I have already mentioned what a pleasure it was to have the opportunity to talk last week with Earl Hess about our mutual interest in the battle of the Crater. During our discussion Prof. Hess asked if I dealt in any substantive way with the evidence that USCTs executed surrendered Confederates at the Crater. I told him that I reference these accounts, but that I had a very difficult time coming to terms with the numbers as well as the timing. One of the reasons I am looking forward to Hess’s upcoming book on the battle is that he attempts to put a number on it. I don’t know if this is possible given the scant evidence, but it is definitely an aspect of the battle that is often overlooked and I have no doubt that Hess will give it a good shot.
So, the short answer is, yes, USCTs did massacre Confederates at the Crater. It occurred during the initial advance of the two brigades of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division, which took place at approximately 8 A.M. While part of the unit was diverted into the chaos of the crater itself, a substantial portion of the division was able to skirt along its northern rim and advance west toward their objective along the Jerusalem Plank Road. Elements of the other three divisions were already engaged in this area by this time, but the rush of new soldiers led to the surrender of roughly 200 Confederates who were huddled in the complex chain of earthworks that dotted the landscape behind the salient.
It should come as no surprise that the black soldiers who made this attack did so having been incited by their white officers to “Remember Fort Pillow” and grant, “No Quarter.” It would be interesting to know what exactly these officers communicated to their men about the recent massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow given the levels of illiteracy among USCTs. These black soldiers would have also gone into battle knowing that it was unlikely they would be allowed to live in the even that they were taken prisoner. Accounts suggest that they “killed numbers of the enemy in spite of the efforts of their officers to restrain them.” Another Union officer recalled, “That there was a half determination on the part of a good many of the black soldiers to kill them as fast as they came to them. They were thinking of Fort Pillow, and small blame to them.” As far as I know this was the only moment in the battle where this type of killing on the part of USCTs occurred.
While it may be tempting to explain the Confederate massacre of USCTs following the battle as a direct response to these incidents, this would be a mistake. First, the evidence suggests that the killings were isolated and therefore probably not widely reported throughout the ranks. Mahone’s counterattack took place after this incident and while these men knew before going into battle that they would meet black soldiers there is no evidence to suggest that they were aware of these killings. Of course, many of them recalled having been told that the black soldiers would give, “No Quarter.” Finally, as I’ve argued elsewhere, Confederate soldiers did not need a massacre on the part of USCTs to justify a much larger slaughter of surrendered black soldiers. There are reasons as to why this happened that extend beyond the battlefield itself.
[Painting of Crater by Tom Lovell]
I am finally in the home stretch of finishing the revisions of my Crater manuscript. For a number of reasons the first chapter proved to be the most difficult to revise, but I finally have it where I am comfortable. It should take me no more than 2 to 3 more weeks before I send the full manuscript back to the publisher. One of the things that I am having quite a time with, however, is the title. Since I am stumped I thought it might be helpful to ask my loyal readers for some assistance. So, here is the deal. If I use your title or a substantial portion of it you will receive a free copy of the book – assuming it is published at all. Long time readers will be familiar with the subject of the book, but just in case here is the original proposal/outline. It should give you some idea of what the book is about. I have to say that it was painful to look at the time line that I sketched out in the proposal. Oh well.
Thanks in advance for your help.
One of the highlights for me during last week’s Petersburg conference was the opportunity to view Pamplin Park’s feature film, “War So Terrible: A Civil War Combat Film.” Will Greene describes its inception as a response to visitors who reflected on their experience in the park as somehow enjoyable or entertaining. Greene and the rest of the staff did not want visitors, especially students, finishing their tour with a glorified view of war. Rather, they wanted to convey the horrors of battle and the changes that soldiers underwent over the course of the war and beyond. [This is something that I've discussed on this blog on a number of occasions. See here and here.]
There are two versions of the film, the full length running 48 minutes as well as a less graphic version that runs 23 minutes. The film is framed around a veterans reunion that takes place somewhere in the South. During the ceremony both Benjamin Franklin Meyers of the Union and Andrew Jackson Stewart of the Confederacy reflect on their experiences during the war from their first battle to the trench warfare of 1864. The film delves into questions of why men fought and persevered in the ranks without reducing the war to any one explanation. There are no transcendent figures and no references to Lincoln, Davis, Lee, Grant or anyone to detract from the focus of the film. Viewers empathize with both individuals and suffer through some very difficult battle footage, which is emotionally draining. The film succeeds brilliantly in conveying the emotion of battle. Finally, the reunion scenes steer clear of the mistaken notion that Lee’s surrender at Appomattox or even later events involving Union and Confederate veterans reflected the healing of old wounds and bitterness. I don’t want to give too much away about this movie.
At the conclusion of the movie our group remained silent for a few moments before discussing it with Greene and I don’t mind admitting that I had a tear in my eye. I made it a point to purchase a copy before leaving and I plan on showing the full version to my Civil War class this year. If you are a teacher I encourage you to purchase a copy through Pamplin Park’s online store. It’s only $9.95 and I guarantee that you won’t be sorry.
Congratulations to Will Greene and the rest of the staff for this fine film.
I haven’t updated my list of new books in quite some time. Unfortunately, I haven’t had much time to read, but I highly recommend books by McCurry, Miller, and Noe. Happy reading.
Daniel Crofts, A Secession Crisis Enigma: William Henry Hurlbert and “The Diary of a Public Man” (LSU Press, 2010).
Stanley Harrold, Border War: Fighting Over Slavery Before the Civil War (UNC Press, 2010).
Graham R.G. Hodges, David Ruggles: A Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City (UNC Press, 2010).
Michael Kammen, Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials (University of Chicago Press, 2010).
Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Harvard University Press, 2010).
Brian Craig Miller, John Bell Hood and the Fight for Civil War Memory (University of Tennessee Press, 2010).
Kenneth W. Noe, Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army After 1861 (UNC Press, 2010).
Michael O’Brien, Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 (UNC Press, 2010).
Donald Stoker, The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Cynthia Watchell, War No More: The Anti-War Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914 (LSU Press, 2010).