Today I made what I hope to be the final research trip for my Crater manuscript. I recently came across an M.A. thesis at Virginia State University by Travis J. L. Stephens and decided that I couldn’t risk not taking a look at it. In 1967 Stephens completed a thesis with the title, “Participation of Negro Troops in ‘The Battle of the Crater,’ July 30, 1864.” I wasn’t so much interested in the tactical details of this essay; rather, I was hoping that the author would comment on the broader social and political context on the 1960s and how this influenced the decision to focus on such an important moment in black history. [For those of you who do not know, Virginia State University is a historically black college in Petersburg.] Unfortunately, there was very little commentary beyond the confines of the event in question. I should have known better. It’s an incredibly well written thesis and is one of the best tactical studies of the Fourth Division at the Crater.
I was pleased to find that Stephens dealt briefly with the massacre of black soldiers following their surrender.
The Battle of the Crater was, in addition to being of the most crucial, also the most sanguine and inhuman of the Civil War. Never before had troops of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee’s army, clashed with colored soldiers. The very appearance of these former slaves in uniform agitated the Confederate troop’s hatred to a degree never previously encountered in any campaign. Though the Confederate soldiers recognized the discipline of these Negro troops by admitting that they conducted a better assault, and gained more ground than their white contemporaries on July 30, it was also stated that these Negro troops could not endure bayonet and close-in fighting as well as the latter. The frenzy of the Confederate troops upon being opposed by Negro soldiers was such that the rules of land warfare, previously observed when fighting white troops, were discarded. The Negro troops were brained and butchered until even veteran soldiers became ill at the sight of the mutilated bodies…. When called upon to perform at Fort Hudson, Fort Wagner, and at Petersburg, the Negro units utilized were confronting the enemy for the first time. One need no longer question the ability of the Negro to fight, for at each of the battles described, he not only fought, but died valiantly.
I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past few weeks surveying the way in which black Americans remembered USCTs and the Crater specifically. It’s no surprise that this aspect of the war proved to be so attractive. First, it provided a necessary corrective to the history of the Civil War, but it also worked to empower black Americans at at time when it was clear that a more assertive posture would be necessary in the cause of civil rights. In other words, it allowed Americans to see themselves as soldiers in one continuous struggle that stretched back to the Civil War. This emerges most clearly during the centennial celebrations of emancipation in 1963. A quick survey of popular magazines such as Ebony and Jet include a wide range of colorful comparisons between the battlefields of the 1860s and 1960s.
On my way home I stopped at the Library of Virginia to check out a few scattered sources, which included a Civil War Centennial pamphlet published by the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and featured the famous painting by John Elder. As you can see it attests to the importance that local government and businesses attached to the Crater. It clearly reflects the interpretation of the battle that the white power structure wished to celebrate.
The outrageous claims made by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others about so-called “black Confederates” would hold up just fine if it weren’t for that little thing called evidence. Thanks to David Woodbury for bringing this story to my attention. He suggests that once we have finished counting we may find 7 or 8 black Confederate soldiers. I think that is much too generous. My guess is that at the end of the day we may find 4 or 5 legitimate black Confederate soldiers and their stories will tell us much more about how they managed to evade identification rather than as examples of some ludicrous notion of Confederate civil rights. In this case a little bit of digging into the available primary sources revealed that Scott Brown was, in fact, a soldier in 137th Colored Infantry and not, as previously indicated on his head stone, in the “Confederate States Army.”
[See Dead Confederates for a follow-up post.]
I am very excited about the next issue of Civil War Times, which should be hitting the newsstands very soon. The October issue will include an essay of mine, titled, “‘Until Every Negro Has Been Slaughtered’: Did Southerners See the Battle of the Crater as a Slave Rebellion?”. I am hoping that readers will find it to be a thought provoking analysis of what happened to a large number of USCTs following the battle. All too often the massacre of these black men is reduced to some vaguely defined rage. I argue that this Confederate rage was a function of a cultural outlook that stretched back into the antebellum period. Acknowledging the long-standing fears among white southerners regarding the management of a slave society and the dangers of slave rebellions (real and imagined) helps us to better understand the treatment of USCTs following the battle. From this perspective there is very little that is surprising about the massacre of upwards of 200 black soldiers.
I also like the fact that this article came directly out of a blog post from last summer. As you can see it received a great deal of attention and I immediately emailed Dana Shoaf about the possibility of turning it into a magazine article. It’s also an opportunity to thank all of you who commented on that post, which I think is a perfect example of how this format can help in the process of actually doing history. I go into much more detail in the first chapter of my Crater manuscript, which I am happy to say is almost completed. No doubt, this article will upset some, but I hope it forces readers to think about this battle from a completely different perspective. That is what good history should do. Thanks once again to Dana Shoaf, who expressed enthusiasm for this piece from the beginning. This is my second article in Civil War Times this year and it’s been a pleasure working with the magazine’s staff.
Historian David Blight has written a little editorial that is making its way around various newspapers today. The last section caught my attention and I thought it would make for a thought provoking post:
In 1907, Mosby drove a dagger into the heart of Lost Cause mythology about slavery: “I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. The South went to war on account of slavery. I am not as honored for having fought on the side of slavery – a soldier fights for his country … the South was my country.” Why doesn’t the Confederacy just fade away? Is it because we are irresistibly fascinated by catastrophic loss? Or is it something else? Is it because the Confederacy is to this day the greatest conservative resistance to federal authority in American history? Or is it that nothing punctuates the long and violent story of white supremacy in America quite like the brief four years of the Confederate States of America?
Is it really all about federalism? Or the honoring of ancestors? Or valor and loyalty? Or regional identity? Or about white racial solidarity in an America becoming browner and more multi-ethnic every day? In 1951, in an essay probing how and why Americans have a difficult time facing their racial past, AfricanAmerican writer James Baldwin left a telling observation: “Americans have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle.”
We should decorate our battlefield heroes, and we have been doing so for a century and a half. We can only wonder whether this time, during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we can finally face the past and probe the real causes and consequences of that conflict, or whether we will content ourselves again with unexamined moral contradictions and piquant confections in our public memory. If we do it better this time, we will need stronger verbs than “involved,” and a good dose of Mosby’s candor.
Update: Check out Richard Williams’s thoughtful response to this editorial as well as the comments section.
The 2010 annual reunion of the Sons of Confederate Veterans opens in Abbeville, SC with a welcome address by Mayor Terence Roberts.