What follows is a very rough draft of the opening section of an essay that explores white Union perceptions of United States Colored Troops who fought at the Crater. Please feel free to comment and be as critical as you like. I very much appreciate it.
On July 9, 1864 Frank Leslie’s Illustrated featured on its front page a dramatic image of the 22nd United States Colored Troops carrying the first line of rebel works as part of the initial assaults by the Army of the James against the city of Petersburg, Virginia on June 15. The image depicts the men joining together to haul off a captured Confederate cannon while two dead soldiers serve as a reminder of the sacrifice paid for this prize. It is a moment of triumph that artist, E.F. Mullen, did not want readers to think went unnoticed on the field of battle. In the backdrop white Ohioans doff their hats, wave regimental flags, unsheathe swords and cheer in an open display of support for their black comrades. Continue reading
Alvin C. Voris rose through the ranks in command of Ohio troops and by the end of the war was brevetted major general. Below are a few excerpts from his letters which were published a few years ago as A Citizen-Soldier’s Civil War: The Letters of Brevet Major General Alvin C. Voris and edited by Jerome Mushkat.
I find the evolution of Voris’s thinking on the conduct and service of black soldiers to be quite interesting and reflective of a broader trend within the Army of the Potomac and Army of the James. By November 10 Lincoln had been reelected and Voris had taken temporary command of a black unit. The Crater represents the nadir of white perceptions of their black comrades in arms. There is no questioning the fact that Ferrero’s Fourth Division was scapegoated by both those who were on the battlefield that day and those who learned later about it later, but a closer look suggests that the condemnations were relatively restrained and short-term.
It’s a more complex story and one that I am currently exploring for an essay that I need to finish in the next few weeks. Continue reading
There were a few details to work out, but I can now announce that I will definitely be taking part in Longwood University’s annual Civil War Seminar on March 15 in Farmville, Virginia. The theme this year is 1864 and my topic – not surprisingly – will be the battle of the Crater. I am going to talk specifically about how Confederate soldiers assessed the battle. Other presenters include Eric Wittenberg, Gordon Rhea, Stephen Engle, and Brian Steel Wills. That’s a great line-up if you ask me and best of all, IT’S FREE.
This is turning out to be a busy speaking season here in the Boston area, but there is nothing better than heading back to my old home to talk about the Civil War, especially this year. Hope to see some of you in Farmville in March.
Earlier today I was going through my collection of original Civil War era newspaper and came across an issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated from July 9, 1864. The first page includes this wonderful illustration of the charge of General Hinks’s “colored troops” outside of Petersburg in mid-June. Ohio troops cheer them on in the background. It’s a wonderful find as I continue to explore how white Union soldiers responded to the use of USCTs a few weeks later at the Crater.
It’s a powerful image, but we should proceed carefully in interpreting it. For some it is an image that fits into a popular and satisfying narrative that is framed around slavery, emancipation, military service, freedom, postwar promises of civil rights, and the eventual slide into Jim Crow. From this perspective we may be tempted to dismiss the cheering of the Ohio men as something fleeting or, in hindsight, even insincere. Such an interpretation, however, misses a salient point about white Union soldiers. They were not engaged in a civil rights struggle. Continue reading
I am really enjoying the opportunity to go back and review the letters and diaries of white Northern soldiers who fought at the Crater. Now that I’ve done so I regret not going deeper into these wartime accounts in the book. Hopefully, this little essay project will make up for it. In this post I want to share a couple soldier accounts from the battle and solicit some feedback. Continue reading