Once in awhile I browse on Ebay for cheap Civil War books. A couple of weeks ago I noticed the collection of postwar sources called The New Annals of the Civil War by Peter Cozzens and Robert I. Girardi. I placed a fairly low bid on the book and was lucky enough to win it. There is one account of the Crater that was written by Sergeant Thomas H. Cross who served in the 16th Virginia Regiment. The account was published in the Philadelphia Weekly Times on September 10, 1881.
There are a number of things about this account that stand out. First is the venue. Here we have a Confederate veteran publishing an account of a Virginia battle in a Philadelphia newspaper. Why? Before you point out that Cross is not alone in publishing accounts in northern publications let me mention a few more things. It is 1881 and in Virginia the veterans of Mahone’s old brigade (David Weisiger actually commanded the brigade at the Crater following Mahone’s promotion to division command) are engaged in a bitter feud over their commanders recent foray into state politics and leadership of the Readjuster Party. This bi-racial party split Mahone’s veterans between those who maintained their support for their former commander and those whose decision to side with the Funders reflected a firm belief that Mahone had betrayed the values and goals of their lost cause. Virginia newspapers between 1879 and 1883 are filled with accounts of the Crater that neatly divide along party lines. Cross’s account was apparently written with no interest in these on-going debates in the Commonwealth.
Thomas Cross, however, may have had other intentions in publishing this piece in a Philadelphia paper in 1881. Mahone himself authorized a New York veteran to publish what became a highly controversial short biographical sketch for a northern publication. My guess is that the publication was designed to gain financial support from northerners for Mahone’s railroad interests in Virginia. Back to Cross. Consider his account of Edward Ferrero’s black division:
We had never met Negro troops. We did not know whether we should be met by a sort of savage ferocity or whether we should meet that cool, imperturbable bravery which characterizes men fighting for freedom.
I have spent a great deal of time collecting wartime letters, diaries, and newspaper articles on how Confederate soldiers responded to USCT’s at the Crater. Not surprising they are filled with a deep hatred that was part of deep-seated racial hierarchy that was considered to be threatened by their very presence on the battlefield. Most letters actually dismiss the possibility that black soldiers were fighting for their freedom. Many accounts explain away any apparent heroism by suggesting that they were forced to fight or that their rage reflected the consumption of alcohol.
Among the Negroes captured and sent back to the lines on Monday morning to assist in burying the dead was one who could scarcely speak English. But in a conversation with the writer, in broken English, he told me that he was born in the West Indies, came to New York on a Spanish ship, got leave of absence to go on shore, got drunk, and when he recovered consciousness he was well on his way to Virginia, snugly buttoned up in a blue uniform and cooped up with a number of his race similarly conditioned. He lamented his fate in piteous tones, mingling English and Spanish in due proportion, and with the most emphatic language he declared that if he ever got out of this scrape the American Negro could work out his freedom without hope or expectation of further help from him.
This is quite an interesting story if it is indeed true. Whether it is or not I think it is important that a Confederate veteran of the Crater acknowledges the role of freedom in the actions of black Union soldiers. Most postwar accounts ignore all together the presence of black soldiers and instead concentrate on themes of reunion and reconciliation or on the importance of the authors’ respective unit. I am still stuck with the question of how to explain this Cross’s account. Did it serve some purpose for Cross to briefly reference the role of freedom in the actions of black soldiers at the Crater. Perhaps there is nothing behind this account.
And sometimes a pipe really isn’t a pipe.