Over at H-CivWar Donald Shaffer reviews John Cimprich’s recent study, Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory (LSU, 2005). I read the book and have to say that I was just a bit disappointed. With a title that includes a reference to “public memory” and the presence of U.S.C.T.’s I was hoping for something that would help me think through similar issues about the Crater and memory. Unfortunately, the section on memory was much too short and provided very little information on how to better understand the evolution of accounts about the battle and massacre of black soldiers. A short section of Shaffer’s review resonated with me:
The last chapter again highlights what is the main weakness of _Fort Pillow: A Civil War Massacre and Public Memory_–its brevity. Although there is much worthwhile in this book, Cimprich leaves many significant topics unexplored or underexplored. By focusing much of chapter 7 on the development of Confederate memory, particularly as it pertained to Nathan Bedford Forrest, he leaves the northern interpretation and more recent interpretations of this incident too thinly covered. Indeed, one memory topic begging for attention, which Cimprich virtually ignores, is the recent rise of the neo-Confederate sentiments among Civil War enthusiasts and how this movement deals with Fort Pillow, not to mention its larger view of African Americans in the conflict.
I’ve spent too many bytes on the question of how neo-Confederates handle issues of race and the presence of black soldiers in the Union army. We know the drill: thousands of blacks fought willingly for the Confederacy and were loyal throughout the war. Shaffer rightfully criticizes Cimprich for not discussing more recent attempts to minimize or ignore the slaughter of black soldiers at Fort Pillow I’ve seen the same thing in reference to the Crater. The argument typically has two parts. First, ignore wartime accounts authored by Confederates who took part in the battle and then emphasize until you are blue in the face that Union soldiers also “massacred” black soldiers during and after the battle. One of the best examples of this can be found at the website, The Petersburg Express. This passage is the result of an email that I wrote that was posted on their website. Lucky me.
To isolate the incidents of White Confederate soldiers killing USCT while ignoring incidents of White Union soldiers killing USCT, [USCT killing White Confederates], or the murders of White soldiers by White soldiers on both sides presents incidents of USCT being killed by White Confederates as a false and inflammatory image. It makes it appear that such incidents were particular and one-sided when they were part of a much wider pattern perpetrated by both sides. You also fail to understand that Confederate soldiers served side-by-side with Blacks who operated in the Confederate military not only in support functions, but also as armed Confederate combat soldiers. The evidence of their combat service as contained in the Federal Official Records, Northern newspapers, and the letters and diaries of Union soldiers are so numerous and compelling that the National Park Service has recognized their service undertaken to research those sources and add them to the African-American History Web Project.
I want to start by saying that in my extensive research of wartime accounts I came across a number of Union accounts that expressed the worst kind of racism towards the black soldiers who took part in the battle. A number of soldiers went so far as to explain the Union defeat as a result of black soldier’s lack of courage. I even came across a couple of accounts where the writer admits to seeing black soldiers treated violently by their white counterparts, including one New Hampshire soldier who admits to seeing a black soldier shot as he ran from the Crater.
As I see it the problem for neo-Confederates is that while they are correct in pushing for the recognition that black soldiers were treated poorly on both sides there is simply nothing comparable to Confederate wartime accounts. Letters, diaries, and even newspapers are littered with accounts of how black soldiers were treated both during and after the battle. There should be no surprise about this given the way these men interpreted the site of armed, uniformed, and angry black men. They make clear in their letters and diaries that their presence on the battlefield clarified just what was at stake if the war were lost. Of course racism coursed throughout the country before, during and after the Civil War. No one region had a monopoly on it. That does not, however, cancel the need for a careful study of how Confederate soldiers behaved at the Crater and why. To ignore these accounts is to leave out a salient aspect of the battle. In trying to nail down just how many black soldiers were shot after the battle I rely on Bryce Suderow’s article in the journal, Civil War History [(Sept. 1997): 219-24]. If he is way off the mark then let me know.
In their failure to include wartime sources the website stresses postwar accounts and usually without any analysis. Consider this page which brings together a number of accounts purporting to support the idea of black Confederates. No interpretation of when they were written, by whom, or why, just lay it out and hope that the reader will jump to their preferred conclusion. Anyone familiar with the literature on postwar politics and the trend towards reunion and reconciliation understands the hazards of interpreting these sources. It doesn’t necessarily imply that these sources shed no light on the war, but there needs to be some analysis provided. Isn’t that was serious history involves? Challenging accounts that help us understand what happened at the Crater and why by arguing that racism and poor treatment prevailed in the Union army does not get us any closer to understanding wartime Confederate accounts.