowser Spied on the Confederacy from within Jefferson Davis’s Confederate White House

Two brilliant women—one black, one white—assemble a spy ring in the rebel capital of Richmond, Virginia that eventually attempts a ‘mission impossible’ inside the military planning rooms of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

 

Related:

  • Mary Bowser was a Union spy during the Civil War. She was an American former slave and worked in connection with Elizabeth Van Lew
  • Elizabeth Van Lew: a Richmond, Virginia abolitionist and philanthropist who built and operated an extensive spy ring for the Union Army during the American Civil War.

Black Confederate Soldiers

Toxic Myths of the Confederacy (UnCivil Podcast)

A listener voicemail sends us deep down the rabbit hole into one of the most toxic myths of the Confederacy.

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.

.. From an early age he read a lot of history… and he remembers the first moment he fell in love with the Confederacy…

[MUSIC OUT]

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

.. 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.” 

[MUSIC OUT]

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.

[MUSIC IN]

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.
.. 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!

[END CLIP]

[MUSIC IN]

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 wereBlack 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….

.. 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….

.. 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.”

[MUSIC IN]

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?”

JH: (laughs)

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: 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.

Talking to a Man Named Mr. Cotton About Slavery and Confederate Monuments

“Looking back 150, 200 years ago, it was a way of life,” he says. “It may not have been right, but it was the way of life at the time.”

.. Our trip took us through Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama.

We found that the legacy of the Confederacy has become so embedded in daily life that it will take more than the removal of a statue here, or a plaque there, to address it. That it has become too easy to look past the atrocities that occurred on the serene plantations where you take prom pictures, or walks with your family amid stone sculptures and bright flowers.

.. In some cases, the structures are simply too massive to remove — take the 351-foot obelisk honoring Jefferson Davis in his birthplace of Fairview, Ky. In others, as in Alabama, a law has been established to prohibit the removal of Confederate monuments.

But in many instances, Confederate memorials are not physical. They are better understood as emotional, spiritual and familial connections.

..  Like many pro-Confederates in the South, Mr. Cotton plays down the role of slavery in the Civil War. He believes it had more to do with the North trying to control, and eventually invade, the South than anything else.

.. For Mr. Cotton and other Davis supporters, much of that legend was built on what Davis did before he became the president of the Confederacy. They see him as a heroic West Point graduate who served in the Mexican-American War, and as a United States senator representing Mississippi.

What they don’t highlight are his beliefs about slavery. Davis thought that the institution should be expanded and that black people were an inferior race. These white supremacist beliefs continued to shape American society long after the Civil War was over and efforts to integrate freed slaves gave way to an era of racially motivated killings.

.. “It’s a reminder of hatred and all the wrongdoings that’s been done against African-Americans,” Ms. Jones says of Confederate symbols. “I do believe they have a right to their history, but not at the sake of ours. If you’re going to write part of the story, write the whole story. Tell what you did.”

.. But ignoring the misdeeds of Confederate leaders — seeing Jefferson Davis the statesman without seeing Jefferson Davis the slave owner — is not a luxury available to black people.

 

 

When History’s Losers Write the Story

They were also taking history classes. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader who killed millions of Soviet citizens, was remembered fondly.

“Whatever your view of Stalin, you can’t deny that he was a strong leader,” a counselor told me later over steaming bowls of cabbage soup. “Stalin won the war. He made it possible for us to go to space. You can’t just throw out a person like that from history.”

.. “In most countries you are more likely to get evasion and nationalistic versions of history than tough grappling with the darker parts of your past, and the U.S. is no exception,” said Gary Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton.

.. “The whole notion of honoring the Confederacy and the sacrifice that your family made became part of what we taught in the schools,” said Charles Dew, a Williams College historian

.. Some audiences pushed back, saying, “My family did not own slaves, so how could they have been fighting for slavery

.. In Russia, people choked on memory. As the Soviet Union was falling, the sins of the past flooded the present. Newspapers wrote about Soviet repressions. Researchers began documenting political killings. All this, as Russians were losing their jobs, their savings, their respect in the world and their dignity. They could not afford to lose their past. So Stalin became the man who led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II and industrialized a peasant nation.