A Note on Petersburg’s Black Population

Last night I came across an interesting little section in Will Greene’s Civil War Petersburg which analyzes the reaction of the city’s free black population to Virginia’s decision to secede and the deployment of the areas first units.  On the eve of the Civil War Petersburg was a majority black city; twenty-six percent of the city’s free population was black and within the black community 36% were free.  A sizable number, according to Greene, "owned town lots, and some achieved surprising wealth for the time." (p. 8).  Much has been made of the growing percentage of the Upper South’s free black population throughout the antebellum period and its significance during the war years.  William Freehling contends that this general trend towards greater black freedom in the Upper and Border South threatened the states in the Lower South who believed that such changes would eventually spill into their own backyards.  Freehling has also contended that the racial dynamics in the Upper South played a crucial role in the evolution and outcome of the war.  Questions of how to manage large free black populations while at the same time maintain sufficient control of the slaves abounded. 

Greene presents a very interesting written document by a free black man by the name of Charles Tinsley (29 years old) who openly declared his loyalty to Virginia’s cause by volunteering to aid the militia:

We are willing to aid Virginia’s cause to the utmost extent of our ability.  We do not feel that it is right for us to remain idle here, when white gentlemen are engaged in the performance of work at Norfolk, that…is more suitable to our hands….There is not an unwilling heart among us…and we promise unhesitating obedience to all orders that may be given us….I could feel no greater pride, no more genuine gratification than to be able to plant [the Confederate flag] upon the ramparts of Ft. Monroe. (p. 36)

While Greene does not dismiss out of hand Tinsley’s declaration of loyalty to Virginia and the Confederacy he is rightfully skeptical.  The disruption of trade with the  North had already taken a toll on tobacco companies and other businesses which employed free blacks.  Greene cites one resident of James City County who believed that allowing these men to work on fortifications "would be putting them out of harm’s way, thereby lessening the chances of servile insurrection, which it is well to guard against as far as possible." (p. 36) 

I tend to agree with Greene’s conclusions here:

Although some of the black volunteers may have felt a genuine loyalty to Virginia and found sincere motivation n serving their native state, it is difficult to believe that men like Charles Tinsley did not exaggerate their Confederate patriotism out of a sense of self-interest.  Free blacks in Virginia had become experts at accommodation and survival, and their eagerness in volunteering for unarmed military service comported with this instinct.  Calculations of self-protection undoubtedly tipped the scales in favor of cooperating with the rapidly mobilizing whites. (p. 36)

Free blacks understood all too well the precariousness of their legal standing in the years leading up to the Civil War.  I don’t think it is a stretch at all to suggest that their very public claims of loyalty were in part an attempt to assuage the kinds of concerns expressed by the above-cited resident of James City County.  Accepting free blacks for volunteer service took care of reinforcing white Virginian’s own sense of paternalism as well as their fears of slave revolts at a time when the security and stability of their community remained uncertain. 

As I was reading this section of the book I couldn’t help but think of the aftermath of the Crater in July 1864.  In a sense the reaction of Confederates to the presence of USCTs becomes even clearer in light of these early concerns about slave rebellion and race relations.  Keep in mind that the regiments that made up Mahone’s Virginia brigade were raised in the Petersburg and were commanded by the city’s own David A. Weisiger.  Confederates did not see black soldiers as simply an extension of the Union army, but as a realization of their worst fears of racial leveling and servile insurrection come true.  Evidence suggests that a few of the USCTs were originally from the Petersburg area and at least one document suggests that a captured black man was returned to his former owner following the battle.  The public parade of captured black soldiers through the streets of Petersburg and on their way to prison camps further south must also be seen in this context.  The remaining white population in Petersburg was given a glimpse of just what the war had become and just what was at stake in case of defeat. 

Update on Crater Manuscript

Crater I recently received the reviews of my manuscript from the publisher and there is both good and not-so-good news.  As for the latter I still need to make some changes to the manuscript before I am given a contract.  The good news is that both reviewers offered first-rate comments and criticisms that will no doubt improve the overall quality of the manuscript.  I am no stranger to the peer review process; the care that academic presses take in ensuring that their publications are solid is the main reason I went this route.  So, over the summer I will address the comments of the reviewers and put everything else on hold that I am currently working on.  This was the first time that the entire manuscript had been reviewed since I submitted an earlier version for the M.A. in history at the University of Richmond back in 2005.  All in all my prospects look good.

One thing that I need to do is distance my study a bit more from the work of David Blight who stresses the extent of consensus achieved nationally and among white Southerners regarding memory of the war.  My work suggests that this is anything but the case as both ex-Confederates debated over who could claim credit for success and the Crater and during the Readjuster years which witnessed bitter debates among veterans of Mahone’s brigade surrounding their commanders foray into politics.  The chapter on the creation of the Petersburg National Military Park in 1936 also needs to be refined in a way which reflects local economic concerns rather than the broad theme of national reconciliation.  I tend to agree with one of the reviewers who suggested that while the first five battlefield parks created at the turn of the twentieth century may have been the result of reconciliation the Crater came much too late.  Northerners may have been involved, but were probably not the prime movers. 

The most interesting suggestion and one which will involve a substantial amount of work involves writing a brand new chapter on the post Rally the High Ground/NPS changes in battlefield interpretation.  The goal of the chapter would be to explore the relationship between the city of Petersburg and its large black population and the NPS.  At one point in the manuscript I speculate as to why black Americans have not taken more of an interest in the Civil War.  From the manuscript review:

While I agree that there has been and continues to be resistance to including the black story in Civil War history, the fact remains that academics and the National Park Service have reached out to all people in attempt to tell a more complicated and inclusive story.  NPS frontline people that I have spoken to are bewildered and confused by the lack of black reaction to this interpretive shift.  It is controversial to question why so many African Americans are reluctant to embrace their Civil War past when there are so few impediments in their way as had been the case prior to 1970.

Since most people interested in such issues fall back on educated guesses (as I did) the plan is to conduct extensive interviews with former and current NPS staff as well as members of the local community.  This would be the first time that anyone has taken such an approach and it has the potential to steer dialog in a more promising direction.  I’ve already contacted a few NPS personnel and the archivist at Virginia State University and all are willing to help.  If Park Service personnel are indeed confused by the lack of response from the black community six years after the Rally Initiative than it would be important to know why. 

On the one hand it would have been nice to get a contract, but given the time that went into the reading of the manuscript and the constructive criticism that resulted it is difficult not to feel positive about the final product. 

Now I need to look into a decent digital recorder.  Any suggestions?

Corroboration in Historical Studies: Chandra Manning and the Battle of the Crater

My wife is a neuroscientist who constantly reminds me that the value of any individual research project’s conclusions relates directly to whether those results can be replicated by independent parties.  Unfortunately, we don’t have anything comparable in historical studies.  We can take steps to ensure that our conclusions have been challenged by peers who may question the sources utilized or the interpretation of those sources.  When done correctly and honestly the peer review process can lead to stronger conclusions.  Still, there is a certain amount of underdetermination between evidence and interpretation.  We do our best.

I’ve finished with Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War War Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War. I have much to think about, especially in connection with my work on memory and the Crater.  In one of the chapters I make an argument about how Confederates interpreted the presence of USCTs in the battle and specifically about why they were so enraged.  I was pleasantly surprised to read that Manning found many of the same themes in the letters she surveyed of Confederates who either faced USCTs in battle or who took the time to write home about what their service meant to their view of the war.  Manning argues that Confederates – both nonslaveholders and slaveholders – understood the war as a defense of slavery.  While other issues certainly animated Confederates at different times, according to Manning, the issues of race and slavery served to focus the army.  Internal fissures may have threatened the unity of the Confederacy, but these problems never trumped the importance of defending the “peculiar institution.”  Regardless of status white Southerners held to the belief that the maintenance of slavery guaranteed their respective place in the political/social hierarchy.  More importantly, defeat would mean race wars and miscegenation.  My archival sources indicated that the experience of having to fight USCTs at the Crater reinforced the importance of continuing the fight, but I was surprised to discover in Manning’s study just how early in the war Confederates were focused on the issue.  Confederates in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia focused their attention on the recruitment of black soldiers from the beginning of 1863.  This is important because the battle of the Crater is the first time they faced USCTs which suggests that the rage exhibited must have been building for quite some time.

Here is just a short section from my Crater manuscript which touches on how Confederates responded to the presence of USCTs:

Lee’s officers and men were already engaged in heated combat by the time Edward Ferrero’s black division entered the battle, and it did not help that many of them, according to Thomas Smith, “charged me crying no quarter, remember Fort Pillow.  Private Henry Van Lewvenigh Bird of the 12th Virginia recalled proudly that “The negro’s charging cry of ‘No quarter’ was met with the stern cry of ‘amen.’” Writing after the war, one Union veteran was surely correct when he noticed that for a Confederate soldier, “It seemed to add increased poison to the sting of death to be shot by a negro.”  The Confederates considered such an act as violating all rules of warfare and the sacred rights of humanity.”  For many of the men fighting in the vicinity of the Crater, this was their first experience fighting black soldiers, and their response suggests a heightened sense of rage and purpose.  “It had the same affect upon our men that a red flag had upon a mad bull,” was the way one South Carolinian who survived the initial explosion described the reaction of his comrades.  David Holt of the 16th Mississippi remembered, “They were the first we had seen and the sight of a nigger in a blue uniform and with a gun was more than ‘Johnnie Reb’ could stand.  Fury had taken possession” of Holt, and “I knew that I felt as ugly as they looked.”

Many Confederates relished retelling of their experiences in the Crater fighting Ferrero’s division.  “Our men killed them with the bayonets and the but[t]s of there [sic] guns and every other way,” according to Labnan Odom, who served in the 48th Georgia, “until they were lying eight or ten deep on top of one enuther and the blood almost s[h]oe quarter deep.”  Another soldier in the 48th Georgia described the hand-to-hand combat: “the Bayonet was plunged through their hearts & the muzzle of our guns was put on their temple & their brains blown out others were knocked in the head with [the] butts of our guns.  Few would succeed in getting to the rear safe.”  Even after acknowledging the bravery of the black soldiers in the crater who “fought us till the veary last,” John Lewis who served in the 61st  North Carolina of Hoke’s division and participated in the final attack of the day, was satisfied that “[W]e kild asite of nigers.  Both the horror of battle and rage at having to fight black soldiers must have been apparent to the mother of one soldier as she learned that her son “shot them down until we got mean enough and then rammed them through with the Bayonet.”  Another soldier admitted that, “Some few negroes went to the rear as we could not kill them as fast as they past us.”  Lieutenant Colonel William Pegram described moments on the battlefield in great detail for his wife where black soldiers “threw down ther arms to surrender, but were not allowed to do so.  Every bombproof I saw had one or two dead negroes in them, who had skulked out of the fight, & killed by our men.”

The presence of black soldiers served as a rallying cry for Confederates who did not participate in the battle; writing about the battle served as an outlet through which they could express their own resentment and anger over the use of black soldiers.  Describing how, “Our men bayoneted them & knacked ther bra[i]ns with the but[t] of their guns,” as did Lee Barfield who served in the 62nd Georgia Cavalry, may have been the next best thing to being there.  Even A.T. Fleming, who served in the 10th Alabama but missed the battle due to illness, could not help but allow his racist preconceptions to pervade a very descriptive account in which Confederates “knocked them in the head like killing hogs.”  Perhaps commenting on the dead black soldiers on the battlefield or the prisoners, Fleming described them as the “Blackest greaysest [greasiest] negroes I ever saw in my life.”  While stationed at Bermuda Hundred during the time of the battle, Edmund Womack wrote home to his wife, “I understand our men just chopped them to pieces.”

Once the salient was retaken, Confederate rage was difficult to bring under control.  Accounts written in the days following the battle rarely shied away from including vivid descriptions of the harsh treatment and executions of surrendered black soldiers.  Jerome B. Yates of the 16th Mississippi recalled, “Most of the Negroes were killed after the battle.  Some was killed after they were taken to the rear.”  Another soldier admitted that “the poor deluded devils were butchered right and left.”  Lieutenant Freeman Bowley of the 30th USCT wrote, “As the Confederates came rushing into the Crater, calling to their comrades in their rear, ‘The Yankees have surrendered!’ some of the foremost ones plunged their bayonets into the colored wounded.”  “The only sounds which now broke the silence,” according to Henry Van Lewvenigh Bird, “was some poor wounded wretch begging for water and quieted by a bayonet thrust which said unmistakably “Bois ton sang. Tu n’aurais de soif.” [Drink your blood. You will have no more thirst]. James Verdery simply described it as “a truly Bloody Sight a perfect Massacre nearly a Black flag

Confederates who took part in the battle or heard about the presence of black soldiers secondhand were forced to explain away what some perceived as acts of bravery and skill on the field.  John C.C. Sanders, who commanded the Alabama brigade in Mahone’s division, was forced to admit that the “Negroes. . . . fight much better than I expected.”  However, he was quick to qualify this statement with the conviction that “they were driven on by the Yankees and many of them were shot down by the latter.”  J. Edward Peterson, who served as a band member in the 26th North Carolina, described the black soldiers at the Crater as “ignorant” and like Sanders assumed they were forced to fight by the Yankees.  Peterson went on to conclude that because of this they did not deserve such harsh treatment by Confederates following the battle.

As a result of their experience fighting black soldiers, many Confederates experienced a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to the cause.  Years after the war, Edward Porter Alexander remembered that the “general feeling of the men towards their employment was very bitter.”  “The sympathy of the North for John Brown’s memory was taken for proof,” according to Alexander, “of a desire that our slaves should rise in a servile insurrection & massacre throughout the South, & the enlistment of Negro troops was regarded as advertisement of that desire & encouragement of the idea to the Negro.”  William Pegram also acknowledged the perceived threat as stated by Alexander when he noted that “I had been hoping that the enemy would bring some negroes against this army.”  And now that they had, “I am convinced . . . that it has a splendid effect on our men.” Pegram concluded that though, “It seems cruel to murder them in cold blood,” the men who did it had “very good cause for doing so.”  According to Pegram’s most recent biographer, the experience facing black troops during the war renewed his commitment to the values of the antebellum world, “which had given birth and meaning to his nationalistic beliefs.”  The experience of fighting black soldiers for the first time served to remind Lee’s men of exactly what was at stake in the war—nothing less than an overturning of the racial hierarchy of their antebellum world.

Newspapers added to the growing chorus of rage upon learning of the presence of African-American soldiers on the battlefield.  Editors not only used the opportunity to share the details of the battle and the cry of “Remember Fort Pillow,” but also reflected on the broader meanings of black participation.  One newspaper pointed to the hypocrisy of Northern claims of equality between the races and concluded that “hatred of race never dies out.”  “The white man will never fall down to the level of the negro, nor the negro rise up to the level of the white man.”  The upshot of such discussion, according to this writer, was “miscegenation, which is but another name for amalgamation.”  “Saturday was the first occasion on which the Army of Northern Virginia ever fought against negro troops,” wrote the Richmond Dispatch, “and it is hardly probable that Grant’s darkeys will be over-desirous to run against that army again.”  The author of this account could not resist pointing out that “our men, enraged by the cry of ‘No Quarter’ slaughtered them like sheep.”  “Comparatively few were taken prisoners, while hundreds were slain.”  Perhaps out of a need to explain away what appeared to be fearless behavior exhibited on the battlefield by black soldiers, this writer reduced their conduct to the influence of alcohol: “Negroes, stimulated by whiskey, may possibly fight well so long as they fight successfully, but with the first good whipping, their courage, like that of Bob Acres, oozes out at their fingers’ ends.”

The presence of black soldiers at the Crater and other battlefields directly challenged notions of Southern paternalism and racial hierarchy.  In addition to citing alcohol as a stimulus to fight, others blamed Northerners who “fill the hearts of these confiding poor creatures with vindictive rage and thirst for revenge against their people, their masters, who have treated them with kindness and humanity.”  Commentators avoided any acknowledgment that African Americans were engaged in a fight for their freedom and chose instead to contrast Northern “outrages” with the noble Southern soldiers and Robert E. Lee, whom they regarded as “the Christian gentleman without stain and without dishonor.”  The fighting on July 30 was not to be understood simply as another instance of indescribable bloodshed, but rather as a fight for survival against an enemy that was now reduced to inciting formerly loyal slaves against their loving masters.

The View From the Ground: Only for Academics?

I was wondering this morning how long it might take for reviews of The View From the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers to appear.  I decided to do a search and found a very short review in the Charleston Post and Courier.  The review was written by Richard Hatcher who works as a historian for the NPS at Fort Sumter and is co-author of an excellent book on Wilson’s Creek.  I was struck by his evaluation of the book and given that the review is so short it is presented here in full:

The title suggests this book is composed of a series of letters, diary or journal entries, or even reminiscences of Union and Confederate soldiers.  It is not. It is, in fact, a collection of nine academic essays on a number of contemporary issues soldiers faced.

These essays cover a variety of subjects, each of them between 18 and 20 pages. Union soldiers’ views on slavery and race and the manner in which Christians handled temptations of camp life present two general subjects. Discussions of how soldiers of the Fourth Texas Infantry accepted their officers, and which states’ troops deserved or earned the honor of victory at the Battle of the Crater represent more specific topics. Nine separate authors have contributed to this work, and while their styles differ widely, each reads as if it was directed toward an academic audience and not widespread Civil War readers.

It is likely that ‘The View From The Ground’ will appeal only to a limited number of readers outside the ranks of professional Civil War historians.

First let me say that as a descriptive claim Hatcher may in fact be right that this volume will only appeal to a select group of readers.  That said, for the life of me I don’t understand why anyone would agree to review any book in a popular newspaper if all that is to be said is tantamount to: This book isn’t for you.  Now maybe I am being overly sensitive given that I am a contributor to this volume, but Hatcher’s comments touch on one of the primary motivations behind my research and this blog.  I have no doubt that there are plenty of people whose interest in the Civil War is simple entertainment and storytelling; however, there are just as many people who are willing to think critically and take their knowledge to the next level.

Instead of simply acknowledging what may in fact be descriptively true why not suggest that those people who are looking to deepen their understanding of soldier life would do well to consult this book.  After all aren’t many people interested in the religious and political lives of soldiers?  If you can’t say that the essays would help deepen understanding in these areas than say why, but to suggest that only fellow academics will find these essays interesting implies that there is no room for the general reader to further their understanding.  I do not write only for fellow academics.  Assuming that my Crater manuscript sees the light of day I would be appalled to read a review implying that the study is suitable only for people who have advanced degrees, teach in a college or university or happen to live in the Northeast.

A newspaper review is going to reach a wide audience; why not encourage people to broaden and deepen their understanding of the Civil War whenever possible.  God knows we desperately need it.

“Mystic Chords of Memory”: How Americans Have Commemorated and Remembered the Civil War

I am pleased to announce that registration is now open for the 13th annual Civil War conference hosted by the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  I was honored to be asked to take part by historian and conference organizer Mark Snell.  The conference will take place between June 21-24.


"Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn."  Most Americans don’t give a damn about the Civil War either, but many who do have a manufactured memory of what has been called the "crucible" of American history.  How has popular media manipulated, portrayed, or romanticized the Civil War?  How did the war’s veterans, post-war politicians, and interest groups remember the war or reconstruct its memory?  Why does the Civil War still conjure sectional, class, and racial tensions?  Why has a red, white, and blue flag, garnered with stripes and stars, evoked such emotion through the years?  This fascinating period of history still inspires debate and consternation, as well as admiration and respect.

During this long weekend of study and learning, we will focus on the forces which interacted to develop modern memory of the American Civil War.  Expert historians will help us to examine how perspectives have been shaped over more than 140 years of input and adaptation by various groups and schools of thought.


John M. Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, and author of The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, will be with us for the entire weekend to guide the learning process and contribute his expertise during talks and tours.  In his keynote lecture, he will identify and elaborate upon some of the variables that account for conflicting memories of the Civil War — using the battle flag controversy as the primary case study for that analysis.  John will also chair Sunday’s ever-popular panel discussion, during which much insight and wisdom flows, some questions are settled, and others are ignited.

Kevin M. Levin teaches history at the St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Virginia, and hosts a blog called Civil War Memory.  His extensive background in history and philosophy has given him searing insights into the idiosyncrasies and the implications of Civil War history and memory.  In his talk, "The Battle of the Crater, William Mahone, and Civil War Memory," Kevin will examine the ways Southerners reinterpreted this pivotal episode during the Battle of Petersurg throughout the postwar.  Memories of the Crater and Confederate Major General William Mahone proved flexible enough to encompass multiple meanings relating to issues surrounding postwar state politics in Virginia, the contentious issue of race, and the drive towards national reunion.  By analyzing the various and often contradictory interpretations of important Civil War battles, we more clearly can understand how history is frequently mixed with various elements of public memory and myth.

William Blair is Director of the Richards Civil War Era Center and Professor of American History at Penn State University.  Blair’s presentation, "The Politicization of Memorial Days," places the development of memorial holidays, Emancipation Day celebrations, and other remembrances in the context of Reconstruction politics and race relations in the South.  His research examines these civic rituals and demonstrates that the politics of commemoration remained far more contentious than has been previously acknowledged.  Blair’s analysis shows that some festive occasions that we celebrate even today have a divisive and sometimes violent past as various groups with conflicting political agendas attempted to define the meaning of the Civil War.

Thomas Clemens is a renowned expert on the Battle of Antietam and the editor of the Ezra Carmen papers, a post-war compendium of recollections by the soldiers who participated in the battle.  Leading the tour of Antietam National Battlefield, Tom will combine his knowledge of the battlefield and the memories of the battle’s participants to comment on the formation of battle legacy, commemoration, and interpretation.

G. Kurt Piehler is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee.  During his presentation, he will recount American efforts to commemorate wars by erecting monuments, designating holidays, forming veterans’ organizations, and establishing national cemeteries.  Kurt’s experience with history and memory is extensive, having worked previously gathering more than 200 interviews with military veterans for the Rutgers Oral History Archives of World War II.  He is author of Remembering War the American Way.

Click here for the Registration Form