What follows is a very rough draft of the opening section of an essay that explores white Union perceptions of United States Colored Troops who fought at the Crater. Please feel free to comment and be as critical as you like. I very much appreciate it.
On July 9, 1864 Frank Leslie’s Illustrated featured on its front page a dramatic image of the 22nd United States Colored Troops carrying the first line of rebel works as part of the initial assaults by the Army of the James against the city of Petersburg, Virginia on June 15. The image depicts the men joining together to haul off a captured Confederate cannon while two dead soldiers serve as a reminder of the sacrifice paid for this prize. It is a moment of triumph that artist, E.F. Mullen, did not want readers to think went unnoticed on the field of battle. In the backdrop white Ohioans doff their hats, wave regimental flags, unsheathe swords and cheer in an open display of support for their black comrades.
The accompanying article highlighted the assault of the “colored troops” in Brigadier General Edward Hincks’s Third Division, Eighteenth Army Corps. “The majority of the whites expected that the colored soldiers would run,” wrote the reporter, “but the sable forces astonished everybody by their achievements.” Once inside the enemy’s works, “Numbers of them kissed the gun they had captured with extravagant satisfaction and a feverish anxiety was manifested to get ahead and charge some more of the rebel works.” The corps commander praised Hincks’s men in a “congratulatory order” and stated confidently that, “Such honor as they have won will remain imperishable.”
A few weeks after this story appeared black men serving in the Army of the Potomac were once again utilized against Confederate works outside of Petersburg, this time unsuccessfully. Writing from Bermuda Hundred a few days following what became known as the battle of the Crater, a soldier from New York informed his family that, “Everybody here is down on the niggers.” Even a cursory glance at the available archival record suggests that this soldier may not have been far from the truth. The African-American men who served in the two brigades of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division, who bore the brunt of the blame for the decisive Union defeat on July 30, 1864 stands in sharp contrast to the response a few weeks previous and represents the nadir of white Union perceptions of their black comrades in uniform during the Petersburg Campaign.
Not surprisingly, historians who have written about the battle have emphasized the harsh language leveled at the men in the Fourth Division and have correctly assessed it as “bitter proof of the racism prevalent throughout the Union ranks.” According to Richard Slotkin this racist outlook that led to the “scapegoating of the 4th Division” ultimately helped to rebuild the morale of the IX Corps and the rest of the Army of the Potomac. For historian Chandra Manning, the racist accusations that poured forth in the wake of the battle against the “colored soldiers” constitute nothing less than a retreat from sentiments of “racial justice and equality” that she argues originated early in the war and grew steadily through the successful summer campaigns of 1863. Whether this battle altered any individual soldier’s racial outlook is highly doubtful, but no one can deny that the men who served in the Army of the Potomac represented a cross section of a broader society that was steeped in racism.
Our preoccupation with the racial attitudes of the men in the Army of the Potomac, and others serving in the Virginia theatre, runs the risk of overlooking a more nuanced account of their first experience fighting alongside black soldiers. First and foremost, the scapegoating of black soldiers at the Crater did not lead to widespread calls to remove these men from the army entirely. Many Union soldiers acknowledged the bravery of the blacks fighting at the Crater even among those who could not resist revealing their own racial prejudice. Such an acknowledgment proved to be the foundation of a shared experience among white and black soldiers that continued to resonate through the postwar period. The result of the battle did little to challenge a growing consensus among the enlisted that African Americans ought to contribute militarily and share in the sacrifice necessary to defeat the Confederacy. Moving beyond the language of race we can more easily discern that the letters and diaries written by these men in the wake of the battle point to the conditions in which they were willing to serve side by side with blacks in the shared goal of preserving the Union.