It seems fitting to offer a few thoughts about the Crater on this the 145th anniversary of the battle. On Monday Brendan Wolfe posted a fascinating entry on the Crater massacre over at the Encyclopedia Virginia blog. In the process of putting together their entry on the battle, my friend, VFH Intern, and UVA graduate student, Peter Luebke uncovered an important story out of the Northern Neck of Virginia in June 1864. In the summer of 1864 reports circulated in Richmond newspapers of the raping of a white woman 11 times at the hands of soldiers from the 36th USCT. Peter rightly inquires whether these newspaper reports help to explain the massacre of large numbers of black Union soldiers following the battle on July 30. In citing a recent study by Jason Phillips (a book all of you should read) Peter notes the extent to which the men in Lee’s army exchanged news in the trenches around Petersburg and Richmond and helped to encourage all kinds of rumors. The important point here is not whether the rape in fact occurred, but that those who heard of these stories would have given them legitimacy. At no point does Peter ever suggest a direct causal connection between the stories of rape and the Crater massacre. I’ve spent the past 5 years reading the letter and diaries of Lee’s men through the summer of 1864 and I have not once come across a specific reference to this incident on the Northern Neck. That said, I agree with Peter that it’s enough to suggest that to the extent these stories filtered through the ranks they would have contributed to the intensity of the response by Confederates.
I do want to take issue with one very minor point made by Peter having to do with the broader question of how to explain the Crater massacre and why this particular story is relevant to it:
On July 30, just following the Battle of the Crater, a number of captured black troop were murdered. To explain what happened, historians usually stress white Southern racism and the fact that, during the battle, armed blacks challenged established Southern hierarchy. Yet these explanations remain maddeningly abstract—ideas about social hierarchy don’t act by themselves. The newspaper articles provide a more tangible way of uncovering the Virginians’ state of mind at the Crater. (emphasis mine)
As someone who is in the middle of trying to offer an analysis of the massacre that goes beyond the standard references to “white Southern racism” and challenges to “established Southern hierarchy” I share Peter’s frustration. I’ve tried to suggest that the best way to understand the response of Confederates at the Crater to the presence of black Union soldiers is to fit the event within the broader history of slave rebellions throughout the antebellum period. Admittedly, it is a very abstract explanation, but one that I hope will help to explain the actions of these men as well as the congruence found in their immediate post-battle accounts, which offer vivid images and reasons as to why so many executions took place.
The problem comes down to the fact that we as historians are weary (and rightly so) of making causal claims without what we perceive as “tangible” conditions. In some cases such conditions are easily identified and the debate can be conducted on the level of whether a causal condition is or is not necessary or sufficient. In just as many cases, however, we must pull together an explanation that relies more heavily on theory and abstract assumptions about society and culture that help to explain the actions of the individual and/or group.
Reports of the rape on the Northern Neck certainly need to be taken into account in understanding the state of mind of Confederates at the Crater. In fact, I want to know much more along these lines. What else do the Richmond area newspapers report along these lines throughout the summer of 1864 that may help us to better understand how white Virginians viewed the introduction of blacks into Union ranks? My concern, however, is that I don’t think these stories bring us much closer to the ground from the heights of abstraction. They can only be understood within the parameters of our broader narratives of how white Southerners had come to view blacks by 1860 as well as the consequences of emancipation for the social hierarchy. I find it difficult to distinguish between what Peter describes as “tangible” causes as opposed to beliefs about social hierarchy, etc – especially given the fact that this particular report of rape is never to my knowledge cited by a soldier in the ranks. It seems to me that they function together in a more organic manner as opposed to our reliance on an analytical language that attempts to delineate between actionable and abstract beliefs.
It is also important to keep in mind what exactly the historian is purporting to explain. I am trying to understand the response of Confederates as a group through a close reading of their individual accounts. Any conclusions drawn from these sources is already to move into the world of abstraction. From this perspective whether or not background references to newspaper reports of rape are included in the analysis does not seem to me to help much in distinguishing between the tangible and the abstract – at least not to any significant degree. Please don’t misunderstand me, I think this account uncovered by Peter is worth our serious attention and it will no doubt be included in my own work, but as far as I am concerned the study of history is already a jump into the deep waters of abstraction.