I have already mentioned what a pleasure it was to have the opportunity to talk last week with Earl Hess about our mutual interest in the battle of the Crater. During our discussion Prof. Hess asked if I dealt in any substantive way with the evidence that USCTs executed surrendered Confederates at the Crater. I told him that I reference these accounts, but that I had a very difficult time coming to terms with the numbers as well as the timing. One of the reasons I am looking forward to Hess’s upcoming book on the battle is that he attempts to put a number on it. I don’t know if this is possible given the scant evidence, but it is definitely an aspect of the battle that is often overlooked and I have no doubt that Hess will give it a good shot.
So, the short answer is, yes, USCTs did massacre Confederates at the Crater. It occurred during the initial advance of the two brigades of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division, which took place at approximately 8 A.M. While part of the unit was diverted into the chaos of the crater itself, a substantial portion of the division was able to skirt along its northern rim and advance west toward their objective along the Jerusalem Plank Road. Elements of the other three divisions were already engaged in this area by this time, but the rush of new soldiers led to the surrender of roughly 200 Confederates who were huddled in the complex chain of earthworks that dotted the landscape behind the salient.
It should come as no surprise that the black soldiers who made this attack did so having been incited by their white officers to “Remember Fort Pillow” and grant, “No Quarter.” It would be interesting to know what exactly these officers communicated to their men about the recent massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow given the levels of illiteracy among USCTs. These black soldiers would have also gone into battle knowing that it was unlikely they would be allowed to live in the even that they were taken prisoner. Accounts suggest that they “killed numbers of the enemy in spite of the efforts of their officers to restrain them.” Another Union officer recalled, “That there was a half determination on the part of a good many of the black soldiers to kill them as fast as they came to them. They were thinking of Fort Pillow, and small blame to them.” As far as I know this was the only moment in the battle where this type of killing on the part of USCTs occurred.
While it may be tempting to explain the Confederate massacre of USCTs following the battle as a direct response to these incidents, this would be a mistake. First, the evidence suggests that the killings were isolated and therefore probably not widely reported throughout the ranks. Mahone’s counterattack took place after this incident and while these men knew before going into battle that they would meet black soldiers there is no evidence to suggest that they were aware of these killings. Of course, many of them recalled having been told that the black soldiers would give, “No Quarter.” Finally, as I’ve argued elsewhere, Confederate soldiers did not need a massacre on the part of USCTs to justify a much larger slaughter of surrendered black soldiers. There are reasons as to why this happened that extend beyond the battlefield itself.[Painting of Crater by Tom Lovell]