I am pleased to report that I am making steady progress on revising my Crater manuscript. In fact, I recently contacted the publisher to inform them that I plan to mail the manuscript no later than the first week of August. It’s nice to finally be in the home stretch. Much of my time has been spent cutting content that detracts from the core issue of race and historical memory, which I am now convinced is this project’s most important contribution to the literature. One section that I am adding is a discussion of the black counter-memory of the battle. It’s not that I didn’t have any references to African American accounts, but there are so few that it was very difficult to weave them together as a coherent analysis. One of my reviewers suggested that I take another shot at it.
One of the more fruitful sources is the postwar accounts written by white officers from USCT units. I still don’t necessarily consider these sources to constitute a counter-memory, but they did help to preserve memory of the participation of African Americans at the Crater at the turn of the twentieth century. The problem for the historian is that so few of these articles actually tell the story of the men in the units or address the larger issues that defined the service of African Americans. The cultural and social divide between the two groups made it difficult for these individuals to relate to one another and very few officers remained in touch with the men in their units after the war. I have accounts in which the officers go on and on about the battlefield heroics of their fellow white officers, but say nothing about the men in the ranks. A few that do end up minimizing their claims to manhood by continuing the argument that black soldiers needed their white officers to control their innate emotional excesses. One account focuses specifically on denying claims that white officers were drunk during the battle without addressing continued claims that black soldiers were as well.
The few accounts that do attempt to tell the story of the men in Ferrero’s Fourth Division are very important primarily because they preserved a memory of the war at a time when the nation was moving away from a narrative of emancipation and embracing reunion. The majority of these articles can be found in The National Tribune, which was in publication between 1877 and 1917 and functioned as the principal Grand Army of the Republic’s weekly newspaper. Two officers in particular stand out for their contributions to this newspaper. The first is Lt. Freeman Bowley, who served in the 30th USCT. His writings and memoir were recently compiled and edited by Keith Wilson as Honor in Command (University Press of Flordia, 2006). The second is Colonel Delavan Bates, who also served in the 30th USCT.
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This coming Friday I am scheduled to spend the day with a film crew from Eastern Carolina University, which is producing a documentary on the subject of “black Confederates.” I am excited about my first foray into the world of film and just a little apprehensive about how my commentary will be used. Still, I do think it is an opportunity that I can’t pass up given that my next book project will be a study of memory and black Confederates. The filming will be done at my home and we plan on spending about 4-5 hours discussing the subject.
I am going to put together some information sheets that I can refer to during the interview. My overall goal is first and foremost to help the audience to properly frame the discussion around the correct terms. This is a discussion about how the Confederate war effort altered the institution of slavery and not one about soldiers. We need to use the correct terminology. As anyone who is familiar with the primary evidence can tell you any examples of black southerners who actually served as soldiers are incredibly rare and therefore constitute and exception to this framework. As I’ve pointed out over the years this is not a problem confined to the general public, but even among those who work as public historians such Earl Ijames of the North Carolina Museum of History.
And if Ijames wasn’t disturbing enough for you than have a look at this essay written by Bernhard Thuersam, who is the director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington, North Carolina. The essay is a rough survey of the role of black soldiers in the Revolution, War of 1812, and Civil War. I am not going to sum up the entire article. I neither have the time nor the patience. On top of some of the same old pieces of evidence that appear in every article/website on the subject consider the following:
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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.