George Washington Williams’s Crater

One of the most important sources within the early historiography of the early black counter-memory of the Civil War and the Crater is George Washington Williams’s, A History of the Negro Troops in The War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (1888).  Williams benefited from publication of the Official Records and includes entire reports to supplement the narrative.  [Click here for a short biographical sketch.]  A History of the Negro Troops is an incredibly detailed history of black volunteers that covers all of the major engagements from the Civil War in which they were involved.  Williams discusses discrimination in the army, the difficult relationship between enlisted men and white officers, as well as their performance on the battlefield.  Along the way Williams takes every opportunity to wax poetic about the significance of his subject:

The part enacted by the Negro in the war of the Rebellion is the romance of North American history.  It was midnight and noonday without a space between; from the Egyptian darkness of bondage to the lurid glare of civil war; from clanking chains to clashing arms; from passive submission to the cruel curse of slavery to the brilliant aggressiveness of a free soldier; from a chattel to a person; from the shame of degradation to the glory of military exaltation; and from deep obscurity to fame and martial immortality.  No one in this era of fraternity and Christian civilization will grudge the Negro soldier these simple annals of his trials and triumphs in a holy struggle for human liberty.  Whatever praise is bestowed upon his noble acts will be sincerely appreciated, whether from former foes or comrades in arms.  For by withholding just praise they are not enriched, nor by giving are they thereby impoverished.  (xiii-xiv)

On the Crater

At the critical moment, when the enemy could not only hold this opening in his works, but threatened to sweep through and rout Meade, the Black Division was ordered to charge and gain the crest beyond the crater.  Three veteran white divisions had been hurled back in confusion, but these Negro troops were sent forward to contend with an infuriated, brave, and numerous foe.  They were gallantly led, and nobly followed where duty and devotion were terribly tested…. They had borne themselves with conspicuous gallantry, and having done all that was required of them were withdrawn to their works….(249) The Negro soldiers’ valor was, after this engagement, no more questioned than his loyalty, and the reputation secured at such a high price was kept untarnished to the end of the campaign. (250)

What I find interesting is that Williams does not reference the slaughter of black soldiers after the battle.  Based on the sources utilized for his study it is clear that he was aware of it.  Perhaps Williams wanted to keep the focus on the bravery and manliness of the men, which would have been lost with descriptions of helplessness at the hands of angry Confederates.  I am going to have to give it some more thought.

Of course, I refer to Williams in my manuscript, but it is sad to think of just how much of what I have collected over the past few years will not make it into the book.  Oh well, I guess that is what the blog is for.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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19 comments… add one
  • Jimmy Price Jul 28, 2010 @ 9:07

    I’ve run into problems with Williams as well. In his description of Chaffin’s Farm he talks about USCTs planting the flag on the parapet of Fort Harrison. Problem is, there weren’t any black soldiers at Fort Harrison – they were all attacking New Market Heights.

    Still, he and Wilson were the first to write on this topic, so mistakes & omissions come with the territory.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 28, 2010 @ 9:26

      Williams makes some mistakes regarding the Crater as well, but my interest in his work has little to do with the details of the story.

      • Peter Jul 28, 2010 @ 9:59

        As you have traced out the development of the memory of the Battle of the Crater, using only sources generally available prior 1888, could you claim that something systematic along the lines of Fort Pillow occurred at the Crater? Note that Williams relies heavily on the JCCW for the Fort Pillow chapter; he makes the effort to inject little anecdotal, making use of sworn testimony. There isn’t much in the JCCW for the Crater beyond who screwed it up and did black troops break and run. It is also worth noting that the OR volume for the Crater didn’t come out until 1892.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 28, 2010 @ 10:16


          You make an excellent point. It may be the case that the sources available to Williams (or the sources that he chose to utilize) did not focus sufficiently on the massacre. Newspapers did cover this aspect of the battle, though it could have easily been lost given the extent to which the Fourth Division was blamed for the disaster at the Crater. Damn I am glad you are reading my blog today.

          • Peter Jul 28, 2010 @ 10:30

            You might want to consider that the more descriptive anecdotal accounts wouldn’t have been available. No Pegram letters, no diary of Henry A. Chambers, no W. A. Day, no Bowley, no Weld. There would have been absolutely nothing statistical either; Dyer, Fox, and Livermore all antedate William’s book.

            So basically we’re left with whatever Williams may or may not have had access to at the War Department, and unreliable accounts from Moore’s _Rebellion Record_ and whatever he could have dug out of newspapers (and who knows how complete the files he consulted were).

            • Kevin Levin Jul 28, 2010 @ 10:39

              I think you are right. Has anyone suggested that you study Civil War history in graduate school? 😀 Thanks again for taking the time to help me with this.

              • Peter Jul 29, 2010 @ 10:47

                Discussing what Williams might have plausibly known has made me wonder: when could someone actually tell a narrative of the Crater as a massacre?

                • Kevin Levin Jul 29, 2010 @ 10:57


                  Same here. It depends on who is writing the narrative. The men in Mahone’s brigade could have discussed this at any point during the postwar period and some did. It’s a tough question because many of the published accounts that reference the Crater do so without saying much of anything. The tunneling and explosion were worth mentioning, but not much more. I think that is what slipped me up with Williams. It’s one of the few that goes into such detail that I just assumed he had sources to cover the complete story. Union veterans of the battle more than likely heard about or witnessed the massacre. A number of USCT officers published very graphic accounts in the National Tribune. It’s a great question.

                  • Peter Jul 29, 2010 @ 13:53

                    Without a pre-extant narrative of a massacre, would there be any reason to believe the National Tribune articles any more than other eyewitness testimony that proclaimed that white officers killed their own men, or that the blacks refused to surrender, etc,etc.?

                    I’d also argue that the omission of the massacre from the JCCW hearings would suggest to most people that nothing of significance had occurred in that regard (beyond Fort Pillow, the JCCW also looked into Sand Creek).

                    • Kevin Levin Jul 31, 2010 @ 18:08

                      Hi Peter,

                      Sorry for not responding sooner. You may want to check out Wilson’s _The Black Phalanx_, which was published in 1890. He makes use of a fairly wide range of published accounts and even claimed to have had conversations with Mahone about the battle.

  • Dick Stanley Jul 28, 2010 @ 8:31

    That is a strange omission. Perhaps it had something to do with Jim Crow, as much as not wanting to be whining about ill fortune.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 28, 2010 @ 8:43

      It may have something to do with the ambivalence in the African American community when it came to remembering it’s collective past. While historians today love to talk about agency and various forms of resistance, many African Americans in the post-war period wanted to stay as far away from the past as possible. There was a great deal of shame wrapped up in remembering slavery and their treatment at the hands of white southerners. Given the heroic story that Williams tells, perhaps he didn’t want to risk opening up some of these scars.

      Like I said, I don’t know.

      • Peter Jul 28, 2010 @ 8:48

        If you take the care to look at the rest of Williams’s book, he goes into extensive detail about the massacre at Fort Pillow.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 28, 2010 @ 8:50

          Don’t I feel like a complete idiot. Thanks so much for pointing this out, Peter. I should have realized to look at Fort Pillow. 😀

  • Ed Jul 28, 2010 @ 8:14

    Kevin, you may want to skim over the relevant chapters in the book listed below. Samito covers how the black soldiers presented themselves after the war and Williams may have been presenting a common theme image.

    Samito, Christian G. Becoming American Under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship During the Civil War Era. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 28, 2010 @ 8:31


      Thanks for the reference. Unfortunately, I can’t read everything, though this is a book I eventually want to look at. I’ve got Don Schaffer’s book, which is also very helpful.

  • Rob Wick Jul 28, 2010 @ 6:07


    Ah, the bane of the historian…having too much material. I’m finishing my paper for the 2010 Conference on Illinois History and the first draft of my paper was 41 pages. It’s down to 29 now but I still need to cut at least five more. I’m writing about the relationship between Carl Sandburg and James G. Randall and how it affected their work on Lincoln. My main source is the letters between the two.

    What is your opinion of John Hope Franklin’s biography of Williams?


    • Kevin Levin Jul 28, 2010 @ 6:26


      Best of luck with the paper. Unfortunately, I’ve never read Franklin’s biography.

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