Sketch of an Argument About the Crater

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.

13 responses... add one

One might note that the composition of the Army of the Potomac changed a great deal from May to July 1864, and that their reaction to Ferrero’s division may have differed significantly from how white soldiers in the Army of the James responded to the performance of Hinks’s division.

I think those differences start from the top down, especially given Butler’s attitude towards his black units. In terms of the change in composition of the Army of the Potomac I assume you are referring to the new recruits. That’s an excellent point. Thanks, Brooks.

It looks good. I hope one of your subsequent sections will deal with the Caucasian Union troops’ views on their African American comrades in the postbellum period. I know that the issue of slavery and emancipation was largely downplayed for the purpose of reconciliation, but Augustus Saint-Gauden’s architectural masterpiece, those Currier & Ives pieces portraying African American troops, and the activities of Union veterans’ organizations, particularly the GAR, demonstrate that this was not always the case. I would very much like this aspect of the war’s memory to be elaborated for me, as well as your take on it.

Thank, Ben. I need to touch up a sentence in the final paragraph that references the postwar period. Reconciliation was a powerful force, but recent scholarship points to a more complex picture of the extent to which veterans acknowledged the participation and bravery of USCTs at battles such as the Crater. I am thinking here of Caroline Janney, Barbara Gannon, Keith Harris, and Andrew Fleche.

It is worth noting that eventually (not sure of the timing, perhaps as late as 1865), all of the USCT regiments were consolidated into a single corps, XXV Corps, which was part of the Army of the James.

I suspect we could find men who expressed a variety of opinions about Ferraro’s men in the aftermath of the Crater. There is a tendency, I think, for those who complain and criticize to do so more loudly and widely, so they tend to be heard more than their numbers might justify.

Hi James,

This is an important point. If I remember the timing the consolidation of USCT regiments took place in Sept/Oct 1864. I would love to know if this decision had anything to do with the Crater specifically. In many ways the experience of the white soldiers at the Crater was shaped by the rage exhibited by Confederates against blacks. This helps to explain the evidence of whites bayoneting retreating blacks in response to Mahone’s counterattack. Thanks.

Kevin,

I think there might be another layer of complexity here that goes beyond racism. To the regulars in the Army of the Potomac, the 9th Corps was never really part of the force formed under McClellan’s leadership. It fought with the Army of the Potomac only briefly before 1864, at Antietam and at Fredericksburg (where it was lightly engaged). Parts then fought in the latter stages of the Vicksburg campaign and then captured and held Knoxville. Its assembly point was not Culpeper but Annapolis, and Burnside himself spent much of the winter of 1863-64 recruiting in the northern states to fill up his corps. Likewise the Army of the James was a hodgepodge of forces, almost all of whom had never served in the Army of the Potomac. Both the 9th Corps and the Army of the James suffered from poor leadership, a relatively high percentage of non-veterans compared to the other corps, and commanders who performed generally quite poorly. The 9th only showed up in 1864 after the Army of the Potomac was already engaged in the Wilderness. The 9th had not distinguished itself during the Overland Campaign in a way that would have earned the respect of the Army of Potomac veterans and their commanders. Moreover, the 4th division has been quite lightly engaged up until Petersburg, and not particularly visible to the core Army of the Potomac units.

The comparison that comes to mind is the 11th Corps and their performance at Chancellorsville. That corps, which had been under Banks command until late 1863, had a large German component. When the disaster at Chancellorsville occurred, “the Dutch” became the very convenient scapegoat of the rank and file because of their fleeing from Jackson’s flank attack.

The point is that there may have been an “outsider” dynamic at work that transcends racism. If the 4th division had been all-white, what you might have heard was “they are not really part of us.”

Bill

Hi Bill,

Thanks so much for your input. I actually wrote a bit last night about your point more generally. The Fourth Division was strangers in the Ninth Corps as well. During the summer the division had been assigned numerous tasks that shifted them from corps to corps. It wasn’t until July 22 that Burnside regained direct command over Ferrero’s men. According to Burnside, he had informed Ferrero that his division would be used in the upcoming assault in early July, but contrary to the popular claim there is little evidence that the division trained specifically for it.

One of the important distinctions between the Army of the Potomac and Army of the James is the high command and specifically Ben Butler’s confidence and willingness to utilize black soldiers. Your larger point about the Ninth Corp’s place in the Army of the Potomac, is reflected in the many letters and diaries that lay the blame on Burnside specifically. Thanks again, Bill.

I like Bill’s point about scapegoats because that is how i make sense of the event. White troops knew they screwed up and so they blamed black troops as a way to shift blame.

Then again did white troops know they were the cause of the failed attack? Perhaps they really believed they did nothing wrong and black troops were to blame?

Can you even trust primary souce accounts to be honest or are they just propaganda supporting soldiers’ racist beliefs?

I really know little of the battle and look forward to reading the book. Weren’t two brigades of USCT originally supposed to lead the assault and there were complaints by Washington that if the attack failed they USCT would be blamed causing political backlash and as a result one was replaced by a white brigade in which the General (lydle?) was drunk and didn’t follow in support? A rather large mistake. Oh well I shall have to read the book to clear my mind

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