Category Archives: William Mahone/Crater

Did USCTs Massacre Confederates at the Crater?

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]

So, What Should I Call It?

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. :D  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.

Tracking the Trajectory of Race in Nineteenth-Century Virginia

Yesterday I had one of those moments, while working on the Crater manuscript, where I was able to see the big picture of the history of race in Virginia in the nineteenth century.  It all came together around one individual, William E. Cameron.  Those of you familiar with Virginia will recognize the name.  Since the connections I made in my head were fairly simple, I am going to keep it simple here.

Cameron served as a captain in the 12th Virginia, which was raised in Petersburg.  He took part in the counterattack at the Crater, which included an entire division of black Union soldiers.  Their presence constituted a direct threat to the social and racial hierarchy that Confederate soldiers hoped to secure in their bid for independence.  Interestingly, by March 1865 we find Cameron trying to convince slaveowners to release some of their slaves for service in the Confederate army.  It is important to remember that the act President Davis signed into law on March 13, 1865 made no provision for the emancipation of slaves in exchange for service; nevertheless, Cameron’s involvement in this process came only after a very public debate about the identity and status of slaves in a society committed to maintaining the institution.  Finally, in 1882 Cameron secured the governorship of Virginia for the Readjuster Party, led by his former commander, William Mahone.  The Readjusters achieved victory, in part, based on the support of the state’s black population, which benefited in numerous way during the party’s short time in power.

And there you have it.  Cameron took part in a war fought to protect slavery only to see his government desperately attempt to utilize these very same people as soldiers, but without any change in legal status.  After the war he engaged black Virginians as free political agents that led him to the highest office in the state.  Just another reason why Virginia’s history is so damn interesting and important.

A View of the Crater in 1867

The first time I took my wife to visit the Crater she was less than impressed.  If I remember correctly she said something along the following lines: “This is it?  This is what you’ve been spending your time on?”  Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but not by much.  There are a number of points in the broader history of this site that I would of liked to have visited.  Of course, to see the actual battle would have been interesting, but I also find the 1903 and 1937 reenactments to be attractive as well.  Perhaps a round of golf in the 1920s would have been enjoyable.  The only other time that I find attractive is right after the war.  From all the reports I’ve read the battlefield was still an absolute mess, littered with weapons, bones, and other signs of the horrific fight.  I’ve collected a number of accounts from various sources that are included in my manuscript, but nothing comes close to the following description from The Southern Opinion on June 29, 1867:

The crater was between twenty and twenty-five feet deep before it was closed over the dead, but now the average depth of the cavern is not more than eight feet or ten feet, with walls of slippery clay, in which has lately been discovered some valuable properties, equal in every respect to meerschaum clay.  Tim Griffith, youngest son of the proprietor, has become a very artistick worker in the material, and has taken many impressions of relicks, such as United States belt plates, the eagle, and the corps mark of Burnside’s army corps, of which great numbers were to be found.  Colonel Moore, of one of the government departments, Washington, has examined the clay, and pronounced it unequaled for modeling purposes–the best in the world.  Some visitors affirm that the clay received its moulding and adhesive qualities from the blood of the slain buried there, which assertion seems to receive some support from the fact that veins of red permeate the compost.  One fact has been demonstrated, which is undeniable, that the soil possesses great preserving qualities.  On the 30th of July, 1866, three hundred bodies were taken out of the crater, and the corpses were as perfect in flesh as the day they were consigned to the pit, two years before.  They were fresh and gory, the blood oozing from their wounds, and saturating still perfect clothing.

I have numerous accounts of bodies being re-interred into the 1930s, but nothing comes close to the descriptive quality here.  The Griffith family, which owned the land on which the battle was fought, took full advantage of public interest in the site following the war.  They kept a register book, which in 1866 alone includes the names of 8,000 visitors, which suggests that the number was even higher – a testament to its early popularity as a tourist site..  A visit to the Crater today really is a walk in the park.

Publications in the Pipeline

I hope that all of you have had a chance to read my article on Confederate military executions in the current issue of Civil War Times.  It should be on the newsstands for a few more weeks, but you can also read it online.  I’ve been quite pleased with the response thus far.  I am also pleased to report that my essay on understanding the battle of the Crater as a slave rebellion will be published in a future issue of the magazine.  Working with Dana Shoaf and the rest of the staff was an absolute pleasure and I look forward to doing it again.  You may remember that this essay started as a blog post in June 2009, which received quite a bit of attention.  Civil War Times is a perfect place for this particular piece.  It’s an aspect of the battle that receives very little attention and I love the fact that it will be read by a popular audience.  I am really excited about this one.  Writing this essay has allowed me to think much more deeply about a number of issues related to the battle itself as well as the postwar process of remembrance and commemoration.  The essay now serves as the core of the first chapter of my Crater manuscript.

This year is proving to be very good for me in the area of publications.  I’ve got a few other projects that should be out this year in addition to the two Civil War Times articles.  The final volume of the Virginia at War series edited by William C. Davis and James I. Robertson (University of Kentucky Press) should be right around the corner.  Back in 2008 I wrote a chapter on the demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia.  In August my talk from the 2008 meeting of the Society for Civil War Historians, which explored how I use Ken Burns in my classroom will be published in the journal, The History Teacher.  Finally, I am hoping to hear more about the status of Gary Gallagher’s final volume in the Military Campaigns of the Civil War series at UNC Press.  It looks like this final volume will cover the Petersburg Campaign through Appomattox and may end up being quite a large book.  Last I heard my essay on how Confederate soldiers remembered the battle of the Crater was to be included, but these things can change given the amount of time that has lapsed.