I am putting the finishing stages on my essay which examines events that transpired at the conclusion of the fighting at the Crater. In a recent post I suggested that one way to interpret the response of Confederates to the presence of black Union soldiers was along the lines of a slave rebellion. That post generated a great deal of feedback, much of it critical and greatly appreciated. I also ended up having an interesting exchange with a good friend and fellow historian on Facebook which was quite helpful. [That’s right, you can engage in intellectual exchanges on FB.] This individual suggested that it was a mistake for me to argue that the Crater was a slave rebellion since the men who fought in Union ranks were not slaves. There was also the concern expressed that by characterizing it as such I would minimize, if not distort, the significance of their participation.
In the strictest sense I am not arguing that the Crater was a slave rebellion. An entire division of free blacks and former slaves donned the uniform of the United States of America. Indeed, there is a real risk of losing sight of this crucial fact if I were simply to reduce their presence to that of slaves. The recruitment and service of these individuals comprises an important place in the broader narrative of this country’s history of freedom and race relations. The last thing that I would ever want to do is contribute to the collective amnesia and misunderstanding that has for far too long characterized our memory of USCTs.
What I am arguing is that the massacre of USCTs by Confederates along with their wartime accounts must be understood within the broader context of the history of slave rebellions (real and imagined) that stretched back to the beginning of the nineteenth-century. As I’ve stated before, all too often the actions of Confederates in response to the presence of USCTs has been reduced to one of uncontrolled rage. Others have given a nod to the role that race played in their actions and written accounts, but have failed to fully explain their particular form. After all, race/racism can shape our actions and thoughts in any number of ways. Why did it lead to a massacre and how can we explain the convergence of thought in the accounts written by Confederates who took part in the battle or who learned of it later?
At the root of my argument is the assumption that collective violence cannot be reduced to an undefined rage that is left disconnected from broader cultural, social, and political practices. In short, violence often serves to maintain a certain way of life. The swift and often violent responses to rumors and actual rebellions helped to shape the perceptions of white southerners throughout the antebellum period and helped to unite them around the shared goal of maintaining a slave society based on white supremacy. Such violence not only helped to maintain the stability of the region, but reinforced shared assumptions about why insurrections occurred at all and who was to blame. Swift and violent responses became sanctioned and provided a visual reassurance that steps were being taken to prevent future insurrections.
I am convinced that the interracial parade that took place the following day in Petersburg along with the detailed reports of the massacres found in letters and newspapers served to reassure white southerners on the home front and even functioned so as to allow them to “witness” the violence and aftermath through the eyes of loved ones at the front. It was imperative that those on the home front understand the dangers that black soldiers represented to their way of life. Newspaper accounts suggest that many viewed the response of Lee’s men at the Crater as they had come to view the necessity of swift action against rebellious slaves before the war. This was socially and culturally sanctioned violence that took place in the aftermath of the Crater. Consider this editorial from a Richmond paper, which I posted last week:
We beg him [Mahone], hereafter, when negroes are sent forward to murder the wounded, and come shouting “no quarter,” shut your eyes, General, strengthen your stomach with a little brandy and water, and let the work, which God has entrusted to you and your brave men, go forward to its full completion; that is, until every negro has been slaughtered.—Make every salient you are called upon to defend, a Fort Pillow; butcher every negro that Grant sends against your brave troops, and permit them not to soil their hands with the capture of a single hero.
Notice the choice of words: “Butcher every negro,” and not every black soldier. Indeed, white southerners did not view these men as soldiers; rather, their cultural framework reduced blacks to slaves and armed blacks to a direct threat to their security and place in a strictly-defined social order. I’ve found Amy Louise Wood’s Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (UNC Press, 2009) to be quite helpful in fleshing out the extent to which violence functioned to maintain a collective identity as well as a strictly defined political, social, and racial hierarchy. “But even the violence and those deaths were themselves representations,” writes Wood, “conveying messages about racial hierarchy and the frightening consequences of transgressing that hierarchy.” In a way the response of white southerners at the Crater provides a bridge between the violent response to slave insurrections during the antebellum period and lynchings during the Jim Crow period.