“Evilizing” or Explaining Confederates at the Crater

And here is the final comment from yesterday’s SHPG thread:

A few months ago, I saw on the History Channel some stories of earlier armies, who killed every standing soldier left in the battle. The Black Flag became a Flag – Understood by Pirates and Armies, that there would be “No Survivors” left standing – from either side. The Black Flag was raised by the Federals at Fort Pillow and again by the Black Troops at the Crater. Confederates going into battle were informed that the blacks had cried “Fort Pillow – No Surrender & were fighting under a Black Flag”. More importantly, when the blacks were trying to surrender – other men in the vicinity were still shooting from the Federal forces. A “White Flag” and a “Cessation” in Firing are two Critical Elements which would or could have caused the Confederates to Stop Shooting, however both of these were not forthcoming, until the Confederate Officers closed the door on the Fighting.

The question for Levin is – Has he ever defended the injustices done to the Indians by Federal Troops after the War Between the States? I doubt it. In his mind – it’s all about “Evilizing the South”.

I’ve grown use to these comments and I suspect they will increase in frequency once the book comes out.  As much as I probably should be offended by such accusations, I’ve come to realize that they are not really about me.  It’s hard to be offended once you understand that we are engaged in two different projects.  For the author of this comment the goal is to defend a certain narrative of the past by striving for some sort of moral balance.  Notice the references to previous wars or the query regarding whether I have any plans to explore the history of violence between the U.S. army and Native Americans.  The assumption appears to be that the history of racial violence during the Civil War is no different from any other historical event.  Well, if your goal is simply to maintain a moral balance sheet than the fact that there are salient differences will remain irrelevant.  Historians, on the other hand, must look deeper.

The comment itself reflects very little understanding of the basic facts of the battle and especially the available primary source evidence.  It is true that blacks charged yelling “No Quarter” and “Remember Fort Pillow” though I argue that it is likely most Confederates heard about it second hand given their location on the battlefield.  The interesting fact is that so many included the reference in their letters and diaries, even those who were nowhere near the location of the Fourth Division on July 30, 1864.   Whether their cry signaled an intention to carry out the kind of massacre perpetrated by Forrest the previous April is unknown.  I suspect it served to remind them of what would happen if they ended up as prisoners.

What the author seems not to understand is that the massacre of black soldiers took place following the battle.  That’s not something that I made up.  Rather, it is referenced over and over in the diaries, letters, and newspaper columns written in the days and weeks after the battle.  I include many of these vivid descriptions in the book, some of who are authored by soldiers who were not directly engaged in fighting black soldiers and I do my best to explain what these accounts tell us about the nature of the fighting at the Crater.

It is strange to be accused of “Evilizing the South” (just to clarify: the white South) given that my goal was to explain the actions of Confederate soldiers.  All too often the racial violence at the Crater is reduced to an uncontrollable rage – another example of Southern men who are incapable of controlling their passions.  [Think Charles Hamilton in his face off with Rhett Butler in Ashley's parlor room.]  Of course, the violence at the Crater engendered a great deal of rage and anger, but their emotions and actions had an intentional content that I believe can be explained.  At no point do I claim that Confederates were evil or that Union soldiers occupied the moral high ground.  I simply do not approach the study of the past from this perspective.

Of course, I could be wrong.  I assume that at some point I will read a review of the book from someone who disagrees with my explanation of what happened and why at the Crater.  That is the nature of the process of interpreting the past and it should be welcomed.  No one has a monopoly on history.  We learn from one another.  If I thought it would work I would extend another invitation to this group to read through the book and write up a review to be posted on the blog.  Some of you remember that I tried this a few months ago when my co-authored essay on Silas Chandler was published in Civil War Times.  There was a great deal of huffing and puffing, but in the end no takers.  It is hard to imagine someone from this group taking the time to read through a book if he/she can’t even get through a short article.

Which is just another way of saying that this is not really about me.

11 comments… add one

  • James Harrigan May 24, 2012

    You are certainly right that it is not about you, Kevin. You are interested in trying to figure out what happened in the past, which is what makes you a historian. You are also trying to figure out why and how contemporary people think about the “past”. This is what makes you a cultural critic/observer.

    The difference between the past and the “past” is the difference between what actually happened and what people tell themselves about what happened. These are separate things, though not entirely. Everybody agrees that there was an actual historical event called The Battle of the Crater, but the “southern heritage community” approaches all past events from the Civil War Era with the emotional imperative of fitting them into a preconceived narrative about Confederate righteousness. These people simply can’t conceive that those of us opposed to the Lost Cause narrative are not trying to replace their narrative with an equally bogus narrative of Unionist virtue. Rather, we are actually genuinely interested in what actually happened.

    Thus, when you labor to figure out what actually happened at The Crater, they simply don’t understand what you are doing. That is precisely the sense in which it is not about you.

    • Kevin Levin May 24, 2012

      Hi James,

      Thanks for the comment. You said:

      These people simply can’t conceive that those of us opposed to the Lost Cause narrative are not trying to replace their narrative with an equally bogus narrative of Unionist virtue. Rather, we are actually genuinely interested in what actually happened.

      I want to be very careful here. Yes, I have an interest in understanding what happened and why, but I am not a disinterested observer. I’ve said before that I am glad the Confederacy lost and the United States was able to maintain a unified republic. I also believe the right side won the war, which is not to be interpreted as US – good and Confederacy – bad. :-)

    • Brad May 25, 2012

      Some very good points. This may be a truism or understood but how we remember an event is sometimes as important as the event itself.

  • Tom Logue May 27, 2012

    The personal attack on you is wrong and unfortunate. But I think it is important to look at its root cause.

    Many modern Neo-confederates cannot accept the truth that the Confederacy was created to protect slavery and the racial caste system of the South. This plain fact was embraced by the Southern leaders of the Civil War Era, not just in letters, but in public speeches. It is reflected in the Confederate Constitution. No serious student questions this fact. Why are the modern “Lost Cause” proponents so resistant to such an obvious truth?

    The problem, it seems to me, concerns what use will be made by this obvious truth. Having established the fact that the Confederacy was based on white racial supremacy, what do we do with this fact?

    One solution is to take this terrible fact and to “evilize” the South. And it is certainly hard not to. But this is what the modern “Lost Cause” movement is most afraid of. And I think that “evilizing” the Confederacy is a great mistake. History is complex and the Confederacy is an important part of American history.

    How do we incorporate the white-supremacy truth about the Confederacy into American history without demonizing the Confederacy? Until we discover a way to do that, we will always have some Confederate proponents who try to protect their background by denying the historical facts, rather than by placing them in some context.

    By the way, the proponents of the Confederacy remind me of the Confederates themselves in the way that they use their talent, intelligence and diligence to defend the indefensible. I just finished reading T.R.R. Cobb’s encyclopedic defense of slavery. Cobb was one of the drafters of the Confederate Constitution. His brother was chairman of the first Confederate Convention/Congress. T.R.R. Cobb is not as brilliant as Calhoun, but his book is scholarly and discusses slavery in the Bible and in Greece and Rome. It is also surprising candid at times (discussing at length, for example, the problem of slave owners using their position of authority to have sex with female slaves). The book is far from stupid, but it does read like a results-oriented, overly-argumentative and very defensive legal brief. If you accept his premises, the book flows in a rational manner. It is just that the premises are false. It is like Jefferson Davis’ memoirs in this regard. I think the same can be said of the comment about your book that you quote.

    • Lyle Smith May 29, 2012

      “How do we incorporate the white-supremacy truth about the Confederacy into American history without demonizing the Confederacy?”

      Just as we incorporate the white-supremacy truth about America before and after the Confederacy without overly demonizing America. Then again some people do demonize America which makes it perfectly okay to demonize the Confederacy then. I prefer the former to the latter myself. White supremacists overcame their white supremacy after all.

    • Margaret D. Blough Jun 1, 2012

      Tom-My understanding is that T.R.R. Cobb intended his work to be the definitive legal treatise, akin to Blackstone’s “Commentaries” on the issue of slavery, to be studied by those reading for the law and by practicing attorneys on issues arising out of the functioning of the Peculiar Institution. I have the book and am working my way through it (very slowly). I doubt it ever occurred to Cobb that there would ever be a United States without slavery. Perhaps it is fortunate for him that he never lived to see it.

      I agree with you completely on the false premise. I hate to say it because many people make comparisons to Nazi Germany and Hitler around in a manner that is entirely too casual, trivial, and historically illiterate but Cobb’s “history” of slavery through the ages reminds me way too much of Adolph Hitler’s pseudo-history in “Mein Kampf”.

  • Forester May 30, 2012

    It’s all smoke and mirrors anyway. The “good” side can still be capable of massacres, and the “bad” side can display compassion. It doesn’t have ANYTHING to do with the causes of the war, or the moral character of either nation’s populace.

    I AM SICK OF INDIANS IN CIVIL WAR DEBATES. Sorry to shout, but it gets so tiresome. It doesn’t matter what the US did in other wars, since we’re not discussing them. “Indian Wars Memory” might be a very good blog, but this isn’t it. They’re just invoking the old preschool mindset of “oh, yeah? Well HE did ____!”

    For example: little Johnny breaks a lamp and little Billy tattles. Johnny tells Mother, “But Billy broke your ‘Gone with the Wind’ collectible dishes!” And so they both get whipped. Johnny is satisfied because Billy got whipped also, but it never changes a thing — Johnny is still just as guilty, regardless of what Billy broke.

  • Margaret D. Blough Jun 1, 2012

    One thing I notice among those like the SHPG commenter who seek to explain away massacres of black Union soldiers by Confederates or even place the onus on the Union soldiers as bringing it on themselves is that they never mention the official Confederate response to the Emancipation Proclamation, cited in an report by Secretary of War Stanton on exchange policy [OR: [ar121_799 con't]},

    >>This announcement of Mr. Davis was made January 12, 1863, and received the modified approval of the rebel Congress, as shown in the following sections of an act approved May 1, 1863, to wit:
    “SEC. 4. That every white person, being a commissioned officer, or acting as such, who, during the present war, shall command negroes or mulattoes in arms against the Confederate States, or who shall arm, train, organize, or prepare negroes or mulattoes for military service against the Confederate States, or who shall voluntarily aid negroes or mulattoes in any military enterprise, attack, or conflict in such service, shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection, and shall, if captured, be put to death, or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the court.
    SEC. 5. Every person, being a commissioned officer or acting as such in the service of the enemy, who shall during the present war excite, attempt to excite, or cause to be excited, a servile insurrection, or who shall incite, or cause to be incited, a slave to rebel, shall, if captured, be put to death, or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the court.
    * * * * * * * * * *
    SEC. 7. All negroes and mulattoes who shall be engaged in war or be taken in arms against the Confederate States, or shall give aid or comfort to the enemies of the Confederate States, shall, when captured in the Confederate States, be delivered to the authorities of the State or States in which they shall be captured, to be dealt with according to the present or future laws of such State or States.”

    The laws to which Section 7 referred had to have included the laws against servile insurrection, which is referred to in the earlier sections and which was generally punishable by death. What this was understood to mean by Confederate military authorities is very clearly shown by Kirby Smith’s order, issued nearly a year before Ft. Pillow to Richard Taylor, “HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT TRANS-MISSISSIPPI,
    Shreveport, La., June 13, 1863.
    Maj. Gen. R. TAYLOR, Commanding District of Louisiana:
    GENERAL: I have been unofficially informed that some of your troops have captured negroes in arms. I hope this may not be so, and that your subordinates who may have been in command of capturing parties may have recognized the propriety of giving no quarter to armed negroes and their officers. In this way we may be relieved from a disagreeable dilemma. If they are taken, however, you will turn them over to the State authorities to be tried for crimes against the State, and you will afford such facilities in obtaining witnesses as the interests of the public service will permit. <<

    Union troops who were black knew that whether or not terms like "black flag" or "no quarter" were used, the official and unofficial policies of the Confederates as an entity and as individuals was that they were not soldiers and must not receive whatever protections existed by cartel or custom for captured enemy soldiers. This is not a matter of "evilizing" anyone. The Confederates started out Chief Justice Taney's premise in Dred Scott, that the black man possessed no rights that a white man need take account of and put in the the context of the great terror of Southern whites, servile insurrection. The rest proceeded with inexorable logic from that.

    • Forester Jun 4, 2012

      Where did this leave whites with “one in the woodpile”, which from what I’ve read was actually common? Wasn’t there a rule that 1/8 was white? Or were they considered mullatoes also?

      Also, I noticed that it specified negroes armed AGAINST the Confederate states. Could this be used as evidence that it was legal to arm blacks in favor of the CS? I realize that’s a stretch, and I in no way believe it, but it seems like the spin a Black Confederate website would make: that it wasn’t illegal to train blacks if for CS service.

      • Andy Hall Jun 4, 2012

        Also, I noticed that it specified Negroes armed AGAINST the Confederate states. Could this be used as evidence that it was legal to arm blacks in favor of the CS?

        I believe it was framed that way to make clear that black Union troops would be seen as committing insurrection, which (along with sexual assault of white women) was considered a level above and beyond conventional criminal acts.

      • Woodrowfan Jun 6, 2012

        “Where did this leave whites with ‘one in the woodpile’”

        I believe that depended on if anyone else knew. If not, and you were light-skinned, you passed for white. Otherwise I believe you were considered mulatto.

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