Was the Battle of the Crater the Last Slave Insurrection in the Western Hemisphere?

I‘ve decided to begin my Crater manuscript with the forced post-battle march of roughly 1,500 black and white Union soldiers through the streets of Petersburg before being sent to prisons further south or, in the case of many USCTs, back into bondage.  The scene perfectly captures the central theme of my study, which is the evolution of the memory of the battle and specifically the participation of a division of USCTs.  However, even apart from the memory aspect of the battle, by beginning here we also place the event itself in a much different light.  For most military historians the battle represents the culmination of bloody fighting that defined the “Overland Campaign” and the June offensives outside of Petersburg.  It is also the last decisive Confederate victory in the East.  But there is much more to this story than a massive explosion and fierce fighting in a closely defined space.

For the men in the Army of Northern Virginia this was their first experience fighting USCTs on a large scale and it occurred in a battle to defend an important rail center and civilian population in Petersburg.  Apart from the successful defense of Richmond in the spring and summer of 1862 this was the only other time where Confederates could characterize their actions in such terms.  The salient difference this time around, however, was that Confederates and white Southerners no longer looked on the “Yankee” army as simply an enemy that needed to be destroyed, but as the extension of a government that had inaugurated servile insurrection.  If we stick closely to the letters and diaries written by Confederates than we must come to terms with their experience of having to put down a slave rebellion.  I want to get beyond some of the more entrenched interpretive categories, which dominate the discussion that simply highlight the defense of slavery as a motivating factor or explanan for the men in the army as well as the remaining civilians of Petersburg.  It’s their experiences that I am trying desperately to understand.  How do we understand the rage that animated Confederate soldiers both during and after the battle that led to the slaughter of an unknown number of USCTs?  I don’t mean to downplay the sense of horror surrounding the scale of the explosion that caught an entire brigade off-guard and which created a landscape unlike anything experienced before or the emotional demands placed on soldiers in battle.  There would be something significant to explain regardless of an explosion along with the intensity of fighting and it has everything to do with how white Southerners experienced race as well as their place and responsibilities within a slave society based on white supremacy.

It seems to me that to interpret this battle along these lines forces us to look beyond the war entirely.  If the Crater is to be understood as a slave insurrection than we need to better understand how white Southerners had already come to experience both the threat and fact of rebellion.  Relevant events include John Brown’s failed raid, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, as well as both Gabriel’s and Denmark Vesey’s attempted insurrections.  We should also not forget that news traveled far and wide throughout the western hemisphere during the antebellum period.  Americans (especially slaveholders) paid careful attention to news coming out of the Caribbean and would have helped to reinforce assumptions about how best to prevent and understand slave rebellions.

While our tendency in certain circles is to address the role of slavery in Confederate ranks by noting that most soldiers did not directly own slaves it is important to remember that the maintenance of slavery in much of the South involved all white Southerners.  Beyond the social structure itself, which placed all white men above black slaves and free blacks, whites played a number of important roles in the direct maintenance of slavery.  The best example were the slave patrols, which were commonly made up of non-slaveowners.  Such a role would have given white non-slaveowners a clear sense of their obligations not just in the maintenance of the institution, but in the protection of a broad segment of white southern society.  [Can we see the ANV at the Crater functioning as a large slave patrol?]  Again, it is important to remember that the ANV was protecting a civilian population in Petersburg throughout the campaign; these men would have interacted with civilians as they were rotated in and out of the earthworks.

For Confederates and white Southerners their understanding of the motivation of USCTs would have been framed by long-standing assumptions about black inferiority as well as the perceived role of abolitionists in stirring up what many believed to be loyal and docile servants.   Once again, a broader “Atlantic World” perspective is helpful.  One of the most influential accounts of slave rebellion was Bryan Edwards’s Historical Survey of the French Colony of St. Domingo.  Edwards was a West Indian planter, Member of Parliament, and historian and was located in Jamaica when the rebellion in Saint-Domingue broke out.  Edwards’s account placed the blame for the insurrection squarely on the French abolitionists and by doing so set the stage for understanding South Carolina’s attempt to ban abolitionist literature during the tariff crisis and how slaveowners explained Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which followed closely on the heels of the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator (January 1831).  White Virginians worked desperately to frame an explanation that placed blame on outside forces rather than their own slave population, which they believed to be content.  The failed attempt at Harper’s Ferry arguably confirmed the worst fears of white southerners regarding the ultimate goals of northern agitators.

Confederate letters and diaries from the Crater confirm this long-standing tendency to blame abolitionists and other instigators rather than acknowledge any desire for freedom on the part of the slaves themselves.  Many believed that black soldiers were drunk and cajoled by conniving northern politicians and ruthless abolitionist officers.  Sources also indicate that Confederates viewed white Union soldiers as well as officers in USCT units as willing accomplices.  Some Union officers ripped their rank and unit identifications from their uniforms for fear of being treated as leading a slave rebellion.

One of the most obvious ways in which the thinking about slave rebellions can prove helpful is in reference to the post-battle slaughter of captured black soldiers.  According to historian Bryce Suderow, captured black soldiers were executed on three separate occasions, the largest number occurring after the battle.  The exact number is difficult to nail down, but it is not a stretch to suggest that anywhere between 200 – 300+ USCTs were executed.  I’ve tended to explain this mass execution as a function of Confederate rage at having to engage blacks in close fighting.  No doubt this is true, but we should not ignore the catalyst for that rage that extends beyond the battlefield.  An 1816 rebellion on the island of Barbados resulted in the execution of roughly 200 slaves and in Demerera (1823) another 200 slaves were executed following a failed rebellion.  Interestingly, roughly 200 slaves were either publicly tortured or executed following Turner’s Rebellion in 1831.  Such violent responses served a number of purposes, most notably it sent a strong message to the slave community of who was in control, that such behavior would not be tolerated, and that such actions had no hope of succeeding.  A direct and brutal response would also work to drain any remaining enthusiasm for rebellion.  If we apply this framework to the Crater we can move beyond the mere fact of rage and better discern the intended consequences of the scale of the violence meted out to black soldiers.  It is important to note that these men were responsible for the defense of a civilian population and any remaining slaves in the area.  A strong message would have been sent to the region’s (and beyond) black population that any attempt in following in the footsteps of these soldiers would be dealt with in the harshest of terms.

And this brings us finally to the interracial parade of Union prisoners through the streets of Petersburg the day after the battle.  First and foremost, the parade – ordered by A.P. Hill – represented control and submissiveness to the residents who lined the streets and verandas “in holiday attire.”  What I mean to suggest is that the army demonstrated its ability to continue to defend the residents of the city from the Union army as well as captured black soldier.  Once through the city most of the prisoners were sent to prison camps further south while some of the black prisoners ended up being returned to slavery.  While the interspersing of Union prisoners served to humiliate white soldiers it also worked as a gentle reminder of just what was at stake given the introduction of black soldiers into the Union army.  The parade was a controlled example of miscegenation and it was acknowledged as such by local residents.  One onlooker yelled, “See the white and nigger equality soldiers”, while another asserted, “Yanks and niggers sleep in the same bed.”  This latter comment is quite telling.  How much of a jump is it from seeing white men forced into close proximity with blacks to imagining some of the worst case scenarios following a successful slave rebellion?  Of course, there is death, but there is also the long-standing fear of white women being raped by “savage” blacks.

I should point out that I am not suggesting that Confederates who took part in the battle or even most white Southerners who read about the battle second hand thought of it as a slave rebellion or had visions of Nat Turner and John Brown in mind.  What I am suggesting, however, is that over time white Southerners had become attunded to seeing their slave society in a way that was reinforced by a a concern for its continued maintenance and a clear record of what happens when that hierarchical structure is threatened.  Understanding the Crater as a slave rebellion offers a number of interpretive entry points into the experiences of Confederate soldiers that I hope to explore in more detail in the coming weeks.  It also connects our understanding of the Civil War to the broader “Atlantic World” and reinforces my suspicion that at least one Civil War battlefield has something in common with the battlefields of Barbados, Haiti, Demerera, Southampton and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

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76 comments… add one
  • Stan Watson Apr 26, 2019 @ 22:55

    Hello, Mr. Levin: As novice reading the information in this excellent and very informative post, I can only say I am greatly impressed by the information presented herein. If I were to say any more than this, it would only serve to amplify how little I know about the history of the Civil War. I thank you for the article and for all of the posts generated because of your excellent article. You have given me much on which o base further research into the history of this great conflict. Thank you and keep writing!

    • Kevin Levin Apr 28, 2019 @ 12:16

      Hi Stan,

      You should get a copy of my book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, which explores this theme in much more detail.

  • Kevin Chapman Aug 18, 2009 @ 22:19

    Thanks again Kevin,

    I assume we’ll never know the exact amount of how many Union Soldiers turned on their comrades in cold blood..but there are certainly quite a few accounts of it in different literature and internet articles. I think it still has significance to the point you’re making though about the battle of the crater being from a Southern Soldier’s point of view a “slave insurrection”..thus assisting in making the battle become the slaughter it ended up being.

    Whites who were caught assisting slaves rebel against their masters would be shown no quarter as well. John Brown might be an example. There are stories of slave revolts in the north even 120 years before the civil war (see NYC slave revolt of 1741) where white conspirators and aggressors in slave rebellions where tried and executed along side their black counterparts. This might of had to play into the thoughts and emotions of Yankee soldiers as the rebels closed in on the crater in mass.

    Also what different conditions are you talking about specifically..that would cause difference in perception to be shaped about black soldiers in combat? Wouldn’t there be alot of very similar conditions ? Like most Yankees most rebels didn’t own slaves. They also both thought they were superior to any black man due to the nation wide acknowledgment of white supremacy. Both had something to lose in their minds if the black man was given suffrage and equality…meaning blacks taking over jobs and competing for lower wages etc..

    All feared the “alleged” wave of free blacks that would be storming into their communities and taking over.. maybe even raping or sleeping with their women..asserting their manhood on equal terms with white men..

    I guess what I am trying to speculate at is.. wouldn’t the conditions be pretty similar for the common northern and southern solider to shape their perceptions of the black threat?

    And lastly..let me know if this is now a mute point or if you’ve explained this somewhere else and I’ve missed it..But why are you posing the question of the crater being the last slave insurrection in the western hemisphere (or N. AMerica)? Is it because it’s the LAST battle with a highly noted amount of after battle killings of Black Yankee/White Southern soldiers? Otherwise wouldn’t The Battle of Fort Blakeley in Mobile be the last example of a perceived servile insurrection?

    Thanks again!


  • Kevin Levin Aug 17, 2009 @ 16:13


    Thanks for the comment. I’ve made the point about the limited executions of Confederates by USCTs elsewhere, though you are right in noting that it is often overlooked. Yes, I’ve come across a few cases of white Union soldiers who used the buts of their rifles and bayonets against retreating USCTs following Mahone’s countercharge, though I would caution against characterizing the numbers in terms of “many.” In addition, while I agree that white Union soldiers harbored racist views of blacks we need to understand that their perceptions would have been shaped by a set of conditions different from white southerners. Thanks again.

  • Kevin Chapman Aug 17, 2009 @ 14:55


    Very nice point made. I just finished reading “NO QUATER” THE BATTLE OF THE CRATER , 1864 By Richard Slotkin. What an Awesome book.

    He gives vivid accounts of the battle as well as a very thorough view of the performances and success of the USCT’s during their initial charge against the 17th/18th SC and 49th NC on the right flank trenches. Something he mentions in his book that not one of you have mentioned in this whole forum (yes I read the whole forum before posting) was the fact that Some members of the USCT’s not only screamed no quarter but acted it out was well. Principally occuring against the 17th/18 SC troops. This was quickly stopped with sometimes brutal force by federal officers.. but it did occur. It could be possible that some Rebel Soldiers of Elliots Brigade that survived the successful initial charge of Sigfried’s Black brigade passed the word on that Black Troops were screaming no Quarter and some were actually carrying out it out with bayonettes! Thus further enraging those rebels who were warned on their way to battle that they’d be facing black troops.

    The fact of the matter is though this still did not matter. Alabama troops that had no idea that they were facing Negro Troops until they were right up in their faces still reacted by killing wounded and dying blacks just out of sheer rage of seeing them there. Although the gentlemen you carried a discussion with at some point in this forum..(Bobby) had some valid points and great insight to add as a combat veteran…his idea of the slaughter never happening was much flawed and conflicting against the reports of the Rebel Troops he’s honoring and defending. The Slaughter did happen!

    I would also add that many of the Northern Troops shot down their black comrades as to not be caught with them. The “slaughter” was inevitably two pronged. Could it be that the Northern troops, who by no means loved the black man, could have felt that same anger as southern whites against negroes fighting along side of them? Could they have felt that fighting along side blacks degraded them to the status of slave revolters or “nigger lovers”?
    Could their ideology and opinions about slavery and the status of the black man have effected how many of them reacted when it was time to surrender and black men were near them? Accounts given by the 14NYHA, The 9th New Hamshire and the 51st New York all state that before the rebs closed in many Yankee soliders bayonetted or shot Black Troops hiding near them or running past them so that they could avoid being slaughtered for being amongst the blacks. Is this not the same fate they could expect to receive if caught aiding slaves in a slave revolt? It seems that some of them even tried to do it as a show of solidarity amongst white men so that they would be spared any excess harm from their rebel captors.
    Pretty Sad Affair!


    • margaretdblough Mar 11, 2010 @ 2:15

      Kevin-It wasn't reactive on the Confederates' part. It was, to a great extent, reactive on the part of the USCT. No quarter for “negroes in arms” was established Confederate policy. ” A full year before the Crater, Kirby Smith wrote to Richard Taylor:

      Shreveport, La., June 13, 1863.
      Maj. Gen. R. TAYLOR, Commanding District of Louisiana:
      GENERAL: I have been unofficially informed that some of your troops have captured negroes in arms. I hope this may not be so, and that <ar119_22> your subordinates who may have been in command of capturing parties may have recognized the propriety of giving no quarter to armed negroes and their officers. In this way we may be relieved from a disagreeable dilemma. If they are taken, however, you will turn them over to the State authorities to be tried for crimes against the State, and you will afford such facilities in obtaining witnesses as the interests of the public service will permit. I am told that negroes found in a state of insurrection may be tried by a court of the parish in which the crime is committed, composed of two justices of the peace and a certain number of slave-holders. Governor Moore has called on me and stated that if the report is true that any armed negroes have been captured he will send the attorney-general to conduct the prosecution as soon as you notify him of the capture.
      I have the honor to be, general, your obedient servant,
      Lieutenant-General, Commanding.<<

      Porter Alexander was away from Petersburg when the Crater occurred but he spoke to many involved. He wrote in “Fighting for Confederacy”, meant to be a private account of his wartime experiences for his children, explaining why there were comparatively few black union soldiers taken prisoner. He stated that it was the first time that the ANV had encountered black Union troops & they saw it as an incitement to servile rebellion by the Union & they reacted not only against Blacks but whites along with them. Alexander wrote, “Some of the Negro prisoners, who were originally allowed to surrender by some soldiers were afterward shot by others, & there was, without doubt, a great deal of unnecessary killing of them.” (P. 462, “Fighting for the Confederacy.”)

      • Kevin Levin Mar 11, 2010 @ 2:39

        It was indeed Confederate policy by July 1864. The Porter Alexander account is crucial to understanding the Confederate response at the Crater.

  • Lynn Fox Jul 29, 2009 @ 9:28

    Great stuff. I read a book written by a Minister who lived in East Tennessee.. It is called The Last of The Pioneers..It is the rembering of a Slave and his life during these times you are writing about and why the Blacks became so inflamed with Freedom..It is on line to read and isn’t very long, but it is so interesting as to life on the Plantation and everything else that was going on in the country…Lynn

    • Kevin Levin Jul 29, 2009 @ 9:34

      Thanks Lynn and thanks for the reference.

  • Bobby Edwards Jun 21, 2009 @ 14:28


    I let this topic go for a couple of days and did some more reading, especially the Regimental Histories of the 49th North Carolina, the 54th North Carolina, and the 24th North Carolina. They were the North Carolina Regiments, along with a South Carolina Regiment that were closest to the Crater and did most of the fighting throughout the day, along with the number of Southern Artillery Units that had Zeroed In on the Kill Zone. Artillery Kills more than Infantry, especially in the limited Kill Zone. I was in Petersburg Yesterday, and I rode by the Crater Battlefield and walked some of the distances in the records here. The Southerners in reports and letters later after the war and the Stewart report in the Confederate Veteran did report a Slaughter of the Negro Troops. There were also “Slaughters” at Antietam, Gettysburg, Spottsylvania, Wilderness, Chancellorsville, and many other battles that troops were involved in. It was part of common vocubalary, when troops died in large numbers.

    Here’s the problem! You see reports and letters like the Stewart manuscript and see – “Slaughter of Negros”, and You assume or strongly intimate that this “Slaughter” occurs – After They Surrendered. You say I am out of my “League” for “Challenging Comments” of you and some of the other posters on this board. Perhaps you guys have read more books, poured over more letters, and authored published materials that I haven’t. Just acknowledge the fact that based on the several books that I have reviewed this past week, some magazine articles, and content drawn off the web, you guys haven’t yet proven to me that the USCT Negro troops were “Slaughtered” after the “White Flag of Surrender” went up around 3:00 pm.

    What You Have Proven:
    – Large Number of Black Troops were Killed in the Battle:
    *However – Cohorn Mortar’s were placed close by and for hours North Carolina Artillery lobbed Mortar Shell after Mortar Shell into a Backyard Sized Battleground. According to a trooper from the 24th North Carolina, that spot was forever called Mortar Hill

    – There was a Ferocious Zeal among the Confederates to Kill Black Soldiers:
    *However – Lee had sent most of the troops to Deep Bottom, and hardly a Skeleton Confederate Force was left behind, and when the Mine exploded the Crater, the Confederates had a very light defense to meet the attackers. Five Seperate and Independent Attacks would occur from the Federals, large numbers of Confederates were being killed by rifle and artillery fire, and according to the 56th North Carolina – Lee himself was getting prepared to lead a charge; to keep the line from breaking in that area. Overwhelming numbers of attackers, and when the Confederates entered the Crater around 10:00 – they entered with a numerically inferior force, but fought with tremendous Zeal and Courage.

    – You mentioned that USCT Troops were Killed Trying to Surrender: That is Probably True
    *However, they were in Hand to Hand Combat. What that means is that after the Round was fired into the Crowd in the Pit, the Infantryman only had his Rifle and the Bayonet on it to fight. A report of a PA Doctor, who was an officer in the crater, mentions Negros getting Clubbed and Bayoneted. He Mentioned that one tried to surrender, but he also mentioned that while the Confederates were in the “Horrid Pit” that his soldiers were Killing the Confederates, In any Way they Could. The USCT Troops and White Troops had the same method of Killing available to them as the Confederates – The Rifle used as a Club and as a Bayonet. Remember, this is Alley Street Fighting in a Gang, with No one having your back, with everyone trying to kill you. In that Environment – If you Take a Prisoner, You may Die 5 Seconds Later as Someone Else Stabs or Clubs You, Because you are “No Longer Fighting”. The Confederates left the late morning Crater Attack and Resumed their Mortar, Overhead Sniping, and Artillery Dropping Into the Crater. YES – It was a Slaughter, But Federal Troops Kept Coming from the Traversers and the Open Fields, as a Traffic Jam had Occurred and the Troops Couldn’t Move out of the Crater.

    – You Mentioned or a Report Mentioned that Mahone’s Men were Warned that there were Negros that had taken over Elliots Salient and Were Ready to “Break Through” into Petersburg. (I guess this is the supression of a Slave Rebellion that you are talking about).
    *However, the USCT Had on Blue Uniforms and Were Soldiers and Were Not Slaves. They Could become a Slave again, if Captured and Returned – But they were Soldiers First, and they were on the edge of Capturing Petersburg. Mahone’s Men were at Hatcher Run or Burgess Mill. I know that area, and it’s about 18 miles of very hard marching on the double-quick march to make it to the Jerusalem Plank Rd, Blandford Church area by 2:00 pm, the time Mahone’s men attacked the Crater. One hellavu march that would have pushed the infantry to almost sheer exhaustion, without any breaks. The troops went into battle, almost as soon as they got there, probably just a few minutes to form up for the attack to spell them. They went in under a “Black Battle Flag” – Very appropriate for a Back to Back Fight, with no Holds Barred, and no way to really level Rifles and Shoot, or No Way to Really Capture someone, and Sit around with Your Thumb up your Butt, with men beside you and in front of you dying from Federals, who were “Not Giving Up”. Close to 3:00 pm, finally one of the Alabama Adjutants Yelled out to the Crowd – “Why Don’t You Men Surrender”? And, the Reply Came Back from an Office – “Why Don’t You Let Us.” Then the White Flag Went Up, and the Prisoners were Finally Taken.

    “Here’s the Fallacy of the Claim of a Massacre and of a Slaughter” – After the White Flag Went Up. NOW – I don’t care whether You Think I am out of my League. I haven’t found any Proof in the OR Official Records of the Conduct of the Officers in the Crater. Matter of Fact, Kevin – You mentioned that you couldn’t find this in the Official Records either. I will accept that. But, It’s the Official Records that would have Recorded a “Slaughter or a Massacre” – After the White Flag went up. The Federal Officers in the Crater that became P.O.W. – would have mentioned the Crater, or if Groups were Marched out of the Crater Seperately, while P.O.W’s, and later Shots Fired or Men Missing that Were Captured. Blacks were Captured and mixed in with Whites and Marched through Petersburg, and Treated no Differently than Harsh Treatment that Confederates also received that became P.O.W.’s.

    What You Guys have Failed to Prove, and James Bartek intimated that After the Surrender the USCT were Killed and Left in the Crater, and Went Missing – I find to be theoretical without Official Reports from Confederate or Union Officers. A Confederate letter after the war mentioning “Slaughter” used an expression that had been common throughout the war – “Men were Slaughtered in Battle”. Massacre is a Different Topic, and Requires a Much Greater Body of Evidence, which has not been presented here.

    The Only Issue that I see here has been frequent use of the word Negro by Confederate Troops in an Unflattering Manner. You Guys are Applying 21st Century “Political Correctness” to a 19th Century Close up and Personal Battle, With No Holds Barred. Througout I sense and Feel that You have Failed to Appreciate the Elevator Sized Battlefield or Back Yard, whatever – It’s like a Fight of many men in an elevator however – Uncharacteristic of any other time in the Civil War, that I know of. Latter Letters by Confederates Denigrating the Negros in Battle may have been nothing more than personal feelings of the Combatants.

    For the Confederates – “Putting Down a Slave Rebellion”, All the While Fighting for their Own Lives Against Overwhelming Odds in Numbers in one of the Smallest Battlefields that Americans have probably ever fought on, puts too many other Issues first, before you would consider an Esoteric, 21st Century Interpertation of Puttind Down a Slave Rebellion.

    Kevin, although you may have found a limited amount of members on this forum to agree with you, I do think that generally across the spectrum of concerned Southern Historians who are measuring the “Full Picture” – That You have Missed the Mark. Nice Try!

    • Kevin Levin Jun 21, 2009 @ 15:21


      You said: “Mahone’s Men were at Hatcher Run or Burgess Mill. I know that area, and it’s about 18 miles of very hard marching on the double-quick march to make it to the Jerusalem Plank Rd, Blandford Church area by 2:00 pm, the time Mahone’s men attacked the Crater. One hellavu march that would have pushed the infantry to almost sheer exhaustion, without any breaks. The troops went into battle, almost as soon as they got there, probably just a few minutes to form up for the attack to spell them.”

      It’s hard for me to take you seriously when you say such things. Mahone’s division was about 2 miles from the crater. Where did you get this from? You accuse me of applying “21st Century ‘Political Correctness’ to a 19th Century Close Up and Personal Battle” when you can’t even get the basic facts of the battle straight.

      Ultimately, I am not interested in proving to you that a massacre of black soldiers took place. You obviously have not done sufficient research to say much of anything that is helpful on this issue. Every reputable historian of the Petersburg campaign acknowledges that one took place and that is because the soldiers themselves admitted to slaughtering large numbers of black soldiers after they surrendered. There is a salient difference between large numbers of men being killed in battle and large numbers of men killed after they surrendered and because of their racial profile. No amount of wishing it away will get you where you so desperately want to be.

      As for this thread this is it for you. I am no longer going to allow you to post misleading information based on your inability to get even the basic facts straight. I am sorry that it has come to this, but I hope you understand.

      A short excerpt from an article I published a few years back in “America’s Civil War”:

      Many Confederates relished retelling of their experiences in the Crater fighting Ferrero’s division. “Our men killed them with the bayonets and the but[t]s of there [sic] guns and every other way,” according to Labnan Odom, who served in the 48th Georgia, “until they were lying eight or ten deep on top of one enuther and the blood almost s[h]oe quarter deep.” Another soldier in the 48th Georgia described the hand-to-hand combat: “the Bayonet was plunged through their hearts & the muzzle of our guns was put on their temple & their brains blown out others were knocked in the head with [the] butts of our guns. Few would succeed in getting to the rear safe.” Even after acknowledging the bravery of the black soldiers in the crater who “fought us till the veary last,” John Lewis who served in the 61st North Carolina of Hoke’s division and participated in the final attack of the day, was satisfied that “[W]e kild asite of nigers. Both the horror of battle and rage at having to fight black soldiers must have been apparent to the mother of one soldier as she learned that her son “shot them down until we got mean enough and then rammed them through with the Bayonet.” Another soldier admitted that, “Some few negroes went to the rear as we could not kill them as fast as they past us.” Lieutenant Colonel William Pegram described moments on the battlefield in great detail for his wife where black soldiers “threw down ther arms to surrender, but were not allowed to do so. Every bombproof I saw had one or two dead negroes in them, who had skulked out of the fight, & killed by our men.”

      The presence of black soldiers served as a rallying cry for Confederates who did not participate in the battle; writing about the battle served as an outlet through which they could express their own resentment and anger over the use of black soldiers. Describing how, “Our men bayoneted them & knacked ther bra[i]ns with the but[t] of their guns,” as did Lee Barfield who served in the 62nd Georgia Cavalry, may have been the next best thing to being there. Even A.T. Fleming, who served in the 10th Alabama but missed the battle due to illness, could not help but allow his racist preconceptions to pervade a very descriptive account in which Confederates “knocked them in the head like killing hogs.” Perhaps commenting on the dead black soldiers on the battlefield or the prisoners, Fleming described them as the “Blackest greaysest [greasiest] negroes I ever saw in my life.” While stationed at Bermuda Hundred during the time of the battle, Edmund Womack wrote home to his wife, “I understand our men just chopped them to pieces.”

      As a result of their experience fighting black soldiers, many Confederates experienced a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to the cause. Years after the war, Edward Porter Alexander remembered that the “general feeling of the men towards their employment was very bitter.” “The sympathy of the North for John Brown’s memory was taken for proof,” according to Alexander, “of a desire that our slaves should rise in a servile insurrection & massacre throughout the South, & the enlistment of Negro troops was regarded as advertisement of that desire & encouragement of the idea to the Negro.” William Pegram also acknowledged the perceived threat as stated by Alexander when he noted that “I had been hoping that the enemy would bring some negroes against this army.” And now that they had, “I am convinced . . . that it has a splendid effect on our men.” Pegram concluded that though, “It seems cruel to murder them in cold blood,” the men who did it had “very good cause for doing so.” According to Pegram’s most recent biographer, the experience facing black troops during the war renewed his commitment to the values of the antebellum world, “which had given birth and meaning to his nationalistic beliefs.” The experience of fighting black soldiers for the first time served to remind Lee’s men of exactly what was at stake in the war—nothing less than an overturning of the racial hierarchy of their antebellum world.

      Newspapers added to the growing chorus of rage upon learning of the presence of African-American soldiers on the battlefield. Editors not only used the opportunity to share the details of the battle and the cry of “Remember Fort Pillow,” but also reflected on the broader meanings of black participation. One newspaper pointed to the hypocrisy of Northern claims of equality between the races and concluded that “hatred of race never dies out.” “The white man will never fall down to the level of the negro, nor the negro rise up to the level of the white man.” The upshot of such discussion, according to this writer, was “miscegenation, which is but another name for amalgamation.” “Saturday was the first occasion on which the Army of Northern Virginia ever fought against negro troops,” wrote the Richmond Dispatch, “and it is hardly probable that Grant’s darkeys will be over-desirous to run against that army again.” The author of this account could not resist pointing out that “our men, enraged by the cry of ‘No Quarter’ slaughtered them like sheep.” “Comparatively few were taken prisoners, while hundreds were slain.” Perhaps out of a need to explain away what appeared to be fearless behavior exhibited on the battlefield by black soldiers, this writer reduced their conduct to the influence of alcohol: “Negroes, stimulated by whiskey, may possibly fight well so long as they fight successfully, but with the first good whipping, their courage, like that of Bob Acres, oozes out at their fingers’ ends.”

      The presence of black soldiers at the Crater and other battlefields directly challenged notions of Southern paternalism and racial hierarchy. In addition to citing alcohol as a stimulus to fight, others blamed Northerners who “fill the hearts of these confiding poor creatures with vindictive rage and thirst for revenge against their people, their masters, who have treated them with kindness and humanity.” Commentators avoided any acknowledgment that African Americans were engaged in a fight for their freedom and chose instead to contrast Northern “outrages” with the noble Southern soldiers and Robert E. Lee, whom they regarded as “the Christian gentleman without stain and without dishonor.” The fighting on July 30 was not to be understood simply as another instance of indescribable bloodshed, but rather as a fight for survival against an enemy that was now reduced to inciting formerly loyal slaves against their loving masters.

  • Mike Jun 19, 2009 @ 16:22

    Bob my town is Cleburne Texas named for the General and we have his Pistol here in the Layland Museum.


    I will have to try to drive up there and see that some time.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 19, 2009 @ 10:48


    Seagrave was hospitalized, imprisoned, and paroled in October 1864, but died of his wounds the following November.

    The wartime record is crystal clear that a massacre took place. As I stated in a previous comment, no one tried to hide it; in fact, they bragged about their involvement. More to the point, that they bragged about it is important as it reaffirms their role in protecting their families/society from the consequences of a slave rebellion.

  • Timothy Orr Jun 19, 2009 @ 9:35


    That is a vivid account by Captain White, and it is quite a find! Thanks so much for sharing it. I think the wounded officer mentioned by Lt. White probably was Captain Seagraves of the 30th USCT. I know Lt. Bowley mentions him in his manuscript. I don’t have “Honor in Command” in front of me, so I cannot tell you what the editor said about Seagraves’ fate. (I think he survived, but that is just my recollection.)

    Whatever exactly went on in the Crater, I think Seagrave’s example–and many others like it– shows that irregularities in prisoner-taking abounded in that engagement. I’ve looked at the original muster-out rolls of the 30th USCT kept at MD State Archives. A great many of the rank-and-file who fell at the Crater never had their bodies recovered. Interestingly, the roll takers made a distinction between these “missing” and those known to have been “killed in action” and those known to have been “captured.” The unmistakable implication is that Mahone’s Confederates massacred them at the close of the battle.

  • James Bartek Jun 19, 2009 @ 7:17


    Thank you for the link to the digital archives. Good stuff. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree as to the subject of this post.


    In regards to your questions about other USCT officers captured at the Crater, this is an excerpt from the memoir of John Chester White, 1st Lt., 11th US infantry, imprisoned at Libby (Library of Congress manuscript collection). He was apparently acting as a steward or nurse at the prison:

    “There was also another notable case that came under my observation as a result of this engagement. There was a Captain who was brought to the hospital in ‘Libby,’ who had been terribly wounded in the crater, and had had one of his legs broken by a shot, which had brought him down on one knee, while the confederates were shooting down the negroes and the whites who were crowded in there with them. It being his first fight, he did not know enough to surrender, and he was bayoneted through his shoulders and thighs and then struck on top of his head with a musket, which fractured his skull. I have stood back of him as he lay on the cot and watched the movements of the broken longsstructure.”

    “As he recounted it, he had been blazing away with his revolver, after he had been brought down on his knees, and it was then he was bayoneted because he did not surrender, and was mixed up with the blacks. The blow on his head rendered him unconscious, and when he came to, he found that he had been thrown up on the parapet of one of the traverses, to ‘see how he could stand the shell-fire of our own guns,’ as he was told – since their discharges were still going on. When he begged for water, some brute spit tobacco juice in his open mouth. Some other men improvised a kind of support with a spade, and two of them undertook to carry him back from the works, when a rebel officer, noticing them, kicked the spade from underneath him, and declared that the ‘damed nigger-lover’ should have no attention. But he, later, was taken to the Hospital . . . .”

    Keep in mind that this is a memoir written in the form a diary well after the war in which White is relating what he heard from the wounded officer. I was not sure what to make of it until I came across the papers of a William Seagrave (a veteran of the 25th Mass. Infantry and officer in the 30th USCT) located at the Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pa. The collection contains a diary belonging to his brother, James. The entry from August 19, 1864 caught my attention:

    “About noon I recd. a letter from home. Mother was better, had just recd. a letter from brother who was wounded and captured at Petersburg. Was wounded five times, two shots through his leg, bayonette wound in his thigh and left shouldar and a knock on the head, was having the best of care and doing finely.”

    Is it just me, or are the wounds described here similar to those described by White of the anonymous captain? Make of this what you will, but I doubt you’ll be able to verify exactly what happended. Is anyone familiar with a connection between any Massachussetts officers and the 30th USCT or their fates?

  • chris meekins Jun 19, 2009 @ 6:41

    There is no way these men in that hole would have offered up surrender without a massive show of resistance. And this will get slightly off topic but bear with me please.
    It’s a line that traces backward to fall 1863. In the environs of Norfolk VA Gen Ben Butler approved of, among other things, a Contraband farm. USCT recruits and their families could end up on such farms, working for their liberty and growing food for all. Confederate guerrillas successfully raided this Contraband farm and hauled off over 100 of these free people and took them back to enslavement in NC. These actions lead to a small cavalry raid (with USCT members) through seVA in Nov 1863. The success of that raid leads to a raid (December 1863 in the Department of VA and NC (18th Army Corps)). Brig. Gen. Edward Wild lead a party of some 2500 men from Norfolk through northeastern North Carolina to Elizabeth City and back to Norfolk. Gen. Ben Butler, in command at Norfolk, authorized the 20 plus day extended raid to crush guerrilla resistance and recruit for his department. Brig. Gen. Wild hanged one guerrilla (Daniel Bright – about 19 Dec 1863) and took several women hostage to ensure the safe return of one of his men who had been captured by Confederate forces – a USCT private from the 5th USCT (called the 5th Ohio). Gen. George Pickett, in retaliation for the hanging of guerrilla Daniel Bright, ordered the USCT private hanged (this in early 1864).
    Guerrilla commander J. Hinton and Gen. Butler exchanged several snippy notes. Hinton wanted assurance that his men, guerilla fighters, would not be summarily hanged. Butler insisted that if they formed into regular units and met his forces in a field of battle they would be treated as soldiers but if they persisted in the bushwhacking tactics they would be treated as Bright had been treated and to the last man.
    This set the tone between the two commanders of their respective Departments – Pickett and Butler. I believe Butler’s hard line stance contributed to Pickett’s own hard line stance against the men captured at Beech Grove in Feb 1864 and hanged at Kinston.
    Wild continued his harsh tactics with movements into VA. It was Wild who was in charge and refused to capitulate to Fitz Lee – famously saying in reply to Lee’s demand for surrender that his men “Would try it” – meaning they intended to fight.
    Regardless of the examples of Ft. Pillow, Plymouth NC, etc. these men in these units within Butler’s department already knew first hand what fate might await them if they surrendered – there were bodies hanging everywhere to show them what capture could mean.
    It is my own interpretation of these events – never before revealed to human eyes or thoughts. Be gentle. :o)

  • Bobby Edwards Jun 19, 2009 @ 5:32


    Thanks so much for the very valued response. I appreciate the individual examples that you site, and I believe they are valuable in the overall analysis.

    The diversity of opinions that surface in reports after a military situation reminds me of our Units recollections from Vietnam some 30+ years later, when an event that some can remember the days events hour by hour and almost minute – others are foggy to the whole event. In our studies today, we are often looking through two different filters – one from the events of the time and the mores and belief systems that events were measured, and today – when many filter the events with modern day feelings and mindsets of how we evaluate and measure each other as individuals.

    My original readings of this event were about a dozen years ago with a couple of books from the Virginia Regimental or Heritage Series published by H.E. Howard from Lynchburg, VA. They are excellent in the sharing of basic history of the Military Units and key Battles that occurred in Virginia. In the past couple of days I have explored the North Carolina Regimental Records from Judge Walter Clark, which are the Histories of Regiments and Battalions of North Carolina and are easily searched in text or pdf form in the “Eastern North Carolina Digital Project”. But, I am sure that you have surfed them often.


    Including the OR Records of the Officers who reported on what happened in the “Review Hearings of the Crater”, and the details of the North Carolina Regimental Reports, I am not getting the same feeling about what Kevin has introduced about “Confederate Slaughter” of USCT – to Supress a “Insurrection” as he has mentioned. I think that Academics often overlook the “Simple Mindset” of soldiers in battle, when they “Ascribe Psychological and Cultural Motivators” to a “Grunt” about to be overrun in a Battle. Or, in absence of a “Surrender by Officers” laying down Arms and Raising the White Flag, in Hand-To-Hand Combat in Small Places or Tight Quarters, like the Bloody Angle, Taking Prisoners Individually is not a Top Priority. American G.I.’s in the Pacific soon learned that surrendering Japanese Prisoners often carried Hand Grenades or Pistols, and would often kill those innocents. I have no doubt that some of the Blacks and Whites or Confederates who were trying to surrender in the tight quarters of the Pit, Traverses, or the Crater were killed, shot and clubbed.

    Finally the Alabama Adjutant, not understanding why the Union Troops in the Crater were taking a beating finally asked – “Why don’t You Men Surrender”. Perhaps the Leadership that failed so Miserablywith the Union Officers had realized the situation earlier, the incidents of killing those trying to surrender would not have occurred. This close in “Black Flag” mentality occurs often in close-in-combat, it’s part of what happens in combat. I remember many stories of Federal or Confederate Troops who Were Captured, and Then they decided to resume the Battle as other troops came on the scene.

    The “Slaughter” referenced here has more to do with the Incompetence and Failure of Federal Officers, passing up a Brilliant Opportunity as General Grant Saw It. The Confederates were terribly outnumbered, and the Ferocity of Fighting had more to do with being outnumbered than in “Picking on Blacks and Killing Surrendered Troops”. If all of the Federal Troops had been White – The Same Results would have happened with the Fighting Determination of the Confederates Fighting with their Last ounce of Energy. In one of the North Carolina Articles, word got to the troops later in the Battle that they were fighting overwhelming odds, and if they failed in their task – General Lee himself was ready to lead the next attack. This is what those men of North Carolina fought for – they fought for survival, and they fought with the desperate determination to keep Lee out of the Battle.

    Was There Slaughter, After a Surrender? NO – Most assuredly after the tremendous publicity in the media and presses about the Fort Pillow Issue, a Crater Crime of Massacre would have hit the Papers Around the World. Even in the “Review Hearings in the OR about the Crater” – Not a Word from the Officers who were in the battle of “Massacres or Slaughters” of Blacks who had Surrendered.

    The “Parade” Issue? Big Deal, the Troops were simply marched through a town that had come under Artillery Attacks by the Federals. How do you expect Citizens to React to an Army that has been Shelling Your Town, that has Cut off Supplies, that has Shelled Churches, Homes, and Businesses Killing and Wounding the Citizens of Petersburg? The Hissing and Shouting from some of the Citizens Very Normal after having their lives threatned by the Enemy. Did they Drag the P.O.W.’s through the Streets Beating Them? NO . After the P.O.W.’s got on the Train – they were gone. The Insults no worse than what an Opposing Team at a Baseball Game or Football Game Receive in Today’s Athletics.

    James, I am going to Disagree with You about Your Comments – “Connecting” official Confederate Bueractic Response of the Union’s decision to recruit black soldiers as a “Servile Insurrection” – to the Confederate Response to Black Soldiers at the Crater – as “Supressing a Slave Rebellion Is Right on Target”. In my opinion, you are getting this Issue 180 degrees wrong. The Grunts in the Field are Not Walking Talking Burecrats, they are Grunts. They understand Survival and Overwhelming Odds, which they Faced at the Crater. And, That Day they Understood they had to Fight with Everthing they had, with every ounce of energy, and the Issue that there were Blacks Federal Troops in the Way of Survival – There was Only One Thing to Do, Kill them Until They Surrendered.

    For those Tar Heels on both sides of the Federal Attack and in Front of the Attack, their actions to Prevent a Break Through and in Inflicting Great Harm on the Enemy, causing many to Surrender – Was a Great Victory.

    That’s How I See It!

    • Kevin Levin Jun 19, 2009 @ 6:23


      I actually agree with you that academics sometimes do lose sight of the experience of battle and tend sometimes to overstate cultural/political factors. But that is probably not the case here. In all of your comments you have not once addressed the rich body of evidence from Confederate soldiers and civilians that begs for explanation. You would have us ignore it entirely it seems, but that would leave us with an incomplete account of the how and why. Nothing you’ve said provides an argument against applying the framework of a slave rebellion because you haven’t provided any explanation apart from simple denials.

      Example – You said: “The “Parade” Issue? Big Deal, the Troops were simply marched through a town that had come under Artillery Attacks by the Federals. How do you expect Citizens to React to an Army that has been Shelling Your Town, that has Cut off Supplies, that has Shelled Churches, Homes, and Businesses Killing and Wounding the Citizens of Petersburg? The Hissing and Shouting from some of the Citizens Very Normal after having their lives threatened by the Enemy. Did they Drag the P.O.W.’s through the Streets Beating Them? NO . After the P.O.W.’s got on the Train – they were gone. The Insults no worse than what an Opposing Team at a Baseball Game or Football Game Receive in Today’s Athletics.”

      No, they didn’t drag the prisoners through the streets, but an unknown number ended up back in slavery. I guess that happened to white prisoners as well. 🙂 First, this claim is a value statement and tells us nothing about what was said. I provided two examples that shed light on how civilians viewed this interracial parade and yet you give it the back of your hand and compare it to something completely irrelevant. The next example suggests that you are out of your league.

      You said: “Was There Slaughter, After a Surrender? NO – Most assuredly after the tremendous publicity in the media and presses about the Fort Pillow Issue, a Crater Crime of Massacre would have hit the Papers Around the World. Even in the “Review Hearings in the OR about the Crater” – Not a Word from the Officers who were in the battle of “Massacres or Slaughters” of Blacks who had Surrendered.”

      I thought you had at least read some of the secondary sources. Not only was there a massacre, but no one tried to hide it. Southern newspapers reported it and soldiers openly gloated in letters and diaries about taking part in it. Now it is the case that postwar sources did begin to minimize or ignore entirely the massacre for any number of reasons. Most of my book manuscript is about why this happened. I suggest that you be a bit more careful in future comments if you want to be taken seriously.

  • Bob Pollock Jun 19, 2009 @ 4:51


    Just for a point of interest – Cleburne’s sword belt and sash are on display as part of the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield Civil War Museum. It was part of an incredible private collection the park acquired a few years ago.

  • Mike Jun 19, 2009 @ 3:39

    Thanks Kevin I will get on top of that this week. I will try interlibrary loan. Before I buy.

  • Mike Jun 19, 2009 @ 3:27

    I have not got into any modern works on Cleburne yet. All the books at the library are from pre 1950’s. I will be getting several new books this summer and when I am done I will donate them to the Library.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 19, 2009 @ 3:30


      Do try to get your hands on Symonds’s study, _Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War_ (University Press of Kansas). This really matters when it comes to understanding the motivation for Cleburne’s famous petition to recruit blacks into the Confederate army as well as the ensuing debate. Specifically on Cleburne and the petition you will want to look at Bruce Levine’s _Confederate Emancipation_ which is one of the few scholarly treatments of the proposal, the debate, as well as the evolution of memory surrounding it all. Good luck.

  • Timothy Orr Jun 18, 2009 @ 9:36

    Kevin, I assume you have read through Lt. Freeman Bowley’s vivid memoir about his career as an officer in the 30th USCT. (But if not, you might want to look at it, as it will greatly aid the introduction to your manuscript). Bowley surrendered at the Crater and was part of that unfortunate parade through the streets of Petersburg where the citizens of the Cockade City came out to hiss and spit at the black and white captives. If memory serves, the Petersburgers made several attempts to lynch Bowley and some of the other white officers for being leaders of “slave rebellions.” Even after Bowley went south to Richland Jail in Columbia in August 1864, the citizens there made several demands that he be executed. It seems that Bowley’s account might support your claim that many Confederates viewed the Crater and subsequent USCT actions as “slave insurrections.” Kevin, what do you know about other USCT officers captured at the Crater? Did similar issues arise with them? How far did the Confederate states go to attempt to enforce their slave insurrection laws? This is a fascinating idea and I’m curious about it.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 19, 2009 @ 2:28


      Nice to hear from you and I hope your research/writing is coming along well. I’ve used Bowley’s account extensively for exactly the reasons you reference. There are a few other accounts by USCT officers, but nothing that approaches the detail of Bowley.

      Your final question is a really good one, but at this point I can’t say much in response. The only thing that I’ve read that addresses it is Sally Hadden’s study, _Slave Patrols_, which includes one chapter on the war years. Not surprisingly, individual states found it very difficult to maintain discipline given the obvious re: the demands of war. I need to look for some additional sources.

  • Mike Jun 18, 2009 @ 9:25

    Kevin I am doing work on a paper for Gen Pat Cleburne’s birthday next year. In all my reading I kept finding comments about how the Southern Soldier thought about the Black union soldier. They saw them as less than men and shot them like dogs. The More reading I do the less I can accept Black Confederates as being any thing more than Slaves serving their Masters.

    From a quick overview of the Crater IMO it was a race driven Slaughter with in the confines of War. You could in a modern context declare it a War Crime but then you would have to charge Sherman with the same thing.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 18, 2009 @ 9:37


      As you know Cleburne’s proposal went down to defeat after a vigorous debate about whether to enlist blacks into the Confederate army. I assume you are familiar with Craig Symonds’s biography of Cleburne, which is one of the better recent studies.

      I definitely think one could argue that the slaughter of blacks constituted a war crime. After all they were soldiers in the United States Army. I am going to leave the Sherman comparison since I don’t think it is relevant to the confines of what happened at the Crater. Good luck on your project.

  • James Bartek Jun 18, 2009 @ 7:46


    I’ve got a decent collection as a result of research for the ol’ dissertation (may it one day be finished). I suspect we’ve probably mined many of the same archives, and I look forward to reading your manuscript once its published!

  • James Bartek Jun 18, 2009 @ 6:58


    At the risk of covering old ground, let me respond to some of the points you raise:

    As has been pointed out, it seems very likely that USCT soldiers did indeed advance into the Crater with cries of “Fort Pillow.” They had certainly done this at other times and other places. How many Confederates actually heard their threat of no quarter on this occasion, however, is not clear. The Museum of the Confederacy has in its archives a wonderful collection of postwar statements (dated 1903) from Southern veterans of the battle recorded by Virginia colonel William Stewart. Many of the soldiers insisted they heard “Remember Fort Pillow,” and claimed to have replied with – interestingly enough – “Remember Beast Butler.” But, because they were compiled 40 years after the event, the historical accuracy of the statements is questionable. (Kevin – have you seen this collection?)

    More representative of Confederate thoughts at the time was that of Corporal Anthony Barksdale, of Moseley’s Battalion of Artillery, shortly after the event:

    (From the Soldier Letter Collection, MOC, 1 August 1864)
    “The slorter of Negroes was awful. Captured 800 prisoners, 150 of which were Negroes. It gows might against our boys to take Negro prisoners. They would never do it, if General Lee had not ordered it to be done.”

    He says nothing of black references to Fort Pillow, only that his comrades were generally reluctant to take black prisoners. And, of course, judging by the casualty statistics he provides, many did not – despite any purported orders from General Lee. To take black prisoners implied equality, which was obviously problematic for white soldiers who espoused a cause premised on the inferiority of blacks.

    In focusing on the USCT’s alleged (but likely) threat of no quarter as an explanation for Confederate atrocities at the Crater, I think we’re missing an important point, and have placed the cart before the horse. USCT troops initiated their “no quarter” charges only after it became apparent that Southerners were not inclined to offer any to them. USCT troops remembered Fort Pillow for a reason. And don’t forget, it was the Confederate government which labeled the Union’s decision to recruit black soldiers as an attempt to incite “servile insurrection” (or a slave rebellion, if you prefer), which was a capital crime. Hence, to equate the entire Confederate response to black soldiers – and to those at the Crater, specifically – as a suppression of a slave rebellion is right on target.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 18, 2009 @ 7:30


      Thanks for chiming in once again. Sounds like you’ve got yourself a nice collection of primary sources related to the Crater. I have a copy of the William Stewart (Col. 61st Virginia) collection in my files and it is quite interesting. Stewart was quite active following in the war in organizing veterans reunions and he published extensively. The collection in question was probably the result of a questionnaire that was sent out to the veterans of the 61st. I say that because most of them follow a formula in their responses. In addition, Stewart put it together around the 1903 Crater reenactment. It’s not clear whether he mean it for publication – at least John Coski and I haven’t figured it out yet. It’s an important document because it clearly stands in sharp contrast with the reenactment which made no effort whatsoever of USCTs during the battle. However, the men who fought the battle did not forget the experienced and many found it easy to communicate the excitement and anger of what they felt on that day.

  • Bobby Edwards Jun 18, 2009 @ 6:26


    Letters and Diaries add much to the study of a Battle or Campaign, especially if there’s hard evidence that’s corrobrated by other extant reports. I didn’t see any extractions from your collection of letters in the review that you laid out in the beginning. I am sure they were very interesting and unique, almost like a letter written home by a troop who saw the event from his eyes and the eys of those on the left and right. It’s Important allright and adds much to developing a theme as to what happened.

    Historians must have a difficult time to recreate events when there’s an abundant amount of material from different sources. For example, I am sure that the OR Reports that Burnside, Ferrero, and Ledlie authored were very skewed as to the actual outcome. I wouldn’t hold much more faith in the OR Report of Bushrod Johnson, as he was finishing his Breakfast as the Battle was unfolding. Often reports from Officers in the same unit, on the same field of battle will see things differently as they write their reports. I have seen the variety of many differences of what happened, when, and by who – from those who were involved in an event which destroyed our Operations Ctr. in Vietnam.

    I can respect you for exploring something beyond a body of established knowledge and offer a different opinion. That is the nexus that adds variety and excitement to history.

    One thing about the “History” Community – There may be a lot who will agree with your presentation, but there’s always those who may have a different view.

    It will be interesting to see what you got.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 18, 2009 @ 6:36


      You are correct that I did not include any samples of letters and diaries in the beginning of this post. You can browse my CV for publications that include plenty of material if you so inclined.

      I wholeheartedly agree that we must be very careful with both wartime and postwar accounts in our research. The best we can do is collect as much as possible and offer our best interpretation. No one ever gets is completely right and that is why disagreement and debate is essential for progress in our knowledge and understanding of the subject at hand.

      One more point re: the No Quarter claims:

      Most of the accounts that I’ve read suggest that the USCTs charged crying No Quarter, which puts us somewhere around 8am. That means that any accounts by members of Mahone’s brigade, which didn’t arrive on the field until somewhere around 9-9:30 would probably have heard it second hand. Goode’s Virginia and a few of McAfee’s North Carolina regiments also probably heard of it second hand since they were positioned on the respective flanks of the Confederate position. That leaves only a few surviving South Carolinians and initial reinforcements from the 59th and 26th Virginia Regiments as well as 49th and 26th North Carolina Regiments. Given the racial tension it’s no wonder that many included these references in their letters and diaries. I am willing to wager that some even imagined that they had heard these cries personally given their racial import.

      Thanks again for the comments.

  • Sherree Tannen Jun 18, 2009 @ 5:24


    Congratulations on completing your manuscript and on securing a publisher. That is quite an accomplishment.

    I am still on the road visiting Virginia’s historical sites, including the grave sites of my Revolutionary War ancestors, the log cabin that my ancestors built in 1781, and a sacred mountain on which I just completed ceremonies for my Cherokee ancestors.

    It is nice to be home. Talk to you soon. Again, congratulations! Sherree

  • Bobby Edwards Jun 18, 2009 @ 4:52

    James Bartek,

    Allow me to respond to some of your points and issues as I see them.

    The USCT Troops were often used in Federal details for Trench Diggin, Completition of Forts, and more importantly, the majority of USCT Troops around Petersburg were used in an Insignificant Major Project of Building the Dutch Gap Canal. Thousands of Blacks worked on this Project, when they could have been trained to Fight more Effectively.

    Burnside trained two Regiments of USCT troops to lead the attack on the Crater, and the Conversations between Meade and Grant dismissed the idea, perhaps unknowingly insuring the “Disaster at the Crater”. Federal Officers didn’t treat the Blacks much better than the Southern Troops. Remember, Petersburg had a large number of Free Blacks for some time, and in Defeating Quincy Gillmore’s Attack on the Dimmock Line, June 9th – a Black Band from Petersburg arrived behind the Dimmock Line to Play, “Dixie” [From the Book, “Old Men and Young Boys”].

    Later when USCT Troops were used at the Battle of “New Market” and received a Dozen Medals of Honor from Gen Butler, the Truth – “They Fought With Bravery”, Yes. However, the Generous Presentation of Medal of Honor Awards went to men who just fought in a Battle of little Significance. The Harrison Line was quickly adjusted a couple of hundred yards away from the Capture by the USCT, and the number of casualties the USCT took were very heavy. The limited number of Confederates defending the Harrison Line had few casualties and quickly adjusted their defense.

    You Lost Sight of the “Psychological Motives” of the USCT Troops Charging into the Crater and around it – Yelling “Remember Fort Pillow”, and “No Quarter”. The newspapers covered the Fort Pillow Story and gave it great play, and Yes I believe those USCT Troops rushed into Battle, energizing their Psyche and State to Fight Confederates.

    To Suggest that the Confederates who saw the Charging Black Troops shouting “No Quarter” and “Remeber Fort Pillow” as trying to “Put Down a Slave Rebellion” is a Bit of a Stretch. The Ease with which Confederates Killed a Large Number of Blacks, had more to do with Federal Officers Failures of Leadership in the Battle, and the Poor Planning of Burnside [he didn’t have an optional plan using White Troops leading the attack], and the Great Strategic Position of the Confederates Artillery which for hours rained deadly Artillery “Spot On” in a “Killing Zone” the Size of a Back Yard.

    Grant Said it was a “Sad Affair”, and Indeed it was – But, He was referring to the Failure of Federal Leadership and Poor Planning.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 18, 2009 @ 5:13


      Thanks for the kind words. Actually, I’ve been responsible for revising the manuscript for some time so “congratulations” is really not as much in order as “get off your ass and finish”. Glad to hear that you are enjoying your trip and soaking up this wonderful Virginia heritage.


      Once again you reference this “No Quarter” reference with no idea of how many actually heard it. Of course the sight of blacks in uniform enraged Confederates. That is exactly what I am trying to understand in my research. Even if all of them heard it there would still be something in need of explanation.

      As someone who claims to have been in combat I don’t understand how you can minimize the actions that led to USCTs being awarded the Medal of Honor. Do you think they saw their actions in the heat of battle as insignificant?

      Finally, this post is not trying to explain the large number of blacks who were killed during the battle, but the large number that were executed after surrendering. Your final paragraph fails to acknowledge this salient distinction. This post is also not about why the attack failed. It failed for a number of reasons as far as I am concerned.

      I am quite impressed with the background reading you’ve done, but they continue to fail to address head on the crucial points made in my post.

  • Bobby Edwards Jun 18, 2009 @ 4:13


    Good Luck to you on your manuscript with the Civil War Times. Getting items published means that you are “Moving on Up” in your career.

    However, allow me to see things differently, with the facts that I know taking into account, my own war time experience of how men respond to combat situations and what they are thinking while fighting, my living in the area and region that you are using in your example, and my passion for understanding what happened at Petersburg.

    You started with this statement: “how white Southerners had already come to experience both the threat and fact of rebellion. Relevant events include John Brown’s failed raid, Nat Turner’s Rebellion”. (1) Here’s my take on John Brown’s Raid as I see it; It was Poor Planning and Poor Execution – Their Efforts to “Free Slaves” went astray, and their only casualty on their “Raid” was a “Free Black Man”, a Train Conductor, who Instead of Supporting John Brown was Trying to Turn his Party In. The Law at Harpers Ferry found Brown and His Party Guilty and They were Tried and Hung – “Bad Day at Black Rock as Spencer Tracy would Say”. (2) Nat Turner’s Rebellion or Murder at South Hampton County. I have met some of the descendents of the slaves, and the story of “Nat Turner’s Rebellion” written by a local, and this story has had considerable press play for years. The Revolt by Turner and his Crew did nothing more than Murder the Slave Owners and their Child. Not very creative in sparking a “Rebellion” that “Inspired Others”. It was Tried as a “Murder”, and the Guilty were hung as Murderers. The men of Southampton County who were part of the Charge into the Crater, “In Their Minds” may have seen the Blacks there in that Pit as “Murderers”, If you are going to Conjure up a Psychological Reasoning that Men Operate with in Combat. Kevin – My Opinion, the only attitude the Virginians from Weisiger’s Brigade had when charging into the Crater was to Kill Their Enemy – It was War After All.

    “At The Moment” – When men fight, they fight for survival. They Fight to Live. To Live, they Must Kill those who are ready to Kill them. If they are not going to Kill their Enemy, they will lose their own life. Going Into Battle, Before the fight begins, the mind needs to put the body in a different psychological “State”. Men who have been in combat can reach an immediate psychological “State”, ready for battle, as soon as they hear incoming rounds whistling past them, as soon as a mortar or artillery shell lands, and the more activity – The Greater the State. The “Black Flag, No Quarter” was enough to put the Southern Men in State. The USCT blowing through in the beginning of Combat, fresh in their minds Newspaper Reports of Fort Pillow, were in a State, and as they fought “yelling to each other” – “No Quarter”, “Remember Fort Pillow” would have been very appropriate for their need to push their “State for Combat”.

    Kevin, in my own humble opinion, your Interjection of a “Slave Rebellion” isn’t the Strongest Argument of the Situation at the Crater. I am going to have to respectfully disagree with your premis, although I applaud your hard research and devoted dedication to the topic. You may find a broad base of support for your concept, and I would disagree with them also.

    “THE FAILURE” – As I see it that created the Massive Casualties at the Crater had more to do with the Failure of Leadership of Union Officers than the Vengence of Southern Confederates. The Commission afterwards to investigate the “Failure” of the Crater put blame on Ferrero and Ledlie for not giving Guidance and Direction to the USCT and White Troops that got Bogged down in the Crater. Both Ferrero and Ledlie were off in the Bombproof getting drunk, while the battle occurred. The Battle Plan failed Immediately, as soon as the Crater Exploded, the attacking troops instead of going around the Crater, veered into it and started digging out Confederates. Flanner’s North Carolina Battery immediately opened fire on the Crater, keeping large numbers of troops in the Crater, although a few got out and advanced close to the Cemetery, they were insignificant. Burnside forever lost his status as an Officer because of his terrible failures of leadership, and the investigative Federal Commission went against him.

    “The Heavy Number of Casualties” – Had more to do with the Back Yard Sized Killing Zone. Mortar after Mortar crashed into the crater and the traverses and trenches that were jammed with humanity that could not move an inch. The Confederates Position of Advantage, Better than the Stone Wall at Fredericksburg, Better than the Stone Bridge at Antietam, It was the Best Position Advantage than at anytime in the Civil War. The Soldiers Couldn’t Miss when they fired their Rifles from Over the Pit, and Rifle after Rifle were being Passed to the Soldiers on Top of the Rim, just like an Assembly Line. The Fighting went on for hours in an Environment that many of the Confederates thought was under “Black Flag” – No Surrender Conditions, so if Some in the Crater Tried to Surrender, Others in the Crater were Trying to Kill. The Mayhem resembling a Riot at a South American Soccer Stadium with both sides armed with weapons, and there’s “No Way Out of the Statium”.

    Psychological Movitations of Those Fighting in Close Combat of a Life or Death Survival, and Reflecting on Esoteric Values of a “Slave Rebellion”, in My Opinion is a Major Stretch. I don’t See it.

    However, Good Luck on Your Publication.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 18, 2009 @ 4:33


      Once again, I appreciate your taking the time to comment. Unfortunately, much of what you have written has absolutely nothing to do with the claims made in the post. I am not interested in whether Brown’s Raid was poorly planned or your characterization of what Turner’s rebellion accomplished. What I am interested in is how white Southerners responded to these and other events and how that helped shape a culture which reinforced assumptions about the obedience and potential disobedience of their slave population. You make an excellent point about about the nature of battle based on your own experiences and I very much appreciate it, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that soldiers do not go to war as blank slates. How they view themselves as well as the enemy is complex and built on any number of assumptions that are rooted in their respective communities. I maintain that to understand how white Southerners responded to the presence of black soldiers one must place that experience in the broader context of how they viewed their roles and responsibilities in the maintenance and preservation of a slave society.

      Yes, as I’ve said before the casualties were horrendous at the Crater and this had much to do with the confused terrain, but that still does not explain the massacre that took place. As for the “No Quarter” reference I’ve already addressed it in a previous comment. It’s not clear how many men actually heard it through the confusion and noise of the actual battle. I suspect that most of them heard it second hand following the battle and then included it in their letters and diaries, which eventually made it into a number of newspapers. Finally, you seem to be interested in why the Union attack failed, but that is not my interest here. I actually agree with much of what you’ve stated as a reason for that failure.

  • TF Smith Jun 17, 2009 @ 19:34

    Kevin –

    My pleasure; the parallels in the history of the Americas between Anglophone and Iberophone nations are always interesting – at least to some of us!

    As an example, the societies constructed by the metis in the Red River/Manitoba territory before the Rebellion and by the mixed population of the Floridas prior to the 1st Spanish-American war have some strong parallels with Palmares and Canudos…right down to the methods used by the expanding power(s) to take control of the disputed territor(ies).

    Winfield Scott, Garnet Wolseley, and Arthur Oscar de Andrade Guimaraes vs. Osceola, Louis Riel, and Antonio Conselheiro…

    Buena suerte con su libro

  • TF Smith Jun 17, 2009 @ 17:40

    It is something of a tangent, but given my area of interest, I was intriqued by the original question – Was the Battle of the Crater the last slave insurrection in the Western Hemisphere?

    The answer is no, of course, given the often violent resistance by the enslaved in both Brazil and Cuba in the later half of Nineteenth Century – DT Graden’s From Slavery to Freedom in Brazil is a short but detailed treatise of slavery in Bahia, and he contends one way to view the 1896-97 expeditions of the Brazilian Army against Canudos (which Graden calls “the last quilombo”) is as a campaign against what the authorities viewed as little more than a racially-based insurrection.

    The presence of former slaves among the Cuban Revolutionary forces during the war of independence against Spain (Miguel Barnet’s “Biography of a Runaway Slave” comes to mind) would offer another possibility for the “last slave insurrection” question.

    Interesting question.

    I’m looking forward to your work on the Crater – do you have a title and publisher?


    • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2009 @ 17:43


      Thanks for doing my homework for me. 🙂 I should have titled it in reference to the United States.

      I do have a publisher and the manuscript has already been through the first round of readers. I’ve been sitting on their extensive comments for quite some time, but I am hoping to wrap things up fairly soon. I am actually working this post up into a feature article for Civil War Times magazine.

  • Mike Jun 17, 2009 @ 17:18

    Kevin I am looking foward to seeing your work on this project.

  • Bobby Edwards Jun 17, 2009 @ 16:04


    I would like to introduce another aspect concerning the difficulty and possibly the deadly fighting attitude of the Southerner’s against the USCT. I found this source in two different books in front of me, and I have also seen the same issue in a couple of Civil War Magazine articles. I believe the issue will be repeated in several other discussions about this topic because – “It is out there”. First the Sources of the comments I will mention below are from: “The Battle of The Crater” by Keff Kinard Page 60 , and also mentioned in “The Battle of The Crater” – The Horrid Pit”, by Michael A. Cavanaugh and William Marvel. Cavanaugh is a Viet Nam Combat Veteran with a clear understanding of “War Issues”.


    “Shortly before nine o’clock, Mahone, spotting Ferrero’s men preparing for another advance, hurriedly urdged his men into action. Pointing toward the commander of his lead brigade of Virginians, he frantically shouted. “Tell Weisiger to forward.”

    “Filling the morning air with the shrill Rebel Yell, the Virginians, soon joined by a few North and South Carolinians, swept down the slope with fixed bayonets. Survivors of the earlier fighting had inflamed Weisiger’s men with the information that the black troops before them had stormed the Confederate works with the battle cries, “No quarter to the Rebels” and “Remember Fort Pillow.”

    The fort Pillow battle cry reffered to the ill-fated fort in Tennessee in which General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederates allegedly massacred a number of black soldiers. The recent incident was widely covered by the northern press and contributed to the ferocity of the fighting between black troops seeking vengeance and their Confederate foes. A veteran of the action recalled that Mahone’s men truly felt that “to be captured by the negro troops meant death not only to our selves but, it appeared, to the helpless women and children in Petersburg.”

    from: The Battle of The Crater, Kinard, P 60-61

    Inside the Crater from the beginning of the Counter Attack at 9:00 am to about 10:00 the fierce Confederate counterattack threw Ferrero’s troops into a panic, and the troops trying to escape through the covered ways and trenches – Jammed into a pile that wouldn’t move. At 10:00 the Virginians left the crater and Cohorn Mortars were brought in and Shell after Shell landed in an Area the size of my Back Yard. Density of Men – Cohorn Mortars did most of the damage to the USCT Troops in the Crater. It was kinda like throwing hand grenades in the living room non stop for a couple of hours.

    Kevin, There’s several issues going on here
    (1) USCT Troops yelled out in the fighting – “Remember Fort Pillow & No Quarter”. Well, men in combat with a “No Quarter” issued will respond accordingly. An example of the “No Quarter Fighting” was probably that of the “Bloody Angle” at Spottsylvania, in which men in ankle-deep blood fought hand to hand for 18 hours. Weisiger’s Virginians that went into the Crater at 9:00 am – the battle had been on for four plus hours at that time. The Confederates that went into the Crater at 9:00 were actually outnumbered, but entered while many of the Federals were already wounded. I would liken the experience of tens of hundreds or thousands trying to get out of a burning building with narrow halls. There was no room to reload rifles, and if the crowds are jammed up preventing a flow out, the next best attack was from the Reinforcements arriving above. Wesigiers Virginians left the Crater about 10:00.

    (2) COHORN Mortars on the Edge of the Crater – I would imagine that the Cohorn Mortars were the big Killing Weapon in taking the greatest number of casualties of those Federals in the Trenches and Crater. Once again, the field of combat was hardly bigger than my back yard.

    Concerning the Black / White Fighting Issue – Initially some of the Blacks used the “Fort Pillow” sentiment to shout at the Confederates, and in Turn Confederates Shouted back Comments at the Blacks. The Issue of a Black Flag Fighting Situation was in Play in the Minds Probably from Both Sides. Did Hate Kill Most of the Blacks? I would put my money on the Cohorn Mortars any time.

    Bushrod Johnson’s OR Report on Artillery –


    Kevin – Concerning the Parade You Mentioned. I Understand that the U.S.C.T. Troops were Marched to the Train Station, and the Citizens came out on the sidewalks and Cat Called and Hooted at the P.O.W.’s – That also occurred when Federal White P.O.W.’s were taking through town to the South Side Rail Road Station.

    A group of Military Troops can’t travel very well, without marching. For some Military Men Marching is Just Like a Parade. The last time I marched in Military Formation was when our Military Unit was Ordered Evacuated from an Exploding Bomb Dump spraying Shrapnel all over our operations site, and believe me – “That was No parade”.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2009 @ 16:32


      Yes, I am well aware of the wartime evidence which points to some of the black troops yelling out “Remember Fort Pillow & No Quarter” or variations of it. The problem is that it’s not clear how many Confederates actually heard this cry in the heat of battle. As you have noted in previous comments this battlefield was a mess and with all of the noise how much can you actually hear? I’ve come across a number of letters and diaries that reference this, but the soldiers in question were not in a position where they could have possibly heard it. Clearly, they learned of this second-hand. Still, that they felt a need to record these cries of NO QUARTER! is telling for a number of reasons.

      I also do not deny that Confederate artillery did a great deal of damage. We can debate how many were killed by artillery v. execution following surrender, but that still does not explain what no one, including Confederates themselves understood at the time as a massacre. Their letters are very open about this; in fact, they relish in retelling these stories. You seem to want to ignore the subject of my post. Not one of your comments has addressed the need to better understand the racial component of this battle. Yes, white soldiers were also jeered during their parade through the streets of Petersburg, but as I noted in the post what they said needs to be analyzed.

      Understand that I appreciate your comments, but keep in mind that I’ve been researching, writing, and publishing articles and book chapters on this battle/memory for close to 5 years now. I want to get beyond the standard story of this battle and look at the tough questions that all too many people have wanted to ignore for any number of reasons.

  • Naim Peress Jun 17, 2009 @ 12:32

    I think nothing enrages a man more than having his deepest assumptions questioned. That was probably true for the white Southerners fighting the black Union soldiers.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2009 @ 12:48


      No doubt, but the difficulty for the historian is in trying to reconstruct “assumptions” that may not be clearly expressed with the written or spoken word. After all, how much of the way each of us perceives the world is based on historical factors that we cannot explicitly identify?

  • William Jun 17, 2009 @ 12:16

    No Kevin, simply put it was not a slave insurrection at all. Unless you are saying the Union enslaved African-Americans as slaves for their armed forces ? I believe the African-American’s fighting for the Union were freemen.


    • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2009 @ 12:22


      Thanks for the comment, but I recommend that you reread the post. I am not suggesting that USCTs served as slaves in any sense; of course, they were freemen who volunteered to serve. What I am suggesting is that a careful consideration of letters and diaries along with what took place points to the extent to which Confederates viewed their presence on the battlefield as a slave insurrection. I am trying to understand the experience of this particular battle for white Southerners who came face to face with a large number of blacks (some of which were in fact former slaves) for the first time. I am arguing that their experience must be understood as part of a broader story of how white Southerners worked to maintain and protect slavery throughout the antebellum period.

  • Rebecca Jun 17, 2009 @ 10:40

    I really like Sally Hadden’s book but I have not, alas, read Rugemer’s book. 🙂 We can’t read everything!

    I’m reading Herman Bennett’s _Africans in Colonial Mexico_ at the moment. Very enlightening (but probably not at all useful for you!)

  • David Rhoads Jun 17, 2009 @ 9:00

    Considering the Battle of the Crater as an incident of slave insurrection from the Confederate point of view is not at all farfetched. Indeed, in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation such a perspective was the explicit policy of the Confederate government, as expressed in a May 1, 1863, joint resolution of the Confederate Congress approved by Jefferson Davis. The resolution stated in part:

    “Sec. 4. That every white person, being a commissioned officer, or acting as such, who, during the present war, shall command negroes or mulattoes in arms against the Confederate States, or who shall arm, train, organize, or prepare negroes or mulattoes for military service against the Confederate States, or who shall voluntarily aid negroes or mulattoes in any military enterprise, attack, or conflict in such service, shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection, and shall, if captured, be put to death, or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the court.” [OR, Series I, Vol. XXVIII, Part II, p. 235]

    • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2009 @ 9:40


      Good points. There is conflicting evidence over Mahone’s role in the slaughter. Much of it is postwar and must be filtered through the political debates involving his role in the Readjuster Party which generated a great deal of criticism for Mahone – much of it focused on his role at the Crater. I agree with the thrust of your comment. Indeed, it would not have taken much beyond the mere presence of blacks in uniform to send Confederates into a rage, but as your comment implies, we still need to explain the specifics of their violent response as well as how they framed their involvement in letters and diaries.


      You are absolutely right. The joint resolution clearly provides a coherent top-down account of how white Southerners viewed this crucial turn in the war.

  • Craig Jun 17, 2009 @ 7:02

    I think there were USCT units that played a key role at Fort Blakeley when Mobile fell in early April 1865. My understanding is the USCT staged a flank attack a full half hour before the main assault and the attraction of Confederate defenders to the prospect of shooting fish in a barrel substantially weakened defenses at the center of the Confederate lines.

  • James Bartek Jun 17, 2009 @ 7:00

    My thoughts, in no particular order:

    1). The so-called ferocity of the battle certainly contributed to the slaughter at the Crater, as did the acquiesence or outright encouragement by officers to take no prisoners (General Mahone allegedly ordered his men not to take USCT prisoners). Still, I think these are secondary factors, at best. Confederates were enthusiastic killers of black soldiers in their own right, regardless of orders or the “intensity” of battle. The mere presence of uniformed blacks was enough to send them into a rage. While Confederate and Union pickets in the trenches around Petersburg often enjoyed impromptu truces and trading sessions, the arrival of a USCT regiment invariably ended the good times. A common ploy of Confederate pickets was to open fire on a newly arrived black regiment without warning – which clearly violated a soldierly code. The situation was so bad, in fact, that a white regiment which relieved a black unit would warn their Confederate counterparts across the line that they again faced white men – so please don’t shoot at us.

    2). Certainly, Confederates dehumanized black soldiers by labeling them as “niggers.” But this in itself does not explain much. While dehumanization makes it easier to kill the enemy, it does not necessarily equate to atrocity or extermination. Ultimately, words take a back seat to the ideology which informs them. Union and Confederate soldiers often denounced each other as “savages” and glibly talked of extermination. They also denounced the Apache in Arizona and the Cheyenne at Sand Creek as “savages,” likewise talking of extermination. In the latter cases, they actually acted on their words. The epithet “nigger,” therfore, ought to be viewed as something of a neutral (!) term. Yes, it clearly meant that Southerners viewed blacks as subhuman. But it was also a term whose ultimate meaning was contingent upon circumstances. For Confederates, the definition of “nigger” was informed by societal norms – making their definition much different from those proffered by Northerners – and its invocation typically conjured one of two separate images: the happy, ignorant, loyal, well-meaning-but-easily-misguided Sambo character of legend, or the treacherous, devious, and barbarous rebel who might poison a well or murder them in the night. In war, the first might be taken prisoner (or rather, allowed to live) after admitting the error of their ways. The second demanded summary execution.

    3.) Even if the parade through Petersburg was unique (owing more to the location of the train station), the ideology which informed it was not. I don’t know that it matters if the prisoners from Forts Gilmer and Gregg were marched to the rear in a similar fashion, as the end result was the same. The were used for labor, in violation of the laws of war, because they were viewed not as soldiers but as slaves.

  • Bobby Edwards Jun 17, 2009 @ 3:34


    Wilson Greene’s “Civil War Petersburg” does an excellent job of the Petersburg Campaign, especially the last months of the war. I would love to chat with him about the areas around Pamplin Park / Duncan Road / The Hart House / Jones Farm. I would like to buy Green’s Book for Reference, as it was a Library Check out a few months ago from the Library of Virginia. I sure hope that the Pamplin Park gets back on schedule, as Greene does a great job there.

    I have out of Boxes I can get to:
    – “The Petersburg Campaign, The Battle of the Crater – The Horrid Pit”
    – Richmond Reedeemed, The Siege at Petersburg, Richard Sommers
    – Beefsteak Raid, Edward Boykin
    – Blue & Gray’s – Five Forks, Hatcher’s Run and Namozine Church
    – The Petersburg Campaign, “Wasted Valor”, June 15-18, 1864
    – Back Door to Richmond, Bermuda Hundred Campaign, William Glenn Robertson
    – The Destruction of the Weldon Railroad, Deep Bottom, Globe Tavern, and Reams Station
    – The Last Citadel, Petersburg, Virginia / June 1864-April 1865
    – The Battle of Old Men and Young Boys, The Petersburg Campaign – William G. Robertson
    – The Battle of Five Forks
    – The Petersburg Campaign, John Horn
    – Numerous Civil War “Feature Articles on Petersburg Actions”

    And, several of the books like “The Gray Cavalier” of W.H.F. Lee’s Brigade is something that I read often, along with the 2nd North Carolina and the 4th North Carolina.

    Kevin, I appreciate the recommendations for reading.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2009 @ 4:06


      That’s a nice list of sources. Will Greene is a great guy and a talented historian and all of us hope things improve at Pamplin. You may be interested to know that Will is working on a planned 3-volume study of the Petersburg Campaign for the University of North Carolina Press.

  • Naim Peress Jun 17, 2009 @ 3:30

    It’s an interesting perspective. Definitely, what happened here did not happen ina vacuum.

  • Bobby Edwards Jun 17, 2009 @ 3:02

    Tom Thompson

    Patton called the enemy – “Sons of Bitches”, and even more than that in his famous speech, which should be read primarily for the psychology or mindset needed to kill other troops or be killed. Many of the Confederates were already “Battle Hardened” Veterans of many campaigns well trained in Killing. The Patton Speech is an example of “Mindset” once you get into a battle. Many of the Confederates at the Crater were individually killing large numbers for a battle situation, because of the jamming in the Crater and throughout the Traverses. Troop movement from one end of Federal Positions to the Other had at times come to a complete stop and jammed up. For Confederates with a good line of fire – they were the killers, while others were quickly reloading and passing the weapon back to the shooter.

    The USCT were Green at this close in fighting and were astonished by the Confederate’s ferocity, began to panic. Many of them just threw down their arms and fled, falling back on top of the White Troops in the trenches nearby in a “Stampede” that got out of hand. Corporal Newell Dutton, a color bearer in the 9th New Hampshire, described “a mass of worms crawling over each other’. Then Mahone’s men came to the very edge of those traverses and poured a volley into them. Once the Blacks crowded themselves into the Crammed Traverses – No one could move. Confederates rushed to the edges of the traverses and blazed away, causing scores to surrender.

    Close Combat – With USCT and White Troops Mixed Together, Crammed into Sardine Like traverses resulted in large numbers of deaths and casualties.


    No wonder Meade referred to the Confederates as “Wolf Hounds” – Their Experience in Combat Made them Killing Machines.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2009 @ 3:09


      Yes, it was a ferocious battle. Yes, some of the black troops did indeed panic as did white soldiers as well. Keep in mind that elements of individual black units managed to maneuver through the traverses and to some of the most forward positions before Mahone’s counterattack. Also, keep in mind that a number of the white units were also green.

      Finally, it is is true that the ANV had been battle tested, but that does not really address the point of this post which is to better understand how the presence of black soldiers effected white southerners in the heat of battle. This is important if we are to understand the significance of this battle as well as the evolution of the war following emancipation.

  • Bobby Edwards Jun 17, 2009 @ 1:49


    A Parade isn’t a Parade, without a Band. What band played in the Parade? You do know there was a Band that Played June 9th behind the Dimmock Lines as Quincy Gillmore’s troops got some very weak knees looking at the formidable entrenchments and fortifications. Perhaps the Band did it’s part in the defense of Petersburg.

    June 9th, August V. Kautz’s Cavalry attacked at Rives Salient below Petersburg, and after Two Failed Charges, against “Old Men and Young Boys” finally dismounted and with their repeating Henry rifles an hour later finally captured the “Old Men and Young Boys” . After thorough questioning and after “Parading” (?) the Old Men and Young Boys into the Outskirts of Petersburg were met by Petersburg’s Hospital Patients and Prisoners just released from Jail down by Blanford Church. Graham’s artillery arrived on the scene after a rush from the Bermuda Hundred Line, and Unlimbered their Horse Artillery – dropping shells in the midst of Kautz’s Cavalry – Causing Kautz to get Weak Knees.

    The Band defeated Gillmore’s Troops Psychologically, and Maybe they humilated the USCT Troops being “Paraded” through town to the South Side Station for a Train Ride South. In the Book – “Old Men and Young Boys”, the Band that Paused Gillmore’s Troops Playing “Dixie” – Was Black. Wouldn’t it be Ironic, since Petersburg had large numbes of Free Blacks, that the Band that Marched the USCT to the Train Station was Black?

    Kevin, Just a Little Parody, however, Petersburg was not like most Southern Towns at the Time, there were large numbers of “Free Blacks” working in Petersburg’s Shops and Factories.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2009 @ 1:56


      Yes, Petersburg was in fact a home for a fairly large number of free blacks. I highly recommend A. Wilson Greene’s recent study, _Civil War Petersburg_ (UVA Press) for more on this. In reference to your other comment, the men were paraded through the streets of Petersburg for eventual transportation to prisons further south, but that doesn’t explain the interspersing of Union prisoners. We need to explain that. Mahone’s Virginia brigade was indeed from the Petersburg-Norfolk area which explains the great deal of postwar activity surrounding the Crater. Flanner’s battery did indeed do a great deal of work that morning, but a number of other batteries also played a key role, particularly Langhorne and Wright.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2009 @ 1:09


    Got it. I have no idea how to respond to this question so I will have to dig a bit. Damn counterexamples! 🙂

  • Brooks Simpson Jun 16, 2009 @ 18:57

    Forts Gilmer and Gregg were attacked by USCTs at the end of September, and the Confederates captured a number of USCTs and put them to work on entrenchments. Grant stared Lee down on this. Is what’s distinctive to you the parading of the POWs? How did the POWs in September make their way back from the front under guard?

  • Bobby Edwards Jun 16, 2009 @ 18:06


    It’s been a few years since I read information on the Crater Incident. I remember that initially the USCT Unit was to lead the charge, and had been well trained for that responsibility. Earlier in May, at Fort Powhatan, a garrison of about 1,400 USCT held off a Cavalry attack from Fitzhugh Lee who attacked with more than 2,400 men. The USCT Troops held and Fitzhugh a bit humiliated among his peers. Black troops were among the first from Butler’s Army of the James to seize the Dimmock Line over by the NPS location on the Petersburg Battlefield. You had commented to me earlier that Meade had countermanded Butler’s use of the USCT to lead the charge into the Crater. Somehow, I feel that Grant’s differences with Meade and his control over his 2nd in command gave Meade the parameters to conduct movements and decisions at Petersburg. In any way could Grant have been behind the decision to prevent the USCT from leading the troops into the Crater?

    A point of interest concerning the Southerners who went into the Crater to fight the troops who were trapped there – they were from Southampton County, VA, where Nat Turner’s Rebellion occurred. This may explain part of the intensity of the fighting, but earlier at the Bloody Angle, a Battle that was Hand to Hand for 18 Hours and Locked into Close Ground exactly like the Crater – was every bit as bloody. The very small field of battle at the Crater led to some of the bloodiest fighting just like the Bloody Angle. More importantly the quick thinking of Flanner’s North Carolina Artillery Battery immediately after the explosion, where the Battery brough “Spot On” Artillery rounds landing on target. The Battery held the Federals in the Pit long enough for Mahone to make the rounds up and down the line to muster a response force to keep the Federals from coming out of the Crater.

    I know that afterwards many of the Southern Troops that participated in the Battle of the Crater wrote about the Blacks that participated with much disdain that the Federals had used Black Troops. In the Movie – Cold Mountain, you get some sense of the closeness of the Combat and the intensity that occurred. It’s like a Killing Field inside of an Elevator, and the Southern Soldier knew how to take advantage of the clear advantage they had. A few weeks later at Reams Station, General Meade would refer to the “Fighting Style” of the Southern Soldier as “Wolf Hounds”, and I am sure at the Crater, the “Wolf Hounds” of the Confederates came out cornering the Federals in a Perfect Killing Zone.

    Generals Ledlie or Ferraro didn’t help the situation as they remained behind to nurse the courage from a bottle, as Black Troops surged over the Top into the Crater and got caught up behind the White Soldiers who would not leave the Crater or go over the Top.

    Kevin, I may be going to Petersburg in the next day or so as I am trying to fix the spot of Barringer’s Cavalry Brigade being attacked June 21st – the first day of action after the frontal attacks were called off by Grant. I will take another look at the Crater.

    As far as the Blacks being paraded through town. Perhaps they were being loaded on the trains at Southside Station, and the only way to get the POW’s there was to march them through town. There were large numbers of Federals captured around Petersburg, and I imagine that they were all marched through town to show the locals that the Southerners were protecting them, but almost always the POW’s were loaded on the Trains South to Andersonville, Salisbury, or maybe up to Richmond. June 22nd and Mahone’s Capture of Large numbers of Federals, being one of the first instances with a couple of thousand captures to deal with.

    Kevin, a point of contention about the Crater being the last Confederate Victory. Reams Station with the Capture of 3,000 Federal troops and McClellan announcing that he was contemplating “Suing for Peace” gave the Southerners hope and depressed the Northern Citizens back home, but more importantly gave Lincoln great pause that this war wasn’t going the way he wanted, and perhaps any more Reams Station or Craters would give McClellan a Victory in the Fall. Reams Station put Panic in the North.

  • Tom Thompson Jun 16, 2009 @ 17:11

    American history has many examples of war-time atrocities aimed at enemys who are “different” than us. It is not a coincidence that soldiers dehumanize the enemy first…it makes them easier to kill. How much easier must it have been to kill “gooks” and “japs” rather than to see them on more equal terms as simply enemy combatants. Atrocities were not as frquently practiced against “white” enemies.

    The Indians were driven from their homeland by the same dehumanizing mindset. Slaughter them because they are “different”…drive them out because they are “savages”.

    The Colored Troops came ready-made with plenty of those dehumanizing concepts. I doubt that ANV soldiers had to think of them as “slaves in rebellion”, just being “nigger” would have been dehumanizing enough to justify their slaughter. As Voltaire said, “As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities.”

    • Kevin Levin Jun 16, 2009 @ 17:19


      Thanks for the comment. You make some good points, but I wonder whether we’ve given too much up in reducing all of this to the concept, “nigger.” That doesn’t really help me to understand the way in which Confederates responded at the Crater. I want to explain the massacre, the parade through Petersburg, etc. I need more than one word. Rather, I need something like a worldview that had been nurtured by the demands and challenges of maintaining and protecting a slave society based on white supremacy. It’s a complicated story/analysis.

    • Bertram Dobbins Feb 12, 2011 @ 18:43

      I can tell by your first statement about the war in Viet Nam you are not qulified to comment such because you were not there. One of the worst oversites of that war, of which I was a combatant, is that they only showed in the media the, so called, atrocities commited us, the soilder on the ground. We were never ask what had happened to our friends and relitives there.

      Personally I fine most of this descussion non-sence. The brutial bastards that did this to the men were some to the same people that boiled some of my people alive for some of the slitest offences, “looking at a white woman” . You should read some of the accounts of the way they treated even some of our women that were expection children. The ones that, just likd any other woman, were incombert by sowlen brest after child berth. They were not allowed to nerce there children but were required in some cases to nerce the white bitches child.

      For give the outrage I have esperssed but I have a very hard time feeling any sympthy for them.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 16, 2009 @ 16:20

    Hi Becky,

    Glad to see that this post resonates with you. In addition to Edward Rugemer’s _The Problem of Emancipation_ (LSU Press), I’ve been making my way through Sally Hadden’s _Slave Patrols_ (Harvard Press), which focuses quite a bit on the American Revolution. You may want to check it out.

    I also enjoyed Faust’s book. You make an excellent point re: the implications of race and racism in connection with the contemporary debate over “black Confederates.” White Southerners had a long history of trying to prevent blacks from carrying weapons. The Civil War was not a moment where this goal changed; in fact, as the war evolved they became even more desperate to prevent just such an outcome.

    Hope Pepper has an awesome birthday. 🙂

  • Rebecca Jun 16, 2009 @ 14:52

    This is really neat, Kevin. I’m very interested to read your manuscript (even if I cannot comment substantively–it’s outside my area!). I find generally that when historians start to think about battles and wars as slave rebellions, their interpretations broaden in neat and interesting ways–I’m thinking particularly of those historians who write about the Revolution as the largest slave rebellion in American history–thinking about the Revolution that way makes one think about the war, especially after 1777, in new and fascinating ways

    I read Drew Faust’s new book over the weekend and really liked it. There were several passages that I read in light of your work on black Confederates…it seems highly unlikely to me (in light of Faust’s comments on the extreme racism of Confederate troops and their frequent refusal to take black prisoners) that even small numbers of armed blacks in the Confederate army would have been tolerated.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 16, 2009 @ 12:45


    Thanks for the comment. I like the suggestion of framing the afterword around the USCT march into Richmond in April 1865. To your other question I have not come across accounts of USCTs at the Crater. My manuscript has become much more focused on how white Southerners interpreted the battle followed by the evolution of their postwar memories of the battle. Much of the attention given to this battle after the war and well into the 20th century is centered in the South – thus, the focus.


    I tend to agree with you re: the overall response to black soldiers. It’s one of the reasons why contemporary debate about “black Confederates” makes so little sense. Your observation as to why black soldiers were sometimes dealt with less harshly is quite apt. I found a number of examples in my Crater research.


    I’m having trouble trying to interpret your question. Sorry about that. I am not denying that the Crater was a military action, but that to understand how Confederates responded we must broaden our focus. I have a feeling that this is not what you are getting at so I will wait for a follow-up.

  • James Bartek Jun 16, 2009 @ 12:23

    I think comparing the massacre at the Crater to a traditional suppression of a slave rebellion is quite apt. In fact, the entire Confederate response to black soldiers ought to be viewed in that light, don’t you think? Contemporary defenders of the Confederacy are right on one score – Southern soldiers did not fight simply to defend slavery. Rather, they fought out of fear as to what would happen to their families should slavery be abolished and a “savage” race unleashed upon them. In my research, I’ve come across many Southern references to the fate of “St. Domingo” (Haiti), and the thought that the South might suffer a similar fate appears to have been a serious source of terror.

    That the Southern hierarchical structure was threatened by the presence of the USCT at the Crater is clear. Most soldiers did not say so explicity, but heir actions tell another story. Southerners sometimes spared black soldiers, at the Crater and elsewhere, who behaved with appropriate contrition. In other words, they were more likely to spare those who adopted the expected Sambo role, referred to their captors as “master,” etc., and generally acted as obedient if misguided slaves. Those who continued to “rebel” (and fighting alone was enough to qualify as rebelling) by “defiantly” acknowledging upon questioning that they had willingly entered the army, were usually executed – just as their fathers had executed the rebellious Nat Turner and his followers.

  • Brooks Simpson Jun 16, 2009 @ 12:22

    How then would you classify Fort Gilmer and Fort Gregg as military actions?

  • Don Shaffer Jun 16, 2009 @ 12:17

    Dear Kevin: a daring interpretation and an interesting one in terms of seeing how Confederates saw this engagement. I’ll have to keep it in mind as I research black accounts of Fort Pillow. Have you come across African-American accounts of the Battle of the Crater and its aftermath? That’s what I’m trying to gather for Fort Pillow. Certainly, like Nat Turner, Barbados, etc. the black soldiers at Fort Pillow and The Crater were striking a blow for their own freedom. However, the soldiers of the USCT were quite removed from the desperate slave rebels as official soldiers of the federal army. In that regard, maybe the afterword of your Crater manuscript should be the parade of black Union soldiers through Richmond at the end of the war and how they escorted Abraham Lincoln into the city. If R.E. Lee’s army and the good people of Petersburg saw the black soldiers at The Crater as slave rebels its understandable, but they were obviously looking to the past to understand the event instead of the future.

  • Mike Jun 16, 2009 @ 11:57

    I am looking forward to how you will draw all this together. From the surface it looks quite interesting.

    • Ben S. Mar 10, 2010 @ 23:22

      I looked up the idea that Black Soldiers in the Crater would have been executed after I read it in a magazine. I had my doubts, but it is possible. I am sympathetic towards the Southern Side, and am a reenactor, but I think both sides of this debate have a point. In a giant battle, quarter is not generally considered, and certainly many southerners were not pleased with black soldiers. However, it is very assuming to have the idea that all southerners couldn't stand blacks. No one at this time had the ideas of “All men Created Equal by God” except on paper. Many southerners, just judging by the fact that Slavery was detrimental to their income as poor farmers, most likely did not fight for slavery itself. However, even though I believe in much of the states rights reasons for war, there is no denying the racism of the time. Now is it right to say that the Confederates always were ruthless? OF COURSE NOT. I have done research on Black Confederates, and though few in number, there were definitely fighting soldiers. It is political correctness to deny this, and with Bobby, I must agree on this. The Civil War is largely a grey subject matter, and it is almost impossible to take up the position of the Confederacy today without being labeled a racist, but we need to stop the debate every once and a while and make sure that both sides are heard-not just the overwhelmingly pro Union masses.

      • Kevin Levin Mar 10, 2010 @ 23:34

        Thank you for taking the time to comment. The point of the post and soon-to-be published article in Civil War Times is not to generalize about any group. My goal is to better understand how Confederates responded to the sight of black Union soldiers at the Crater. The argument is that we need to understand how white slave and slaveowners alike understood and how they maintained a slave society during the antebellum period. Much of that effort went to the prevention of slave rebellions, which I discuss in the post and in much more detail in the article. The ANV was defending a civilian population and a region that contained a significant number of slaves. The inclusion of an all-black division of USCTs in the Ninth Corps and their use at the Crater constituted a direct threat to both the army and civilian population. Their documented cases of execution of USCTs after the battle can only be understood, I argue, within this broader context.

        Your raising of the black Confederate issue leads me to believe that you assume I am making a moral point about the Confederate cause. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I said, I am trying to better understand the accounts that white southerners penned in letters, diaries, and newspaper articles at the time.

        Thanks again for the comment.

        • Ben S. Mar 11, 2010 @ 0:02

          Your article is very informational. No I was not accusing you of anything, but I was just concurring with Bobby on the basic situation in current Civil War debates. I raised the issue of Black Confederates just as they are hardly ever mentioned, and I saw some posters saying they thought their existance “ridiculous.”

          • Kevin Levin Mar 11, 2010 @ 0:12

            Thanks for the clarification.

            It's not that the issue of “black Confederates” it's that it doesn't make much sense given the fact that the Confederate government expressly denied blacks the right to enlist. There were probably a select few who managed to enlist as soldiers, but they are clearly the exception.

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