“The Question of Atrocity” for Richard Slotkin

I am just about finished reading Richard Slotkin’s new book on the Crater, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864, and have enjoyed it immensely.  The book is very different from the two previous studies of the battle in that Slotkin provides a much needed analysis of the racial components of the battle rather than a traditional military history.  Yes, there is more to a battle than moving from place to place.  I am in the process of writing up a formal review for Civil War Book Review, but wanted to share something that I learned for the first time.

Although I wish Slotkin had gone a bit further in his analysis of the massacre of USCTs he does an excellent job of presenting both the immediate and long-term conditions that help explain the scale and complexity of the violence.  First, Slotkin correctly references the proportion of dead to wounded in the battle in comparison with other Civil War battles.  On average, the ratio of wounded to dead was 4.8 to 1.  At the Crater, the overall ratio for Union troops was 3.7 to 1, though for black soldiers it was 1.8 to 1.  Slotkin’s analysis of the tactical ebb and flow of the battle reveals a number of moments where soldiers on the battlefield were executed and not just black soldiers.  [It should be pointed out that Slotkin is not the first historian to point this out.  In 1987 Bryce Suderow published an article in the journal, Civil War History, which was later included in a collection of essays on Civil War massacres.]  The first massacre actually occurred by black soldiers in Sigfried’s brigade, who advanced into battle with the cry of “No Quarter.”  According to Slotkin, the battle cry was intended “to overcome that supposed docility and motivate them to fight with absolute determination.” (p. 339)  White officers quickly intervened once their men became engaged with the enemy.

By far, the largest group to be executed were USCTs and it occured in the trenches north of the Crater by Weisiger’s men in their initial assault around 9am followed shortly by three Confederate brigades in the area along the northern lobe of the crater.  Later in the morning Sanders’s Alabama brigade massacred an unknown number along the southern lobe of the crater.  Once the fighting ceased black prisoners were executed randomly as they proceeded behind Confederate lines.  Slotkin distinguishes between two arguments that justified the massacre of black soldiers by the participants themselves.  The first would have come from those men in Sigfried’s brigade who attacked while yelling, “No Quarter.”  The problem with this explanation – and one that I’ve pointed out before – is that it is unclear as to how many Confederates actually heard these initial cries amidst the chaos and noise of battle.  I have plenty of first-hand accounts from soldiers who insist of having heard this rallying cry who were nowhere near the positions occupied by black soldiers.  Apart from Sigfried’s initial advance there is little evidence that additional black units attacked in the same way.  Finally, there are a sufficient number of Confederate accounts that dismiss these references as a justification for their harsh response.

The more common explanation for the massacre reduces to a question of whether “the races were innately hateful to one another.” (p. 338)  It should come as no surprise that I think this is much more fertile ground in trying to understand what led to the massacre of large numbers of black soldiers.  Here Slotkin makes a number of points:

  • The slave system created a culture of “racial antipathy” and “mutual fear”.
  • The defense of Petersburg by Confederates helped to collapse the distinction between the battlefield and home front.
  • Confederates acted in defense of white supremacy and in support of the maintenance of a society based on white supremacy.
  • Soldiers who took part in the massacres “were fulfilling the spirit and intent of their government’s policies.”

It’s probably a mistake to distinguish between these last two points since the policies of the Confederate government’s primary purpose was to protect slavery and a social structure based on white supremacy:

The summary killing of armed Blacks and their White abettors was the logical extension of the slave codes that governed their society, which demanded instant condign punishment, without benefit of trial, for defiant or rebellious slaves.  The stated policy of the Confederate government was to treat Black soldiers and their White officers as criminals liable to enslavement and/or summary execution.

Slotkin is correct in pointing out that only the threat of retaliation by the United States government prevented these policies from being carried out more broadly.  Finally, Slotkin notes that the battle was a “godsend” for Confederates and white southerners generally as it helped to clarify exactly what was at stake if the war was lost.  Even a cursory perusal of Confederate newspapers points to a general agreement among white Southerners that the harshest of measures were justified in response to the presence of black Union soldiers.

I am looking forward to reading the final chapter, which places the Crater within the broader sweep of the history of race in America.  No doubt, I will have something to say once I finish it.  This is by far the best overall study of the Crater yet to be published on the battle.

12 comments… add one
  • Bryce A. Suderow Aug 19, 2009 @ 14:05

    I urge people to read my piece in Black Flag Over Dixie for details on the several massacres of black troops at the Crater.

    I don’t know whether the black troops called out “No Quarter” or “Remember Fort Pillow” but I have read enough accounts to convince me that they did not actuall murder large numbers of Confederate prisoners.

    I am currently writing a section on the Crater for Volume I of Ed Bearss’ forthcoming book on the Siege of Petersburg, to be released this coming Spring by Ted Savas.

    Can anyone help me contact John Schmutz?

    Bryce A. Suderow

    • Kevin Levin Aug 19, 2009 @ 14:30


      It’s nice to hear from you as we haven’t talked in a couple of years. You are absolutely right in pointing out that the evidence does not point to large number of Confederates being executed by black soldiers at the Crater. You have to dig pretty far to find the few accounts that exist. I’ve found that most Confederate wartime accounts don’t reference anything about “No Quarter” or “Remember Fort Pillow”; rather they include references to “nigger” and other racial invectives.

      I want to second Bryce’s suggestion that you read his piece in _Black Flag_, which is by far the most complete statistical analysis of the massacre we have. I look forward to your forthcoming piece.

  • Craig Aug 16, 2009 @ 18:30

    Your point about the ratios of the wounded to killed is well taken. However alone as a statistic it requires some perspective. There is just as much a tactical weight in play here. At the 2nd Reams Station, about one month later, the II Corps experienced a similar ratio – 3.75. And the Confederate attacking force suffered ratio of 4.0 during the attack at Fort Stedman the following year. Certainly one can pick a few other battles where the casualties break out into similar ratios. Heck at the Battle of Franklin in November 1864 the Confederates suffered 3800 wounded and 1750 killed!

    • Kevin Levin Aug 17, 2009 @ 2:06


      Good point.

  • Peter Aug 13, 2009 @ 12:31

    Does Slotkin intimate that black soldiers may have been motivated not only by a desire to avoid the outcome of capture, but also by a desire for vengeance?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 13, 2009 @ 12:40


      Yes, but he wouldn’t be the first.

  • Brendan Wolfe Aug 13, 2009 @ 10:21


    You write the following:
    blockquoteThe first massacre actually occurred by black soldiers in Sigfried’s brigade, who advanced into battle with the cry of No Quarter. According to Slotkin, the battle cry was intended to overcome that supposed docility and motivate them to fight with absolute determination. (p. 339) White officers quickly intervened once their men became engaged with the enemy./blockquote
    I reread that when I saw Naims comment and your response. And now Im really confused. Do you mean that the first massacre was icommitted/i by black troops? And what, then, is the definition of massacre if it can be committed by armed, uniformed combatants on armed, uniformed combatants in the context of a battle (as opposed to after the battle, when one side has surrendered)? Is yelling No Quarter enough to make any killing after that a massacre? And, finally, what sort of massacre happens with white officers intervening once their men became engaged with the enemy? Is that exactly iwhen/i the massacre would happen, when theyre engaged with the enemy?

    I dont mean to express undue skepticism about what happened. I just cant understand what did happen.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 13, 2009 @ 11:21


      Sorry for the confusion. The unknown number of Confederates in question here had surrendered to the black soldiers in Sigfried’s brigade. Again, I don’t think that Slotkin is attempting to equate one instance with another, but is acknowledging that black soldiers entered battle having heard of the massacre at Fort Pillow and with a set of assumptions about how they would be treated if captured. That seems to have led to the situation described by Slotkin. Hope that helps.

  • Naim Peress Aug 13, 2009 @ 7:36

    I didn’t know that the first massacre was done by black soldiers. I had only heard about what was done to the USCT’s. I’m glad you mentioned it.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 13, 2009 @ 7:51


      It’s important that we resist comparing the two. The scale and reasons for the two cases diverge in important ways and must be understood as such.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 12, 2009 @ 11:24


    That’s a really good point. I agree that there is wiggle room here. In this case the government did not directly order soldiers to massacre black men; rather, its policies reflected the dangers that were already apparent to white Southerners who themselves did not need to be told of the threats by public officials. In fact, I would say that their response had already been ingrained by the start of the Civil War.

  • Peter Aug 12, 2009 @ 10:28

    The two final points that Slotkin makes do appear similar, but they are separate (at least these two things are usually separated in works familiar with the historiography of massacres in general). The fourth point aims at distinguishing between a “spontaneous” massacre (ie, one without explicit government/institutional direction or sanction) versus those massacres that result from government direction. Of course, these distinctions are shady (at what point does institutional negligence in explicitly prohibiting massacres become a tacit encouragement of them, and so forth). Yet from my reading in the historiography of atrocity, these issues tend to become preeminent.

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