Category Archives: Slavery

The Battle of the Crater and Slave Rebellions in Civil War Times

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.

“[H]e Had a Great Reverence for the Constituiton”

Every once in a while I tune into the Glenn Beck Show.  In a media world where conversations/interviews are much too short, Beck at least tries to dig into specific topics during his hour-long show.  I especially enjoy his Friday show, which in recent weeks has been devoted to historical topics.  History for Beck is part of his broader political-cultural world view that sees fascism, communism, atheism and every other -ism at America’s doorstep.  I am actually fascinated by his ability to weave a complex web that makes perfect sense if you accept just a few of his assumptions.  In the end, Beck is doing exactly what Father Charles Coughlin would do if he had access to the same media.  According to Beck America has been on this road since the Progressive Era.  I don’t claim to understand his particular historical outlook, but as far as I can tell every American president in the twentieth century, including Eisenhower and Nixon have contributed to this dastardly turn.  Well, whatever…enough with that.

This past Friday, Beck focused on the Progressive Period once again with particular attention on the racism of Woodrow Wilson and Margaret Sanger and a reappraisal of the “Robber Barons.”  Beck was joined by Burton Folsom Jr. and Larry Schweikart.  Neither is a serious historian and Schweikart is a complete hack.  You may remember a recent post of mine which critiqued a FOX interview with Schweikart, who made some ridiculous claims about the state of history textbooks.  [See here, here, and here]  At one point during the interview the subject of Abraham Lincoln came up along with the subject of slavery and the Confederacy:

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Ebony Magazine Remembers USCTs

One of the richest sources for a black counter-memory of the Civil War is Ebony magazine.  Throughout the Civil War Centennial in the 1960s and beyond the magazine published articles that addressed the crucial role that African Americans played in Union victory.   No topic received more attention than USCTs.  You can view old issues through Google Books and it has proven to be incredibly helpful as I write about how black Americans remembered the battle of the Crater during this period.

One particular article written by Lerone Bennett Jr., (October 1975) about the battle of Chaffin’s Farm caught my attention.  In addition to Bennett’s text there are five sketches by Orville A. Hurt that add quite a bit of depth to the essay. You can find Hurt’s illustrations in multiple issues of the magazine.

Hurt’s illustrations emphasize the bravery and manliness of USCTs as well as the sacrifice made on the battlefield.  The image above is by far the most powerful.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a stark image of a black soldier plunging his bayonet through a Confederate officer before the movie Glory.

Sharing the Crater With Loved Ones

A friend of mine is currently working in an archive in South Carolina and came across a reference to the Crater from a soldier who served in the 18th South Carolina Infantry:

The Negro troops were slaughtered without mercy, we not allowing them to surrender, they huddled together in the pit formed by the explosion and our men deliberately capped down on them and beat out their brains and bayoneted them until worn out with exhaustion.  We took the other prisoners, a number however were shot or hung after brought to the rear- this may seem cruel and heartless to those at home but let them come to  VA and see the sights we have seen and they will no longer say so.  Kill, kill every negro soldier is my motto.

I have files and files of Confederate accounts that reflect this mindset, but what I find so interesting about this particular account is the explicit reference to the home front.  It is tempting to speculate as to the “sights” that this particular soldier is referring to, but it seems reasonable to suggest that it was specifically the presence of black men with guns that so impressed him.  It must have been a challenge for soldiers to depict the sight of large numbers of black men with guns to loved ones back home, especially in South Carolina.

A Few More Black Confederate References

Unfortunately, I had to postpone my documentary interview on black Confederates until mid-August.  In lieu of that I thought I might pass on a few more little gems in this department.  I know some of you are probably sick of hearing about this, but keep in mind that I am collecting various sources for the upcoming book project as I bring my Crater manuscript to a close.

The first example comes from a recent Confederate Day celebration in Dixie County, Florida, which was hosted by the SCV Dixie Defender Camp 2086.  The speaker is Al Mccray, who hosts a radio/talk show in the Tampa Bay area.  This is a wonderful example of why the black Confederate argument has proven to be attractive to a certain number of African Americans.  Listen to Mccray’s understanding of Lincoln’s emancipation policy.  Behind the vague references to his position on colonization and his famous response to Horace Greeley in the spring of 1862 there is disillusionment with the mythology attached to the mythology/narrative of the “Great Emancipator.”  It’s that same narrative that drove Lerone Bennett to write his famous essay for Ebony magazine and later, Forced Into Glory.  The problem, of course, is that Mccray substitutes an incredibly vague account for this mythology.

More interesting, however, is the way in which this argument morphs into commentary about what Mccray and the SCV perceive as our present political situation.  Mccray bounces back between history and politics with ease.  In referring to slavery, Mccray suggests that “pretty soon we all will be slaves to the Washington administration” and later notes that the “Army of the Potomac is still around.”  Finally, Mccray argues that we are losing more and more rights at the hands of a corrupt government.  I suspect that both H.K. Edgerton and the economist, Walter Williams, also fit into this camp.  All of them operate on the flawed assumption that while the Civil War led to a larger and more intrusive government in Washington, D.C. the Confederate government preserved a stricter state sovereignty and states rights.  This is simply not true.  In fact, most slaveowners viewed the continued attempt by the Confederate government to impress and later recruit slaves for military purposes as a violation of their sovereignty.

From Florida we travel to of all places, “30 Rock.”  That’s right, thanks to one of my readers I learned that there is a reference to black Confederates in the episode “Fireworks” [season 1, episode 18].  The plot, involving Tracy Morgan, runs as follows:

“Tracy is served with paternity papers and insists that the child is not his. After the DNA test, Tracy learns that the child is not his but that he is a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson. The news angers Tracy and he talks to Toofer and Frank about it. Toofer learns that he is a direct descendant of Tobias Spurlock, a black Confederate soldier. Tracy and Toofer are upset about the news until Tracy has a dream in which Thomas Jefferson (portrayed by Jack Donaghy) appears to him on The Maury Povich Show. In the dream, Jefferson takes credit for “inventing” America and tells Tracy to forget his past. Tracy decides that he wants Toofer to write a movie about their experiences and Thomas Jefferson’s life. Tracy intends to play all of the parts in the movie, except he intends for the film to be a drama.”

Toofer is terribly distraught to learn that his ancestor Tobias Spurlock was a Black Confederate officer who is known by Civil War scholars as the “Confederate Monster”, who harbored the fugitive John Wilkes Booth following his assassination of Lincoln, and who personally knew Robert E. Lee, rather than a Union officer who knew Ulysses S. Grant as Toofer had always believed.

Unfortunately, I can’t find a clip of this particular segment.  This is the first reference to black Confederates that I’ve seen in mainstream culture.