Well Done, John Schmutz

I am putting the finishing touches on my review of John Schmutz’s new book on the Crater for H-Net. Given my recent post on understanding the Crater as a slave rebellion you can imagine my surprise when I came across the following passage:

Weisiger’s Virginians were even more sensitive on this issue of confronting black foes than was the average Confederate soldier. A great many of these men had relatives who were slain or had aided in the suppression of Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831, only forty miles down the Jerusalem Plank Road in Southampton County. Most had gone to war viewing Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers as a much larger version of John Brown’s forlorn raid at Harpers Ferry (consequently, also an insurrection of slaves). Almost half of the brigade’s men were from the immediate Petersburg area and saw themselves as standing between their relatives and friends in Petersburg and utter havoc of the same sort that Nat Turner had loosed on their kin years before.

Schmutz captures all of the main points that I made in that earlier post.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t expand on this brief analytical point in any substantive way.  I agree that Virginians would have been sensitive given the local history, but white Southerners were reared on visions of chaos and miscegenation in the event of a successful slave insurrection.  Again, I think we need to understand this in terms of the role and responsibilities that whites (slaveowning and nonslaveowing) assumed as members of a hierarchical society based on white supremacy.  You didn’t have to be from Virginia to identify with these apocalyptic visions.  Schmutz could have done a much better job of understanding the execution of USCTs following the battle as well as the parade of white and black Union prisoners that took place the following day.

Note: I’ve been invited to expand on these ideas for a feature article in one of the Civil War magazines.  I will post my review of this book once it is up on H-Net.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

5 comments… add one
  • Vicki Jun 23, 2009 @ 6:52

    According to Don Reynolds in _Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South_ (LSU, 2007), it was indeed these “apocalyptic visions” that helped lead Texas out of the Union in the first place, despite sizeable communities of Unionists in northern counties, the Hill Country (Germans), San Antonio, Austin, and Galveston, as well as pockets in other areas such as the Big Thicket. Even Sam Houston couldn’t stop it once key newspaper editors pumped up the fear. I’ve read the newspapers, and I live between two burned towns–Henderson and Dallas. I’m sure I would have been afraid, too. The timing couldn’t have been worse…and politicians such as Louis Wigfall and George Chilton took full advantage.

    Vicki Betts

    • Kevin Levin Jun 23, 2009 @ 7:32


      Thanks for the Reynolds reference. Couple that with Charles Dew’s _Apostles of Disunion_ (UVA Press, 2001) and we get a sense of the images that concerned white Southerners in the event of a Lincoln victory. Of course, as Dew shows the arguments of the secessionist commissioners proved to be insufficient in convincing the states in the Upper South that the Republicans represented an immediate threat, but that is not to say that white Southerners in this region did not identify with the fears expressed. Clearly, for many Confederates at the Crater the sight of blacks with rifles constituted a manifestation of their worst fears.

  • Woodrowfan Jun 23, 2009 @ 6:11

    BTW, I get “Virginia Vignettes” in my email and the recent ones have been on The Crater. Aren’t you writing a piece for the Virginia Encyclopedia?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 23, 2009 @ 6:28


      The piece should be finished and sent to the magazine some time next week.


      I am also receiving those emails though I am not the author. I agreed to write a couple of entries for the project, but had to bow out owing to my schedule and other commitments. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you who is writing those entries.

  • Mike Jun 23, 2009 @ 5:57

    Congrads Kevin and I will be checking this out.

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