What I Am Not Saying About the Crater

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.

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22 comments… add one
  • Peter Jul 9, 2009 @ 19:51

    How do you interpret the actions of some Confederates taken to quell the violence at the Crater? At least one account, that of William McClellan, places Mahone on the scene attempting to stop the violence against the USCT. Or, to put it differently, can your interpretation explain why at the Crater the Confederates did not “butcher every negro?”

    • Kevin Levin Jul 10, 2009 @ 3:15


      Good question. No, I can’t explain why every black soldier was not executed, but I’m not sure I have to. Perhaps one way to look at it is to ask whether the level of violence was sufficient given the level of rage and the need to send a strong message to the obvious constituencies. I also don’t think there is anything surprising about the fact that some Confederates tried to stop the violence and/or assist wounded USCTs. In the course of my research I’ve found that most of these were written after the war, which raises some interesting questions about interpretation. Here is one account by Col. William Stewart of the 61st Virginia which was written in 1876. The following is from one of the manuscript chapters:

      More revealing of political currents in Virginia is the account by William Stewart, who commanded the 61st Virginia Regiment. Stewart almost entirely ignored how Confederates felt upon learning of their colored adversaries. After twelve years the feelings of outrage, fear, and hatred were absent from the few references Stewart made regarding their performance. The black soldiers begged for their lives and “were victims of an uncontrollable terror.” According to Stewart, one cried out that “I nebber pinted a gun at a white man in all my life; dem nasty stinking Yankees” were to blame. The day after the battle, Stewart remembered a “negro between the lines, who had both legs blown off.” “[S]ome of our men managed to shove a cup of water to him, which he drank, and immediately commenced frothing at the mouth, and died in a very short time afterwards.” It is no accident that Stewart selectively conveyed two stories that addressed in a post-emancipation world the desire to maintain antebellum notions of racial hierarchy. Not only were black men not interested in fighting for their freedom, but even after a bloody battle white southerners’ sense of paternalism could still be exercised. Stewart makes no reference to the massacres of black soldiers mentioned in Confederate wartime accounts. Stewart’s account betrays a firm belief in the inferiority and ineffectiveness of black soldiers and the folly on the part of Union officers who believed that black troops could contribute to a successful operation. In addition, Stewart’s decision to close his account with an act of kindness towards a seriously wounded black soldier suggests that he wanted to emphasize the possibility of cooperation between the races at a time when the Conservative Party continued to exercise political control in Virginia. The political climate in the Commonwealth clearly altered how Virginians remembered fighting African-American soldiers at the Crater.

      As for Mahone, I’ve read a number of contradictory accounts about what he did or didn’t do to control the violence. To be completely honest, I don’t know what to make of it since a great deal of the accounts are postwar and must be placed within the context of his controversial business and political career.

  • James Bartek Jul 9, 2009 @ 10:13

    I think Kirstern brings up a good point, viz., the idea of charivari (or “shivaree”). Bertram Wyatt-Brown talks about this phenomenon to some extent in his studies of antebellum Southern honor. I’ve seen only one instance when someone explicitly connected Wyatt-Brown’s definition to events in the Civil War. A 1991 article in the American Historical Review, “Chambersburg: Anatomy of a Confederate Reprisal,” (by Everard H. Smith), describes the Cofederate burning of the town as a vengeance inspired charivari, triggered by the insults of the residents who “violated Southern standards of propriety.” (452)

    I’ve never really given much thought to this in relation to “amalgamation parades,” but then I’ve never given much thought to the parades themselves before reading about them here. 🙂

    If a charivari was used to defend traditional mores and enforce the social order, seems like there might be something to it. Anyone else want to weigh in on this?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2009 @ 10:19


      Thanks for reminding me of Wyatt-Brown and for pointing out the Smith essay. I was not familiar with it. You may be interested in The Social and Cultural Dynamics of Soldiering in Hood’s Texas Brigade by Charles E. Brooks, which appeared a few years back in the Journal of Southern History [Vol. 67, 2001]. He also explores the charivari in analyzing the evolution of this particular unit.

  • James F. Epperson Jul 9, 2009 @ 9:25

    Kevin: *when* did the JCCW give Meade his grilling? Was it during the previous winter, or during July sometime prior to the mine explosion?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2009 @ 9:32


      I would have to go back and check. Hey Bill, are you reading?

  • James F. Epperson Jul 9, 2009 @ 9:22

    Mr. Tatum: The evidence is very clear that Gen. Meade (with Grant’s support) forced Burnside to replace 4/IX as the leading division in the attack, and the reason for this was that Meade did not want to be seen as sacrificing the black troops in a forlorn attack. Meade had been given a very hard time over the previous winter by the Committee on the Conduct of the War, which was dominated by Radicals, and he (Meade) did not want to give them any more reason to come after him.

  • Kirsten Schultz Jul 9, 2009 @ 9:06

    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….
    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.

    Your post, especially the discussion of the parade of white and black soldiers, reminded me of older rituals, including charvari, tarring and feathering, etc., which were, in part, intended to regulate behavior in a community. Have you read Susan G. Davis’s Parades and Power. Street Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986 and Dale Cockrell’s Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997? I have not read Wood’s book yet; does she trace the history of spectacle and violence in American culture?

    I appreciate he thoughtful posts and (largely) intelligent discussion that takes place on this site!

    • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2009 @ 9:39


      Thanks so much for the references. I hadn’t thought of tarring and feathering along these lines, but it now seems very relevant to what I am doing. Unfortunately, Wood’s book does not spend much on the cultural history of violence before the time frame of the book. I was hoping it would. Her thesis is that Jim Crow lynchings reflect transitions to modernity and the accompanying threats to the traditional social hierarchy.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment. I hope to hear from you again.

  • Dave Tatum Jul 9, 2009 @ 8:06


    Have you looked at the battle from the aspect of the north using the Black troops as fodder ? Just a thought.

    Dave Tatum

    • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2009 @ 9:06


      I’m not sure I know what you mean by “fodder.” Blacks eagerly sought to join Union ranks at the beginning of the war only to be turned away. And even when they were finally allowed to join they were typically assigned to supportive roles rather than allow them onto the battlefield. At the Crater the Fourth Division (USCT) was initially assigned to lead the attack, but Grant and Meade forced Burnside to revise his plans. There is some evidence to suggest that they were concerned that if something went terribly wrong that it would like the black troops were being sacrificed. If this is what you mean by fodder than there is very little evidence for it.

      The more interesting question to ask is how white Union soldiers viewed blacks in the ranks. There has been a great deal written on this topic, including books by Joseph Glatthaar, James McPherson, Chandra Manning, and Reid Mitchell. Black soldiers experienced a great deal of racism at the hands of their white comrades. Many blamed the Fourth Division for the defeat at the Crater.

  • Bob Pollock Jul 9, 2009 @ 6:55


    “While there was no major class division between the opponents…”

    You might consider the North’s fear of the Slave Aristocracy, its seemingly ever expanding power, and its continuing attempts to restrict what Northerners saw as their personal liberties (i.e. the Gag rule, fugitive slave law, etc.) as class division.

  • Mike Jul 9, 2009 @ 6:48

    Thanks Kevin I am looking forward to reading the finished paper.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2009 @ 6:51


      Nice to hear because I am looking forward to finishing it. 🙂

  • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2009 @ 6:27


    It may be even more accurate to say that the concerns expressed in 3 brought about 2. In other words, secession (especially in the Deep South) was carried out because of concerns over the social/racial hierarchy. We are pretty much in agreement.


    Thanks so much for the link. I was also under the impression that this was a unique event, but even better that it wasn’t.


    Exactly. 🙂

  • James Bartek Jul 9, 2009 @ 5:49

    I maintain my support for your interpretation of the Crater. If you, as the author, were to suggest that black troops ought be viewed as northing more than slaves in rebellion, I could see how that would distort and minimize their contributions to the war. However, to present it as a framework for how Confederates viewed them (and their intent was assuredly to distort and minimize black participation) is a valid analysis.

    Concerning the earlier discussion of the post-battle parade through Petersburg, I assumed it to be a unique if illuminating event. Guess it wasn’t that unique, as I ran across this on the Soldierstudies site the other day:

    Report on the battle at Goodrich’s Landing, La., 30 June 1863, by a volunteer in the 81st Illinois:

    “Officers [of an unidentified USCT regiment] told me they had been engaged in a fight there lately & had two of their companies taken prisoners and [an] orderly Sergt. who had succeeded in making his escape from them & had just came in said they was treated most barbarously he said the officers had to march with Nigger children astride of their necks.”


    How about that?

  • toby Jul 9, 2009 @ 3:46

    I remember being at a lecture where the speaker was a British historian of the what is now often called the War of the Three Kingdoms (also known inaccurately as the English Civil War, the other two Kingdoms are Scotland and Ireland).

    He said the Romans distinguished three types of Civil War:

    (1) Political conflict for control of the state, like the war between Pompey and Caesar.
    (2) Wars of Secession, when a part of the Empire tried to break away. This was common under the later Empire.
    (3) Social Wars over adjustments of class, rights of citizenship or land ownership. One of the pre-Caesarean Civil Wars was known in Roman history as the “Social War”.

    It always struck me that while we think of the American Civil War as Type (2), it also had a large element of Type (3). While there was no major class division between the opponents, the slaves definitely saw it as a Social War, and it became more and more a Social War as the North adoped Abolition as a war aim.

    The South probably saw the war more and more also as a social conflict, as they saw the changes in their relationship with blacks that would inevitably follow defeat. In that case, they would harbour a particular antipathy to black soldiers. I have no doubt their attitude was mingled with memories of slave rebellions, and Kevin is correct.

  • Mannie Gentile Jul 8, 2009 @ 18:20


    An outstanding post. I’ve only this to add:

    “Notice the choice of words: “Butcher every negro,” and not every black soldier. Indeed, white southerners did not view these men as soldiers;”

    Also notice the choice of the word “Butcher”. Butchering is a process reserved for livestock, not men. Considering that this was an editorial, I can only assume that each word was carefully chosen for its fullest impact. The meaning rings clearly a century and a half hence.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2009 @ 1:17


      Good point Mannie, though I’ve come across that reference in accounts of other battles that did not involve black soldiers.

  • Larry Cebula Jul 8, 2009 @ 16:57

    I have never understood why the thousands of slaves who ran away, joined the federal army, and then fought in the war are not considered a slave rebellion. They were slaves, they freed themselves to fight against slavery, it is a slave rebellion. What am I missing?

  • David Coles Jul 8, 2009 @ 14:27

    I think you are correct in emphasizing that, from the Confederate perspective, the use of black troops by the Union was the equivalent of a slave insurrection. Consequently, blacks captured in arms would often be treated similarly to enslaved people who took part in insurrections. The aftermath of the Crater was a tragic “opportunity” for these views to be put into action. I found very similar results at the battle of Olustee, Florida in February 1864. Although the number of executed or otherwise mistreated black captives was somewhat smaller than at the Crater, Confederate soldiers were not hesitant to write similar views in letters home, some which were printed in contemporary newspapers. There was a particularly vitriolic editorial published in a Savannah paper that mirrors the views you quoted from the Richmond Examiner.

  • James F. Epperson Jul 8, 2009 @ 14:07

    I’m really looking forward to the finished product, Kevin.

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