Tag Archives: Petersburg

Where Were All the Black Confederates in the Summer of 1864?

Thanks to Brooks Simpson and Ken Noe for participation in my most recent post on black Confederates.  Their thorough comments in response to a reader who put forward what he believed to be evidence for black Confederate soldiers is a clinic on how to engage in serious historical analysis.  I can’t tell you what it means to me to have such respected professional historians as regular readers of this blog.  You would also do well to check out Ta-Nehisi Coates’s most recent post on the subject as well as the clever thought experiment over at Vast Public Indifference.

At one point in the discussion today Ken Noe offered the following:

I recently completed a project that required me to read the letters and diaries of 320 CS soldiers. They wrote a lot about slavery, slave labor in camp, their opposition to emancipation, and their mixed feelings about the 1865 Confederate Congressional debates over arming blacks. But not a one of them–not one–described black men fighting beside them as armed soldiers for the Confederacy. What I’d need are a lot of letters that did describe that. I’d also need evidence that the 1865 Confederate slavery debates never took place after all, because why debate the issue if black men were already soldiers in Confederate service? Finally, some official mention from the Confederate government before 1865 would help.

Before proceeding I want to mention that the project that Ken speaks of will be published shortly by the University of North Carolina Press and it promises to be a very interesting study.  All of Ken’s questions are relevant, but I was particularly struck by his emphasis on the lack of references to black Confederates from the men in his sample.  One would think that at some point a Confederate solider would acknowledge the presence of black soldiers rather than servants, teamsters, cooks, etc.  I don’t know one historian who has come across such a letter, though I assume that a few did serve or were able to pass as white soldiers.  Continue reading

 

Will Greene’s Civil War Petersburg

greene-petersburgI know I promised to stay away until January, but I don’t really consider this to be a violation of my blogging hiatus.  My review of Will Greene’s book, Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War (University of Virginia Press, 2006), is included in the most recent issue of the journal, Civil War History [December 2009, (pp. 504-05)], and I thought I might pass it on for those of you who need a quick Civil War Memory fix.

Although most Civil War enthusiasts are no doubt familiar with the ten-month campaign that enveloped the city of Petersburg between June 1864 and April 1865 few can say much about how its civilian population, both black and white, experienced the changing conditions wrought by war.  The increase in the number of community and regional studies has led to rich insights into the ways both white and black southerners experienced the hardships of war on the home front.  In addition to studies of the home front historians such as Frank Towers and Louis S. Gerteis have examined the extensive growth experienced in urban communities during the final two decades of the antebellum period and beyond.  A. Wilson Greene’s Civil War Petersburg straddles both of these categories and the result is the most scholarly study of the Cockade City to date. Continue reading

 

Richard Slotkin’s Crater

cemeteryridge_evm00001255The following review of Richard Slotkin’s new book, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864 is now available in the latest edition of Civil War Book Review.

With the publication of three books on the battle of the Crater in the past two years, one might reasonably ask if there is a need for yet another. These previous treatments (written mainly by non-academic historians) have collectively addressed the tactical complexity of the battle, including the early morning explosion of 8,000 pounds of black powder under a Confederate salient and they have provided an exhaustive account of the close-quarter combat and blood-letting that ensued for close to eight hours on a battlefield that was ripped open by the initial blast. Such a focus is a staple of traditional military history. But as much as we have learned about the nature of combat in the trenches around Petersburg in the summer of 1864 there are key aspects of this battle that have not been sufficiently addressed by the previous literature.

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“History Through the Veil Again”: A Response to Ta-Nehisi Coates

The latest post by Ta-Nehisis Coates beautifully captures the frustrations that many African Americans experience when visiting America’s Civil War battlefields and specifically those places where African Americans participated.  A recent visit to the Petersburg battlefields, including the Crater, by Coates and his children highlights the continued challenges facing museums, the National Park Service, and other historical organizations in working toward a narrative that acknowledges the contributions of African Americans and situates the Civil War within the broader history of freedom and race.  When you take a moment to step back it is shocking to think that a war that resulted in the end of slavery and emancipation of 4 million people would be remembered in a way that divorced the descendants of those very people from being able to fully engage and consume the historic sites from that struggle.  And yet, that is where we are on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Before proceeding here are a few passages from Coates’s post:

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“The Question of Atrocity” for Richard Slotkin

I am just about finished reading Richard Slotkin’s new book on the Crater, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864, and have enjoyed it immensely.  The book is very different from the two previous studies of the battle in that Slotkin provides a much needed analysis of the racial components of the battle rather than a traditional military history.  Yes, there is more to a battle than moving from place to place.  I am in the process of writing up a formal review for Civil War Book Review, but wanted to share something that I learned for the first time.

Although I wish Slotkin had gone a bit further in his analysis of the massacre of USCTs he does an excellent job of presenting both the immediate and long-term conditions that help explain the scale and complexity of the violence.  First, Slotkin correctly references the proportion of dead to wounded in the battle in comparison with other Civil War battles.  On average, the ratio of wounded to dead was 4.8 to 1.  At the Crater, the overall ratio for Union troops was 3.7 to 1, though for black soldiers it was 1.8 to 1.  Slotkin’s analysis of the tactical ebb and flow of the battle reveals a number of moments where soldiers on the battlefield were executed and not just black soldiers.  [It should be pointed out that Slotkin is not the first historian to point this out.  In 1987 Bryce Suderow published an article in the journal, Civil War History, which was later included in a collection of essays on Civil War massacres.]  The first massacre actually occurred by black soldiers in Sigfried’s brigade, who advanced into battle with the cry of “No Quarter.”  According to Slotkin, the battle cry was intended “to overcome that supposed docility and motivate them to fight with absolute determination.” (p. 339)  White officers quickly intervened once their men became engaged with the enemy.

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