George Washington Williams’s Crater

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 They had borne themselves with conspicuous gallantry, and having done all that was required of them were withdrawn to their works….(249) The Negro soldiers’ valor was, after this engagement, no more questioned than his loyalty, and the reputation secured at such a high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.

Remembering the Crater at Virginia State University

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 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.

Douglas Southall Freeman Visits the Crater

I have culled a number of helpful sources from Google Books.  Today I am sharing a wonderful image of Douglas Southall Freeman that was taken from a Life magazine article published in May 1940.  The article takes the reader to various places from the Petersburg Campaign, including the Crater and follows Freeman as he attempts to make sense of the growing conflict in Europe and its likely outcome based on his understanding of the Civil War.  It’s an interesting piece and the photographs are wonderful.  The article begins with that famous photograph of Freeman saluting the Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond.

I believe that the photograph of the remains of the Crater was taken facing north.  The modern day trail follows the far side to the left and behind the Confederate position.  If you look closely you can see the South Carolina marker in the rear and to the right behind the tree.  I should mention that Freeman’s fascination with the Civil War began at the Crater.  In 1903 he attended the famous Crater reenactment with his father, who served in the 41st Virginia Infantry.  After watching the veterans of Mahone’s Virginia brigade march by the young Freeman pledged to his father that he would tell their story.  Another great find.

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.