Lieutenant Freeman S. Bowley’s Crater

wilson-honor_in_commandOne of the most interesting Union accounts of the Crater is Lieutenant Freeman Bowley’s memoir, which was published in the National Tribune between April 1899 and September 1899.  [In 2006 Keith Wilson published these articles as Honor in Command.]  Bowley served in the 30th USCT from May 1864 till his capture at the Crater on July 30, 1864.  Bowley’s memoir is valuable for a number of reasons.  His memory is clearly intact and offers vivid descriptions of battle and life as a prisoner in Columbia, South Carolina.  In reference to the Crater it provides a detailed account of his capture and the threats he faced as an officer in a “colored regiment” both in Petersburg and while a prisoner.  Unlike some of his fellow officers who worried about the repercussions from leading blacks into battle, Bowley refused to hide his rank and unit.  There are a number of passages that are worth referencing, but I am going to confine myself to a few that bear on my previous post.

Some of the most interesting passages illustrate his interactions with civilians, particularly women.  One woman, who sold Bowley some dumplings following his capture at the Crater said the following: “‘Yo’ Yanks is all a miserable lyin’ set of thieves, come down yere to steal we’uns niggers.  If I was a man I’d git a gun and shoot ye dead; I’d git a sword and chop yer to pieces.'”  Once out of Petersburg the prisoners were shipped by rail to Danville where they stayed for a short period.  A group of citizens met the train and were outraged at the site of black soldiers and their “abolitionist allies”:

A crowd of citizens gathered around the depot.  The sight of negroes among the prisoners excited them greatly.  Cries of “Kill them! Hang the nigger!” resounded on all sides.  Two officers were pointed out as being officers of colored regiments.  The mob howled with fury and some one brought a rope.  The two officers, Lieut. Shell [Shull], 28th USCT, and Lieut. Dowling [Downing], 31st USCT were dragged from the car, and it seemed as though they were to be hanged then and there.

Luckily the men were not executed, but the rage expressed that day must be understood as the desire to see the leaders of a slave rebellion executed rather than simply as retribution against a hated enemy.  A few weeks later while being imprisoned in Columbia, South Carolina Bowley had another experience with a white Southern woman:

Visitors “to see the Yankees” were an almost everyday occurrence, and the guards never failed to designate me as “That thar little Yankee cuss is an officer in a nigger regiment.”  I had never made any retort, until one day a woman made the remark, “He ‘un had orter be hung for makin’ the niggers fight we ‘uns,” when I turned and said, “Yes, madam; I am an officer of a nigger regiment and I am proud of it.  The time will come when the blackest nigger who wears blue will be a better man than any rebel who ever wore gray!”  The woman flushed, furious with anger.  “If I had my way, I’d kill all you Yankees who came down here to fight we ‘uns and steal we ‘uns niggers–niggers we brung up jes’ like our own children–an teach ’em to fight we ‘uns,” she said.

I think we should not lose sight of the fact that Bowley’s recollection of this woman’s response comes roughly thirty years after the war; however, we should note that it fits perfectly within the paternal mindset of white Southerners who viewed their slaves as family and who believed that discontent and outright rebellion must be understood as external.  Bowley and other USCT officers continued to worry about their status and safety throughout this period.  They wondered specifically as to whether Confederate authorities would enforce an act that stipulated that any white officers captured on the field of battle leading black soldiers would be treated “as inciting servile insurrection.”  Within the framework of a slave rebellion this act of the Confederate Congress does not seem like such a radical turn.  In fact, it fits neatly into long-standing assumptions surrounding what to do with those who would incite complacent slaves against their caring masters.  Bowley witnessed it first hand.

Was the Battle of the Crater the Last Slave Insurrection in the Western Hemisphere?

I‘ve decided to begin my Crater manuscript with the forced post-battle march of roughly 1,500 black and white Union soldiers through the streets of Petersburg before being sent to prisons further south or, in the case of many USCTs, back into bondage.  The scene perfectly captures the central theme of my study, which is the evolution of the memory of the battle and specifically the participation of a division of USCTs.  However, even apart from the memory aspect of the battle, by beginning here we also place the event itself in a much different light.  For most military historians the battle represents the culmination of bloody fighting that defined the “Overland Campaign” and the June offensives outside of Petersburg.  It is also the last decisive Confederate victory in the East.  But there is much more to this story than a massive explosion and fierce fighting in a closely defined space.

For the men in the Army of Northern Virginia this was their first experience fighting USCTs on a large scale and it occurred in a battle to defend an important rail center and civilian population in Petersburg.  Apart from the successful defense of Richmond in the spring and summer of 1862 this was the only other time where Confederates could characterize their actions in such terms.  The salient difference this time around, however, was that Confederates and white Southerners no longer looked on the “Yankee” army as simply an enemy that needed to be destroyed, but as the extension of a government that had inaugurated servile insurrection.  If we stick closely to the letters and diaries written by Confederates than we must come to terms with their experience of having to put down a slave rebellion.  I want to get beyond some of the more entrenched interpretive categories, which dominate the discussion that simply highlight the defense of slavery as a motivating factor or explanan for the men in the army as well as the remaining civilians of Petersburg.  It’s their experiences that I am trying desperately to understand.  How do we understand the rage that animated Confederate soldiers both during and after the battle that led to the slaughter of an unknown number of USCTs?  I don’t mean to downplay the sense of horror surrounding the scale of the explosion that caught an entire brigade off-guard and which created a landscape unlike anything experienced before or the emotional demands placed on soldiers in battle.  There would be something significant to explain regardless of an explosion along with the intensity of fighting and it has everything to do with how white Southerners experienced race as well as their place and responsibilities within a slave society based on white supremacy.

It seems to me that to interpret this battle along these lines forces us to look beyond the war entirely.  If the Crater is to be understood as a slave insurrection than we need to better understand how white Southerners had already come to experience both the threat and fact of rebellion.  Relevant events include John Brown’s failed raid, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, as well as both Gabriel’s and Denmark Vesey’s attempted insurrections.  We should also not forget that news traveled far and wide throughout the western hemisphere during the antebellum period.  Americans (especially slaveholders) paid careful attention to news coming out of the Caribbean and would have helped to reinforce assumptions about how best to prevent and understand slave rebellions.

While our tendency in certain circles is to address the role of slavery in Confederate ranks by noting that most soldiers did not directly own slaves it is important to remember that the maintenance of slavery in much of the South involved all white Southerners.  Beyond the social structure itself, which placed all white men above black slaves and free blacks, whites played a number of important roles in the direct maintenance of slavery.  The best example were the slave patrols, which were commonly made up of non-slaveowners.  Such a role would have given white non-slaveowners a clear sense of their obligations not just in the maintenance of the institution, but in the protection of a broad segment of white southern society.  [Can we see the ANV at the Crater functioning as a large slave patrol?]  Again, it is important to remember that the ANV was protecting a civilian population in Petersburg throughout the campaign; these men would have interacted with civilians as they were rotated in and out of the earthworks.

For Confederates and white Southerners their understanding of the motivation of USCTs would have been framed by long-standing assumptions about black inferiority as well as the perceived role of abolitionists in stirring up what many believed to be loyal and docile servants.   Once again, a broader “Atlantic World” perspective is helpful.  One of the most influential accounts of slave rebellion was Bryan Edwards’s Historical Survey of the French Colony of St. Domingo.  Edwards was a West Indian planter, Member of Parliament, and historian and was located in Jamaica when the rebellion in Saint-Domingue broke out.  Edwards’s account placed the blame for the insurrection squarely on the French abolitionists and by doing so set the stage for understanding South Carolina’s attempt to ban abolitionist literature during the tariff crisis and how slaveowners explained Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which followed closely on the heels of the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator (January 1831).  White Virginians worked desperately to frame an explanation that placed blame on outside forces rather than their own slave population, which they believed to be content.  The failed attempt at Harper’s Ferry arguably confirmed the worst fears of white southerners regarding the ultimate goals of northern agitators.

Confederate letters and diaries from the Crater confirm this long-standing tendency to blame abolitionists and other instigators rather than acknowledge any desire for freedom on the part of the slaves themselves.  Many believed that black soldiers were drunk and cajoled by conniving northern politicians and ruthless abolitionist officers.  Sources also indicate that Confederates viewed white Union soldiers as well as officers in USCT units as willing accomplices.  Some Union officers ripped their rank and unit identifications from their uniforms for fear of being treated as leading a slave rebellion.

One of the most obvious ways in which the thinking about slave rebellions can prove helpful is in reference to the post-battle slaughter of captured black soldiers.  According to historian Bryce Suderow, captured black soldiers were executed on three separate occasions, the largest number occurring after the battle.  The exact number is difficult to nail down, but it is not a stretch to suggest that anywhere between 200 – 300+ USCTs were executed.  I’ve tended to explain this mass execution as a function of Confederate rage at having to engage blacks in close fighting.  No doubt this is true, but we should not ignore the catalyst for that rage that extends beyond the battlefield.  An 1816 rebellion on the island of Barbados resulted in the execution of roughly 200 slaves and in Demerera (1823) another 200 slaves were executed following a failed rebellion.  Interestingly, roughly 200 slaves were either publicly tortured or executed following Turner’s Rebellion in 1831.  Such violent responses served a number of purposes, most notably it sent a strong message to the slave community of who was in control, that such behavior would not be tolerated, and that such actions had no hope of succeeding.  A direct and brutal response would also work to drain any remaining enthusiasm for rebellion.  If we apply this framework to the Crater we can move beyond the mere fact of rage and better discern the intended consequences of the scale of the violence meted out to black soldiers.  It is important to note that these men were responsible for the defense of a civilian population and any remaining slaves in the area.  A strong message would have been sent to the region’s (and beyond) black population that any attempt in following in the footsteps of these soldiers would be dealt with in the harshest of terms.

And this brings us finally to the interracial parade of Union prisoners through the streets of Petersburg the day after the battle.  First and foremost, the parade – ordered by A.P. Hill – represented control and submissiveness to the residents who lined the streets and verandas “in holiday attire.”  What I mean to suggest is that the army demonstrated its ability to continue to defend the residents of the city from the Union army as well as captured black soldier.  Once through the city most of the prisoners were sent to prison camps further south while some of the black prisoners ended up being returned to slavery.  While the interspersing of Union prisoners served to humiliate white soldiers it also worked as a gentle reminder of just what was at stake given the introduction of black soldiers into the Union army.  The parade was a controlled example of miscegenation and it was acknowledged as such by local residents.  One onlooker yelled, “See the white and nigger equality soldiers”, while another asserted, “Yanks and niggers sleep in the same bed.”  This latter comment is quite telling.  How much of a jump is it from seeing white men forced into close proximity with blacks to imagining some of the worst case scenarios following a successful slave rebellion?  Of course, there is death, but there is also the long-standing fear of white women being raped by “savage” blacks.

I should point out that I am not suggesting that Confederates who took part in the battle or even most white Southerners who read about the battle second hand thought of it as a slave rebellion or had visions of Nat Turner and John Brown in mind.  What I am suggesting, however, is that over time white Southerners had become attunded to seeing their slave society in a way that was reinforced by a a concern for its continued maintenance and a clear record of what happens when that hierarchical structure is threatened.  Understanding the Crater as a slave rebellion offers a number of interpretive entry points into the experiences of Confederate soldiers that I hope to explore in more detail in the coming weeks.  It also connects our understanding of the Civil War to the broader “Atlantic World” and reinforces my suspicion that at least one Civil War battlefield has something in common with the battlefields of Barbados, Haiti, Demerera, Southampton and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

The Future of the Confederate Flag

My recent post on the unveiling of another large Confederate flag in Tennessee generated a number of comments.  It’s an emotional issue on all sides and it is unlikely that the interested parties will ever fully agree on whether it should be displayed in public as well as its meaning.  But that’s the way it is when it comes to controversial symbols.  By definition they are open to multiple points of view.  There is a certain amount of legitimacy on all sides and on occasion we can also see these same individuals/groups engaged in actions that betray ignorance and callousness.  Consider H.K. Edgerton’s ridiculous suggestion that if you don’t revere the Confederate flag than you ought to be considered a “traitor” or the Auburn official who plucked the Confederate flags from a soldier ceremony.  I could go on and on with examples.

Such a state of affairs is one of the reasons why I’ve suggested that the flag ought to be removed to a museum setting where it can be properly interpreted.  I don’t understand why more people in the SCV and other Confederate heritage groups don’t consider such a move.  Done right the flag would be taken out of a public debate that rarely evolves in a way where any real understanding of history is conveyed; it simply works to fuel passions on both sides.  As I see it the problem is that the flag is both connected to men who fought bravely in battle during the Civil War and it is a flag that was used as a symbol against civil rights in the 1950s.  You can’t change the history and, by extension, the way people identify with it.  To suggest otherwise is to misunderstand history and the nature of symbols themselves.  Go to the Museum of the Confederacy and you will see the flag in the context of the Civil War.  Across Broad Street, at the American Civil War Center at Tredegar, you will see the flag associated with the Civil War as well as a symbol of white supremacy in the 1950s.  The flag is there to be better understood.

Now, you might suggest that I am being a bit extreme in suggesting that the flag ought to be retired to a museum.  After all, its supporters want to see it in public as a rallying point and as a symbol of pride.  Fair enough and luckily we live in a society where that is permitted up to a point.  The sticking point as we know all too well is that the visibility of the Confederate flag is determined to a certain extent by society through local assemblies and other levels of government.  And let’s keep something very important in mind as we proceed: THIS HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE CASE!

The only difference in the last three decades following the civil rights movement is that a much broader segment of the population can now weigh in on issues having to do with how the past is remembered in public spaces because a broader segment of society is now represented in local government.  Because of this the debates are more heated and the outcomes no longer follow what some have taken for granted for far too long.  Does anyone really believe that if African Americans had been allowed to take part in local government during the era of Jim Crow we would not have seen a more vigorous and and even contentious debate about the public display of the Confederate flag along with monuments and other public sites?  Of course we would.  The defensiveness of some who believe that their “heritage” is under attack is a function of the fact that a certain segment of society has had a monopoly on public remembrance.  That has changed since the 1960s, but again, it should not be seen as anything more than the same democratic process at work.

So, what is the future of the Confederate flag (along with other symbols) and their meaning?  Its future will be determined in every community by those who choose to focus on whether this particular symbol best reflects their values and its collective past.  For instance, in Allegany County, Maryland the local school board has prevented the distribution of a pamphlet that depicts the Confederate flag.  In Jonesborough, Tennessee the mayor and aldermen voted to allow the placement of bricks with the names of Confederate soldiers from the county in a display to honor its veterans.  In both cases, as in so many other examples that can be found in newspapers across the country, these decisions are being made by elected officials who do their best to reflect the sentiment of their constituents. Get it right in enough cases and they stand a good chance of being reelected.  Get it wrong and they are out on their asses.  There is no fixed meaning of symbols with the kind of contested history as the Confederate flag, but if enough people rally to allow or prevent its display in a park or parade, etc than in that sense the community has issued a statement.  In each decision the meaning of the flag is fixed until the community chooses to change it.

On one of Robert Moore’s recent comment threads, fellow blogger Richard Williams suggested that the large Confederate flags are examples of “push back” against those who are perceived to be a threat to their preferred view of the past.  I think that is a fair characterization, but it is one that I hope I’ve explained in this post lies at the foundation of our democratic process.  Let me suggest that the supporters of the Confederate flag ought to be grateful that we now live in a society where “push back” is possible.

A Few Thoughts for Ed Sebesta and James Loewen

Now that things have calmed down a bit re: the petition asking Obama not to send a wreath to the Confederate monument at Arlington, I thought it might be time to offer a few words of advice.  James Loewen recently offered some thoughts in the wake of the controversy.  He finds it difficult to understand the media’s coverage, including its emphasis on Bill Ayers and the overlooking of some of the top scholars in the field:

It turned out that the only name the media cared about was Ayers.  The Chicago Sun-Times, for instance, headlined its story, “Radical Bill Ayers dogs Obama, even on Memorial Day.”  Within the story, Ayers’s name does not appear until the 14th paragraph, which is appropriate.  But no other signer’s name appears at all — not mine, not Sebesta’s, not even McPherson’s, surely America’s pre-eminent scholar on the period, whose Battle Cry of Freedom won the Pulitzer Prize.  Today, searching for “Ayers Obama “Memorial Day” wreath yields 7,570 hits, while “McPherson Obama “Memorial Day” yields just 2,570.

Given the recent political fallout over President Obama’s tenuous connection with Ayers should we really be surprised that the media immediately picked up on and emphasized the inclusion of his name?  The ignoring of the other signers goes without saying.  Most interested parties in this debate could care less about what some scholar believes.  In fact, as I’ve learned over the course of writing this blog many people have an irrational distrust of academics and have probably never read anything by James McPherson, not to mention Manisha Sinha and others.  In the end most people’s memory of the war is fueled by stories and other popular cultural expressions and has almost nothing to do with anything that can remotely be characterized as scholarly.  [That’s not to be taken as a criticism, but as an observation that may or may not be accurate.]

Loewen also seems a bit puzzled by the heated debate that followed on a number of websites.  Yes, the crazies came out in full force and even my name entered the mix, but anyone who follows these issues should have expected just that.  Part of the difficulty for Loewen is that he wants us to distinguish between two types of Confederate monuments.   “One type remembers and honors the dead.  The other,” according to Loewen, “glorifies the cause and typically obfuscates what it was (which was slavery).”  I may be wrong but I don’t think most people make this distinction.  The lone Confederate soldier in front of the court house is as much about a preferred interpretation of the cause of the war as the Davis statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond.  Likewise, the Davis statue can easily be interpreted and used as a setting for an SCV parade that wishes to honor their Confederate ancestors.  These are academic distinctions that mean little in the real world.

In preparation for next year Ed Sebesta has already set up a blog, which he will update as a new petition is organized – that’s right another petition.  Given the results this year it is appropriate to ask what good it will do to try it again.  Should we simply anticipate a differently worded petition with a new list of signatures?  More importantly, how will a new petition advance the debate and force us to look beyond what are deeply-held assumptions about our Civil War memory?   As far as I am concerned petitions such as this are non-starters.  I would encourage Sebesta and Loewen to rethink their overall approach.  I can’t tell you how many times one of my lesson plans has gone awry.  In those situations it is incumbent on the instructor to evaluate and make the necessary changes.

One of the positive results is that the petition led to the sending of a wreath to the African American Civil War monument in Washington.  Think of how many people now know that this monument exists, not to mention that our memory of the black experience in the Civil War remains largely hidden.  Why not work to bring more of this narrative to the public’s attention next year?  How about a well-publicized tour of the USCT section of Arlington next Memorial Day?

We all want to be activists, but we should never lose sight that we are educators first.

Earl Ijames’s Silence is Deafening

I have to admit that I am just a little surprised and disappointed that we haven’t heard from Earl Ijames in response to my most recent post.  If you remember, Mr. Ijames left a spirited comment in response to my critique of his position on so-called “black Confederates.”  One particular comment included a reference to one John W. Venable, who supposedly served in Co. H., 21st North Carolina.  As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, no additional references were given by Mr. Ijames to support the claim.  I must assume that while Mr. Ijames most likely believes that many cases can be debated that this particular example is an open and shut case.

Well, it looks like this is not the case at all.  My post of May 18 offered a detailed overview of a number of documents related to Venable’s connection to the Confederate army and it even included two updates.  All of this information was provided to me by two excellent archivists at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History.  At this point and taken together, the evidence clearly provides a sufficient reason to doubt that Venable served as a soldier in the 21st North Carolina.  Again, additional evidence may come to light and it may even be possible to interpret the available evidence in a way that connects Venable to this particular regiment, but what I find striking is that Mr. Ijames has not added his own voice to this discussion.  After all, Venable is his guy.  It looks like Mr. Ijames conducted another one of his “workshops” on the subject at the Greensboro Country Club on May 19.  I would love to know what he said about Venable and how he supported his preferred interpretation.  Did he do so having read my most recent post on the subject?  I welcome a comment from Mr. Ijames on this issue and I am even willing to feature it as a guest post.  It would no doubt be instructive for all of us.

Until then I want to leave you with one thought.  If this little discussion about Venable has helped with anything it is in reminding us of just how difficult it is to research and confirm the existence of legitimate black Confederate soldiers, as opposed to those who were present with the armies as slaves.  How many times has someone offered a piece of evidence and suggested that it alone demonstrates the presence of a soldier?  Research takes time; it involves knowing what to look for and, most importantly, how to interpret the documents.  For an example of this, take a look at the short essay in North and South Magazine by Thomas Lowry, which focuses on three case studies that involve claims made for the existence of black Confederate soldiers.  All of them begin with a primary source and all of them collapse with a little persistence and attempt to confirm and/or supplement the data.  I think the problem here is that if you want to find black Confederate soldiers you can.  The challenge is doing so in a way that can be analyzed and discussed in a public setting.  This is one of the reasons why it is so important to publish findings in in places that include a peer-review process.

As for Mr. Ijames, the ball is in your court.