White Union Soldiers, Race, and the Battle of the Crater

I am putting the finishing touches on an article which is slated to appear in the next volume of Gary Gallagher’s Campaigns of the Civil War Series (UNC Press).  I’ve gone back and expanded the focus (as well as the Crater book manuscript) to include the perspective of Union soldiers and their perceptions of race and the participation of USCTs during the battle.  My collection of sources has included Union accounts from the beginning of my research, however, for a number of reasons I resisted giving them full voice in my study. Part of the reason can be explained by the fact that the postwar focus on commemoration and memory was carried out overwhelmingly by white Southerners.  Given this I decided that my focus on the war years should concentrate on white Southerners.  Since I received the manuscript reviews back in the spring I’ve had a chance to rethink this approach and have decided to expand the focus if for no other reason than to drive home the challenge that black Americans faced from the beginning in working to place their stories within the broader national narrative. 

Recent studies by James McPherson, Reid Mitchell, Earl Hess, and Chandra Manning have highlighted the racial outlook of Civil War soldiers.  Manning has recently argued that the views of Union soldiers evolved to a point which regarded the abolition of slavery as a necessary step in ending the war.  She also contends that a noticeable change in the views of Union soldiers can be seen much earlier than previously thought.  It is important, however, to distinguish (and I believe Manning does so) between a view that connected the end of slavery with the end of the war and a change in perceptions of race.  Even with all of the evidence that Manning musters in demonstrating the way the realities of war and slave system in the South effected Union soldiers I believe we need to be cautious in drawing conclusion which purport to trace views of race over time.  A close look at the response of Union soldiers to their defeat at the Crater is a case in point. 

The other point I want to make before sharing a few wartime accounts is that my inclusion of Union soldiers is not to simply reduce their experiences to those of Confederates (white Southerners).  Racism was no doubt a reality on both sides, but the experience of fighting with or against black soldiers matter and those salient features of their respective experiences need to be taken into account.  While many Union soldiers clearly blamed the USCTs for defeat at the Crater they did not view their participation as a slave rebellion.   Here are a few samples from my collection:

Louis H. Bell to George, August 12, 1864 [4th New Hampshire Infantry, Commander 3rd Brigade]

“July 31st I witnessed the explosion of the great mine in front of Petersburg and took part [in] the charge and was among those who were run over by the panic stricken negros. [W]e used our sabers freely on the cowards but could not stop them and were driven back – pell nell.”

Lt. Hilon A. Parker to Father, July 31, 1864 [10th New York Heavy Artillery]

"Everything went favorable until at 9 o’clock when the rebels attacked our men but the attack – if we can believe reports – could have been easily repulsed had it not been for a panic which scared the Colored troops who gave way and went to the rear with a rush which was almost as baud as the charge of the rebels themselves.”

Edward L. Cook to Sister, August 4, 1864 [100th New York Infantry]

“How do the people North feel about the Petersburgh affair[?] Everybody here is down on the niggers. Our loss was very heavy but a large portion of it was caused by the white troops firing into the retreating niggers. We had Petersburgh in our power that day if the nigs had not been seized with a kind of unusual panic or if we had followed up our success in taking the first line by an immediate charge on the remaining line. The rebel force was very small in comparison to our own as it is proved that only 1 corps was in Petersburgh.”

Alonzo G. Rich to Father, July 31, 1864 [36th Massachusetts Regiment]

“A charge was then made. We gained the fort and the first line of breastworks without a very great loss. They were then halted. We were doing nicely. It was too much glory for white men. Niggers must go in and they skedaddled and created a panic. If it hadn’t been for them we should have occupied Petersburg yesterday by they mixed them up so that they didn’t show white men any mercy att [sic] all. They even bayoneted and shot our wounded…. I am willing the niggers should fight but I say put them all in together and let them fight. If not, keep them out and let the white men do it. They never will catch me in a fight with niggers.”

Orren S. Allen to Wife, August 3, 1864 [112th New York Volunteer Infantry]

“Many try to lay the blame to the Colored Troops, It is a Lie, they fought like heroes, I saw them and I talked with soldiers who has always been down on them before but said they never seen men fight better. They better not say much about the “Smokes” as they call them. When I saw a Brig. Gen. running for his life from where there was no danger. Men were trampled down like grass, ran like cows and but for the bravery of a few they would have been slaughtered.”

Accounts sympathetic to Orren S. Allen’s view are rare among Union soldiers.  Most of what I’ve found place some blame for the defeat on the USCTs.  What these soldiers fail to acknowledge, however, is that those black soldiers were part of the furthest advance on the battlefield before the initial charge of Mahone’s brigade took place around 9am.  The retreating columns also included white men from New Hampshire regiments.  It is not surprising that white Union soldiers would gravitate towards blaming USCTs for their defeat given that their racial views included the assumption that they made poor soldiers.  It is important, however, to notice that even the most virulent racist could still conclude that the institution of slavery must end for the war to be successfully concluded.  So, while I am sympathetic with those who suggest that Union soldier’s views of slavery evolved during the war I am suspicious of anything comparable in the racial context.   

2 comments… add one
  • Forester Mar 31, 2016 @ 10:54

    I am confused by this letter. Alonzo G. Rich, 36th Massachusetts Regiment, says: “They even bayoneted and shot our wounded.”

    Who is “they”? Is he saying that USCT’s shot and bayonetted US wounded? Or am I misreading it? The subject of the last sentence was the USCTs, which implies that’s still who he is talking about.

    USCTs killing US troops sounds dubious to me, though I know the reverse occurred.

  • Emmanuel Dabney Jul 2, 2009 @ 4:24

    I just thought I’d share a Harper’s Weekly article (August, 20, 1864, p. 531, c. 1) which I have always found fascinating as it was published in a national newspaper at the time:


    THERE can be nothing more pitiful than the malevolent eagerness with which certain newspapers deride the colored troops for being no braver than the white troops at Petersburg. Did the unhappy panic at Bull Run, three years ago, prove that white men were cowards? Did the misfortune of the noble Second Corps, five or six weeks since, which General HANCOCK announced must be retrieved, show that they were poor soldiers? Or did ever sensible man say at once that the reputation of that brave corps was not to be lost by a mishap which might occur to the best corps of the best army in the world? Upon occasion of the late disaster to General M’COOK’s cavalry–caused by the fact as reported, that the men were drunk with whisky–is it sneeringly asserted that if the Government chooses to employ white cavalry, nothing is to be expected but that they will get drunk and be whipped on every occasion?

    Of course not. When we read of M’COOK’s misfortune we remember SHERIDAN’s, and KAUTZ’s, and GRIERSON’s and AVERILL’s daring and victorious excursions, and we acknowledge with pride and gratitude the valor of our cavalry while we regret every mischance that befalls them. When we heard that the Second Corps had been flanked and had lost prisoners, we recalled their dauntless conduct at Spotsylvania and in the Wilderness, and chafed with them over the temporary shadow that obscured their name. And every sensible and true American citizen, when he reads of the faltering and retreat of the colored troops at Petersburg, recollects Fort Wagner, Olustee, Milliken’s Bend, and BALDY SMITH’s charge upon the same ground at Petersburg, and knows that the failure is not the proof of cowardice or incompetency, but is one of the painful events from which the record of no corps and no army can be entirely free.

    We have always insisted that colored men should have the same chance of fighting in this war that white men have; and we have always believed that, battle for battle, they would show the same spirit and pluck. Nor has the history of the war, the last assault at Petersburg included, belied our belief. And we may fairly ask whether any class of men—white, black, red, or yellow—whose services had been so grudgingly received and so reluctantly rewarded; who knew that their capture was equivalent to torture, massacre, or slavery, and for whose wrongs retaliation so loudly promised was as yet not inflicted; who were so maligned, rebuffed, and insulted as the colored men in this country are—we may fairly ask whether any soldiers would have fought more steadfastly and bravely and willingly than the colored troops in the Union army?

    The mental and moral condition of those who begrudge fair play to the most unfortunate, but by no means the least meritorious class of our population, is one of the most melancholy phenomena of the times. The want of that fair play has produced the war, and until we concede it the war under some form will continue. The most brutal part of our population, deluded by “Conservative” demagogues, incessantly declare that “niggers are fit for slaves.” The science of all Christian civilization, rejects the foul injustice. It is the conflict of that enlightened sense of equity and right with the ferocious determination of class privilege and prejudice which is reddening our soil every where. Whoever panders to that injustice prolongs that war. Whoever cherishes it postpones the peace which can be permanently established upon Justice only.

    The more thoughtful among those who are committed by party-spirit and jealousy to fostering the unmanly refusal to allow the black race fair play in this country must sometimes clearly see the hopelessness of their cause. They know as well as we that their profession of seeking the real interest of that race is a self-delusion. They know that the word slavery expresses some form of injustice, disguise it as they may; and they are constantly aware that they are fighting against the human heart, against the instinct of civilization, and against the peace of the world. In such a contest, however they may prolong it, they are doomed to defeat and ignominy. They know, as we all do, that General GREENE in commending he valor of the colored troops in the revolutionary battle of Rhode Island is a more humane and ennobling figure to our imaginations than he would have been had he sneered at them as unfit for soldiers because they were “niggers.” For that is not the spirit which makes honorable men or great nations. We, too, are passing into history. And in our children’s eyes which will seem nobler, the men who died bravely fighting upon the slopes of Wagner and Petersburg, and on the plains of Olustee and Milliken’s Bend, or those who contemptuously cried as they read the story of the last Petersburg assault, “Pshaw! niggers never will make soldiers.”

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