Today the NYTs Disunion page features an essay by Richard Slotkin on the Crater and the story of the “colored” Fourth Division. I recommend his book on the battle, though the source material utilized is very limited.
The following passage about the battle cry of the black soldiers caught my attention.
Union officers used that fact to their benefit. During their assault training, Fourth Division troops were enjoined to use “Fort Pillow! No Quarter!” as their battle cry. However, for the division’s officers the battle cry was not intended as a command. In the battle itself they took pains to see that their troops did not harm rebel wounded or P.O.W.s. Rather, it was a motivational ploy that reflected their own racial prejudice: They believed that Negroes, as a race, were timid and needed the stimulus of desperation to make them fight hard against white Southerners. That same prejudice would cost the Union dearly when, on the eve of the battle, Gen. George Meade – commanding the Army of the Potomac – forbade the use of the “Colored Division” as the spearhead, because he did not think black soldiers were good enough.
I understand that there are constraints when writing for Disunion, but this analysis of why black soldiers recalled Fort Pillow and promised no quarter to Confederates is much too narrow. Black soldiers did not need to be encouraged to utilize such a battle cry. They wanted revenge on Confederates as did their comrades who charged the earthworks at Petersburg in mid-June 1864. Lt. Richard M. Gosney of the 28th USCT recalled that black soldiers went into battle at the Crater “not expecting any quarter, nor intending to give any.”
While the white officers of the Fourth Division did attempt to restrain their men there is evidence that a few Confederates were executed. One soldier claimed that a Confederate prisoner was killed by a black soldier with a bayonet and “in an agony of frenzy.”
To claim as does Slotkin that the soldiers were “enjoined to use” this particular battle cry or that it was a “motivational ploy” robs these men of their agency at the very moment that begs for explanation and understanding. The racial contours of the fight at the Crater extended beyond Confederates massacring blacks.
On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the battle we need to face these tough issues head on. See you on the battlefield.