One of the most important sources within the early historiography of the early black counter-memory of the Civil War and the Crater is George Washington Williams’s, A History of the Negro Troops in The War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (1888). Williams benefited from publication of the Official Records and includes entire reports to supplement the narrative. [Click here for a short biographical sketch.] A History of the Negro Troops is an incredibly detailed history of black volunteers that covers all of the major engagements from the Civil War in which they were involved. Williams discusses discrimination in the army, the difficult relationship between enlisted men and white officers, as well as their performance on the battlefield. Along the way Williams takes every opportunity to wax poetic about the significance of his subject:
The part enacted by the Negro in the war of the Rebellion is the romance of North American history. It was midnight and noonday without a space between; from the Egyptian darkness of bondage to the lurid glare of civil war; from clanking chains to clashing arms; from passive submission to the cruel curse of slavery to the brilliant aggressiveness of a free soldier; from a chattel to a person; from the shame of degradation to the glory of military exaltation; and from deep obscurity to fame and martial immortality. No one in this era of fraternity and Christian civilization will grudge the Negro soldier these simple annals of his trials and triumphs in a holy struggle for human liberty. Whatever praise is bestowed upon his noble acts will be sincerely appreciated, whether from former foes or comrades in arms. For by withholding just praise they are not enriched, nor by giving are they thereby impoverished. (xiii-xiv)
On the Crater
At the critical moment, when the enemy could not only hold this opening in his works, but threatened to sweep through and rout Meade, the Black Division was ordered to charge and gain the crest beyond the crater. Three veteran white divisions had been hurled back in confusion, but these Negro troops were sent forward to contend with an infuriated, brave, and numerous foe. They were gallantly led, and nobly followed where duty and devotion were terribly tested…. They had borne themselves with conspicuous gallantry, and having done all that was required of them were withdrawn to their works….(249) The Negro soldiers’ valor was, after this engagement, no more questioned than his loyalty, and the reputation secured at such a high price was kept untarnished to the end of the campaign. (250)
What I find interesting is that Williams does not reference the slaughter of black soldiers after the battle. Based on the sources utilized for his study it is clear that he was aware of it. Perhaps Williams wanted to keep the focus on the bravery and manliness of the men, which would have been lost with descriptions of helplessness at the hands of angry Confederates. I am going to have to give it some more thought.
Of course, I refer to Williams in my manuscript, but it is sad to think of just how much of what I have collected over the past few years will not make it into the book. Oh well, I guess that is what the blog is for.
Every once in a while my blogging buddy, Richard Williams, reminds his readers not to take me seriously and not to exaggerate my importance within the blogosphere and beyond. I appreciate that advice as it helps me to keep my ego in check. The only problem is that Richard has the strangest way of showing it. My WordPress dashboard contains ten of the most recent links to my blog, six of which can be traced back to Richard’s site. Let’s see, today he took me to task for some comments I made about a book concerning black Confederates. Last Thursday Richard expressed his disapproval of some comments I made in an interview with the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. Last week I was the beneficiary of an extensive critique for a short post I did concerning a talk I heard by James Robertson. And to round it out, check out these two posts from last month. [See here and here]
If I didn’t no any better I would venture to suggest that Richard Williams is my biggest fan.
I don’t have much sympathy for adults who buy into the black Confederate meme. In the end, it is simply a reflection of their gullibility, lack of basic historical knowledge relating to the Civil War and an inability to properly interpret primary sources. On the other hand and as a teacher, I am disgusted when children are brought into the picture. They become the victims of the stupidity of others. Consider this little gem of a book, titled, Entangled in Freedom: A Civil War Novel, which is slated for release in January 2011. The book is authored by Kevin M. Weeks, who is known for The Street Life Series. Here is a short description:
Entangled in Freedom, the first novel in this young adult fiction book series, takes a closer look at the life experiences of African-Americans in the Deep South during the War Between the States. Young adult readers follow main character Isaac Green through the dirt roads of Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia to Cumberland Gap where Isaac serves with the 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers C.S.A. Historical accounts are derived from 19th century official government records as well as real life family narratives of co-author, Ann DeWitt.
These two names should ring a bell. Not too long ago I shared a new website on black Confederates that was created by Ann DeWitt. It’s unfortunate that Ms. DeWitt did not take proper care of her family’s narrative. Sometimes simply repeating family stories does not honor the memory of one’s ancestors, especially if those stories are inaccurate.
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.]