I am really enjoying the opportunity to go back and review the letters and diaries of white Northern soldiers who fought at the Crater. Now that I’ve done so I regret not going deeper into these wartime accounts in the book. Hopefully, this little essay project will make up for it. In this post I want to share a couple soldier accounts from the battle and solicit some feedback.
Before I get to that, however, a quick question about the historiography of Union soldiers. Having recently re-read a few chapters in Chandra Manning’s study I was wondering if there are other historians who have attempted to analyze Union soldiers on race over time. Re-reading the sources I am even more convinced that my guys just don’t fit her framework. Indeed, I find it difficult to situate them into an analytical framework that tracks their views on race since the Crater fight is there first experience fighting alongside black soldiers.
Now to the primary sources. I am trying to leave no stone unturned and the last thing I want to do is over analyze anything. In the aftermath of the battle a number of soldiers offered the following observations about the inability to distinguish between black and white soldiers.
“Go back in our old place and have to look on our dead on the field in front of us they are all black as hat and we can not tell the Colored from white soldiers as they lay mixed up all over the ground.” — William T. Ackerson (51st New York)
“But this morning we got leave to bury the dead and take care of the wounded. But they were almost all dead! I was on field, and Oh God, what a sight! Men cut in a thousand pieces and as black as your hat. You could not tell the white from the black by their hair.” — Hamilton R. Dunlap (100th Pennsylvania Infantry)
Should we treat this as a straightforward descriptive claim about the condition of the landscape and neglected bodies or are these men and others telling us something else about the battle and race? One thing that occurred to me is that perhaps they went into the area of the crater with the intention to take care of the white soldiers first. I don’t know. What do you think? Is there anything to see here?