WASHINGTON — It is 1861 and the two men are going off to war. They sit side by side before the camera, their elbows and knees touching. They wear the uniform of the Confederacy and are armed with pistols, knives and a shotgun.

But one is white, the other black; one the master, the other his slave. Both stare at the photographer, as if told to be still, and there seems to be a faint look of weariness in the eyes of the slave.

The striking 150-year old tintype, one of the most enigmatic images from the Civil War, has just been donated to the Library of Congress by a local collector who bought it to give to the library.

The photograph shows Sgt. Andrew Martin Chandler of the 44th Mississippi Regiment and his “servant,” Silas Chandler, who was one of 36 slaves owned by the soldier’s mother.

Andrew Chandler is about 17 in the picture, according to records. Silas Chandler is in his mid-20s.

The photograph is a tiny window into the past, but it also presents modern Americans with an enduring image of the role of race in the United States. It portrays two men who are bound, willingly or unwillingly, in a common story.

And it raises the question: Why does a slave appear to be in arms against the crusade that would gain him his freedom?

“It is an extraordinary photograph,” said Helena Zinkham, head of the library’s prints and photographs division.

It is remarkably clear, although the surface is cracked like an old painting and there is rust around the edges. It had been in Andrew Chandler’s family since the Civil War. In the picture, Andrew Chandler sits erect, his coat unbuttoned to the chest, a cap on his head. He holds a large knife in one hand, a pistol in the other, and has a second pistol stuck in his belt.

Silas Chandler appears shorter, slouching slightly in his seat. He wears a broad brim hat, and his coat is buttoned to the neck. He holds a smaller knife in one hand, and a shotgun that rests across his lap and that of his master.

“You look at those faces and you want to know more,” Zinkham said at the library last week. “Just look at the expressions. ... Look at their body language.”

Civil War photo historian Ronald S. Coddington, who researched the picture for his 2012 book, “African American Faces of the Civil War,” said it is one of the most important photographs to come out of the conflict.

“There’s not another image like it, in terms of having an identified soldier and identified servant, that you can track,” he said.

“There’s some bond that brought these guys together and held them together,” he said. “Was it fear? Was it friendship? ... We don’t know.”

Lonnie G. Bunch III, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, said he was familiar with the picture.

“It’s an image that historians have debated because of the discussions of whether or not African-Americans voluntarily served in the Confederacy,” he said.

“The overwhelming sentiment is that African-Americans who participated in the Confederacy were really coerced,” he said. “They were owned. They were enslaved.”

But could the two men have been friends?

“There’s no doubt that there were relationships between owners and the enslaved,” Bunch said. But they were unequal relationships. “Even if they played together as boys, they clearly were told there were distinctions based on race,” he said.

The photograph was donated by McLean, Va., collector Tom Liljenquist, who has turned over 1,200 exquisite Civil War-era photographs to the library in the past four years.

Almost all are pictures of average soldiers or civilians, rather than generals, and are available online.

Liljenquist bought the photograph from descendants of Andrew Chandler on Aug. 15 and immediately gave it to the library. “I owned it for about 10 minutes,” he said last week.

He declined to say how much it cost or identify the seller. But five years ago, on the “Antiques Roadshow” television program, the picture was said to be worth $30,000 to $40,000.

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