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.