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.