Do They Just Make This Stuff Up?

One of my favorite sites is a Facebook page made up of folks who style themselves as defenders of Southern Heritage.  There isn’t much serious history being discussed.  Once in a while someone will ask for a quote’s source or the reference to a particular book, but more often than not members simply reassure one another of their own worth in the continuing struggle against folks, who they believe are out to destroy all things “Southern”.  Here is a wonderful example that begins with a posting by Ann DeWitt, aka “Royal Diadem”.

Here are some of the more interesting responses:

I have a very knowledgeable friend who said that during the assault on Confederate lines at the battle of the Crater, colored troops where yelling that they intended to murder any whites that they captured and that when they reached the city with its civilian population, their intentions were even less honorable. According to Bill, this was the reason that those troops were killed when they were captured, not because they were black but because their intentions were made known to the men they were fighting when they thought that they had the upper hand.

Yes, black soldiers at the Crater charged shouting, “No Quarter” but I have never seen a source that suggests that they planned on murdering civilians in Petersburg.  Perhaps Bill can cite a source.

Valerie, the Crater was a very unusual battle, in that the Colored Troops were selected to lead the charge at the Crater, and then Grant and Meade, perhaps afraid that they would be seen as using them for battle “fodder” replaced them with Ledlie’s and Ferraro’s troops, who were poorly led – As, Ledlie and Ferraro, under the influence of bottled spirits, hid out in one of the dug in bomb proofs – sucking up “shots of courage” as the battle raged around them.  Kevin Levin tried to recently “Rewrite” history as he said that the whites in the Confederate Army were “Putting Down a Slave Rebellion”. What he continually “Ignored” were that the “Colored Troops” had used the “Black Flag”, and as you Mentioned in the Battle were Continuously shouting “Remember Fort Pillow”. The Federals kept firing at the Southern Troops, well after they had the upper hand in the battle, and were asking for the Federals to Surrender.

It’s true that Ferrero’s black division was selected to lead the charge, but were removed at the last minute.  It is also true that Meade and Grant worried about the implications of their being hit hard in the coming attack, but it is also true that Meade doubted their abilities.  Yes, I did argue in a recent Civil War Times essay that Confederates at the Crater believed they were putting down a slave rebellion.  A number of soldiers, including William Pegram, were explicit about what motivated their actions.  It’s at least a very poor reading of my essay.

I am aware of the dynamics of the Crater because an author of a book on the battle spoke at our CWRT. His “take” on the change from the black troops leading to the white troops was different, however. Grant wasn’t afraid that they would be seen as “cannon fodder” (they had been trained to avoid going into the “crater” made by the detonation something that the white troops did not know and hence their situation when they went into the soft earth and were trapped) – rather he was afraid that they would be GLORIFIED at the expense of the white soldiers. Grant didn’t want that personally, but more to the point, he didn’t want to set up any more internal conflict than already existed in his army. With the blacks “mopping up” – whatever they did to Southern whites, there would be no problems in the North. With the blacks as VICTORS in a huge battle – well, that was something else again. I don’t think that the Yankees were any more able to control black troops than the Confederates would have been. Difference is that the Confederates had real volunteers, not conscripts or men bullied into service. Also, they served WITH the whites, not as separate companies. Thus, as individuals, there were few problems but as larger groups – often containing individuals of less than noble character who would descend to barbarism with little temptation – the matter was quite different.

I don’t know where to begin with the above passage.  The author seems to forget that black troops were involved in the initial assaults against Petersburg in mid-June and had every chance to succeed.  The reference to Grant’s attitude and integrated Confederate units are not based on a serious reading of the available evidence and not worth a serious response.

Here is my earlier response to a article on the crater. “I am reminded of his article “Until Every Negro has been Slaughtered” in the October 2010 issue of “Civil War Times”, while he possesses to be a well rounded historian he presented a one sided view. Stating that “I argue that this Confederate rage was a function of a cultural outlook that stretched back into the antebellum period. Acknowledging the long-standing fears among white southerners regarding the management of a slave society and the dangers of slave rebellions (real and imagined) helps us to better understand the treatment of USCTs following the battle. From this perspective there is very little that is surprising about the massacre of upwards of 200 black soldiers”. I found he was and is not entirely honest as in “No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater”, 1864 by Richard Slotkin he uses the official records of both armies and states when Union forces charged they were shouting “No Quarters; remember Fort Pillow”, which resulted in just that no quarter. He also conveniently failed to mention that white Union troops killed as many black troops as did the defenders. One could ask who and how this was suppose to influence the negro still in captivity? Communication was spotty at best and there were few men or weapons availability to keep these slaves in check, at best the whites were outnumbered 10 to 1. Which should make anyone ask why then were there any slaves left working at all, why had they all not ran off”?

While the author of this comment accurately quoted from my article he doesn’t directly respond to it.  Rather, he goes on to reference Richard Slotkin’s recent book on the Crater.  No one denies that black soldiers shouted “No Quarter”, but Slotkin never suggests that white Union soldiers killed as many black soldiers as Confederates.  He doesn’t say it because it isn’t true.  I found a few accounts that suggest a few black men were bayoneted as they gave way to Mahone’s counterattack and fell back from the most forward positions.  Some of this was no doubt caused by the confusion of battle.  I found plenty of accounts among white Union soldiers who placed the blame for defeat on Ferrero’s black division even though these men managed to gain some of the most advanced positions in the Confederate chain of earthworks.  The accounts point to the deep racism within Union ranks.  I suggest that the author of this comment reread my article as well as Slotkin’s book.

It goes without saying that you should not use these sites as historical sources.  The danger for participants is that they feed off one another by agreeing with comments and even adding to them based on faulty knowledge or just a desire to continue the thread.  I guess that’s what happens when you turn people into authority figures simply because they “liked” or “joined” the same page.

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16 comments… add one
  • Kate Halleron Jul 21, 2011 @ 10:52

    I’m intrigued by the assertion that the Confederates had no conscripts, only volunteers.

    Even before the Conscription Act, there were reports of men being impressed into the Confederate Army. My great-great grandfather’s Company (13th Tennessee Cavalry, Company K, USA) was made up largely of Tennesseans and North Carolinians who had once served the Confederate Army.

    Page 125.

    Both sides resorted to conscription or the draft.

    I wonder what sort of fantasy world some of these people have made for themselves.

    Kevin, have you checked out the ‘Yankee Heritage’ group?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 21, 2011 @ 10:56

      It’ is an incredibly shallow grasp of history.

      • Kate Halleron Jul 21, 2011 @ 12:37

        I admit that up until about 3 years ago, I knew practically nothing about the Civil War – I had to educate myself before I wrote my first historical novel.

        The scary thing is that I apparently know *much* more about it than these people who claim to be ‘experts’.

        My background is in the sciences, which is why I’m careful in my research and in not stating ‘facts’ unless I have documentation. It amazes me that so many people are so vociferous about the Civil War when their grasp of the ‘facts’ is so shallow, and third or fourth hand.

  • Margaret D. Blough Jul 20, 2011 @ 16:30

    In Porter Alexander’s “Fighting for the Confederacy” on page 426, he discusses the treatment of Union soldiers who were black at the Crater as he learned it from fellow Confederate soldiers shortly afterwards (he was on furlough when the Crater happened) He acknowledges very few black prisoners were taken. He describes it as being the first encounter of the ANV with black troops & that ANV’s reaction to the Union’s use of blacks as soldiers was :very bitter”. They linked this with John Brown as proof that the Union was trying to incite servile insurrection. Alexander describes the bitterness as extending to whites with the black troops. He goes on to say, “Some of the Negro prisoners, who were originally allowed to surrender by some soldiers, were afterward shot by others, & there was, without doubt, a great deal of unnecessary killing of them.”

    Alexander was no closet abolitionist. He came from a slave owning family, he owned slaves personally, and he didn’t seem to have any angst over slavery.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 20, 2011 @ 16:39

      It’s an important passage in “Fighting For the Confederacy” and keep in mind that this is the volume that he wrote while overseas. If I remember correctly, he wrote it in response to a request from his grandchildren that he begin to recount his Civil War years. The link with Brown tells us a great deal about the broader context in which white southerners perceived armed black men in the Union ranks. It’s also a reason why so many would not seriously consider the idea of armed blacks in their own ranks.

      • Margaret D. Blough Jul 21, 2011 @ 3:54

        His family had been after him to do his personal memoirs, and, according Gallagher’s Introduction, while Alexander was in Nicaragua on an assignment from Pres. Cleveland to arbitrate a border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, he had enough free time that the family realized that his ongoing excuse of being too busy wouldn’t hold up. One of his daughters sent him two blank ledger books & a letter urging him to get started which he did & when he got to the war years, the project took on a life of its own.

        One thing is important to realize about this book. It was purely for his family. Alexander never intended to have his discussions of personalities, etc. to be published. He’d scrupulously avoided what we love best about “Fighting for the Confederacy” (such as his pithy character analysis of Leonidas Polk) in the book he had published in his lifetime, “Military Memoirs of a Confederate”. Alexander’s honesty just rises from the pages of FFTC. I don’t mean he was always right. He was writing his personal account of events and his opinions regarding them and the actors in them with minimal research material available and many years after the event. However, I believe he wrote it as honestly and accurately as he could. The first time I read it, I couldn’t shake the mental image of being in a late 19th century study with a roaring fire in the fireplace with two big winged-back upholstered chairs facing each other and sitting in one while listening to an aged Alexander, sitting in the other, recounting his war experiences.

        Alexander was a child of plantation owners and accepted the system with little or no questioning, but he does not have the over-the-top racism of some of his contemporaries (Moxley Sorrel was convinced that the only way that the Union army could get blacks to fight was to get them drunk first). He acknowledges how well black Union troops fought at the Crater. He doesn’t come across as excusing the slaughter of black Union soldiers. He explained the ANV reaction but he doesn’t try to sugar coat what happened. He also discussed what happened with his colleagues very shortly after the Crater which makes his account so valuable.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 21, 2011 @ 4:21

          I’ve read the whole thing twice and sections of it multiple times. It is one of the richest postwar accounts available.

  • Lady Val Jul 20, 2011 @ 15:12

    Well, at least you can read.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 20, 2011 @ 15:54

      Really, that’s the best you can do? LOL

  • Corey Meyer Jul 20, 2011 @ 15:07

    To answer the question in the tiltle of the post…Yes, Yes they do. I also notice on that FB page Ann DeWitt provides a link to “black confederates” on soldier muster rolls and claims that since they are there it is proof enough they served in the Confederate army. Sure they did…but not as soldiers…but as cooks, laundresses, servants…essentially as Slaves.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 20, 2011 @ 15:54

      She simply does not understand the primary source materials collected on that site.

  • Michael Lynch Jul 20, 2011 @ 9:10

    “Royal Diadem” asks whether Union forces are partly to blame for provoking the a massacre by putting USCTs at the front. Yet this implies that Confederate troops were so racist that they were bound to be enraged by the sight of black Union soldiers. I thought slavery and racism didn’t have anything to do with the motivations of Confederate soldiers. Somebody help me out here.


  • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 20, 2011 @ 8:01

    How dare you expect people to read what they write about. Have you no shame? I ask because it’s clear they don’t.

    I have “civilwarhistory2” and “alt.war.civil.usa,” and you have Facebook. 🙂 I’m so old school.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 20, 2011 @ 8:04

      I think the psychological component is quite interesting with these groups. I have no doubt that once the members get wind of my post that they will rally around the wagons with the standard insults rather than providing proper references for specific claims or providing more thorough analysis.

  • Andy Hall Jul 20, 2011 @ 7:46

    I’m still waiting for Gary Adams, the “president” of that group, to publicly acknowledge his plagiarism of a comment I posted here last year. (It’s still online, BTW.)

    • Kevin Levin Jul 20, 2011 @ 7:52

      I wouldn’t hold your breadth. 🙂

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