Thomas H. Cross Remembers the Crater

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.

4 comments… add one

  • Anonymous May 10, 2006

    The Philadelphia Weekly solicited a series of articles by former Union and Confederate soldiers for a series on the Civil War (prefiguring Century Magazien’s Battles & Leaders). A number of these articles were collected and published at the time as “Annals of the War.” Not all of the articles that appeared in the paper were collected in that book, hence Girardi and Cozzens’ “New Annals of the War.” I think the account of Cross needs to be looked at as part of series very much focusing on the heroism of soldiers while attempting to leave the politics (and causes) of the war behind. Thus there is no need for Cross to start talking about Mahone or the Readjusters because the point of the piece is reconciliation.
    I have not read the whole article, but I was intrigued by the lengthy quote you included. I think the bit in the account about the black soldier and freedom does serve a very important role in the account, but it is in the service of showing the misguided nature of freedom for American slaves. The soldier Cross recounts is not an American, but a foreign sailor dragooned into service by the Union. This sailor was “cooped up” and forced to fight. Cross has demeaned the USCT here by implying that none of them actually volunteered, but instead were placed into a sort of slavery by the Union. The comment at the end of this quote that “the American Negro could work out his freedom without hope or expectation of further help from him” does talk about freedom, but it does imply that the “American Negro” is not fighting for his freedom. Cross implies the USCT is composed of blacks “similarly conditioned” to the dragooned sailor. Cross, while referencing freedom, has done so in order to take agency away from the African-American. The colored troops he faced at the Crater are not heroic free blacks and former slaves, instead they are drunken sailors scooped up by Yankee press gangs. The sailor has no interest helping the “American Negro could work out his freedom.” African-Americans obviously don’t care about their freedom because they are not serving in the USCT (only dragooned sailors and others in like circumstances). Even those of the same race could care less about the freedom of the slave. It seems that the implication is to dismiss the freedom of African-Americans here, because if they don’t care enough about their freedom to serve, and other black don’t care about their freedom, then why should whites? The general thrust of this passage seems less about acknowledging that freedom for slaves was a cause of the Civil War, but to show how disinterested slaves (and even free blacks) were about the goal of freedom.

  • Kevin Levin May 10, 2006

    Thanks for the lengthy comment. I tend to agree with you that the account probably better reflects the growing theme and popularity of reunion. That said, I don’t follow your thinking re: the last selection and Cross’s view of black soldiers. Specifically, I don’t see how you get to the conclusion that the story reflects a general assessment about the motivation of all black soldiers. Why not read the assessment of this foreigner as a reflection of his own view of the war rather than a broader indictment of the motivation of all black soldiers? You may be right, but I would need to see a few more steps before the conclusion.

    Thanks for the introduction re: the origin of the book. I should have included a brief introduction.

  • Anonymous May 10, 2006

    You are right that it is a bit of a jump between the one foreign soldier and the comment about all black soldiers. I tend to privilege the assertion Cross makes that the one foreign soldier was “cooped up with a number of his race similarly conditioned.” It seems to me that in this passage, “conditioned” doesn’t mean the attire of the soldiers but the conditions of how they came into US service. I think this is the first jump I make. If you buy that then the next move is to point out that Cross himself doesn’t say this, but puts it in the mouth of the foreign black. Cross had an encounter with a black soldier who told him that the colored troops were foreigners impressed into US service. So not only is Cross saying that this one soldier is not American but also that the same holds true for his comrades. I think this is the second jump I made. The third move comes with the comment the foreign soldier makes that “the American Negro could work out his freedom.” In the view of the foreign soldier, the African-American is doing a poor job of working out his freedom for himself, that is, foreign black have to be kidnapped to fight for the US on behalf of the African-American. The implication seems to be that the African-American doesn’t really want freedom that much, a typical Lost Cause view. I think you are completely correct that this article shows the view Cross held of the war. It is also a very subtle way for him I believe to comment on the motivation (or lack thereof) of African-Americans in securing their freedom. Taken with the context that Southern slavery in particular was good for the black, it is not surprising that Cross can have this friendly chat with the foreign black and even seem to sympathize with his impressment.
    I apologize if my earlier post was a bit muddled and unclear. Did this clarify things at all?

  • Kevin Levin May 10, 2006

    Thanks for the clarification. I thought a bit about your initial comment and arrived at an interpretation very close to yours. Your “jumps” are very reasonable. Given that Cross is publishing in a northern newspaper this story may be a way for him to slip in a racial bias in a way that will not overly offend his audience. Thanks for writing. This was very helpful.

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