It seems fitting to offer a few thoughts about the Crater on this the 145th anniversary of the battle. On Monday Brendan Wolfe posted a fascinating entry on the Crater massacre over at the Encyclopedia Virginia blog. In the process of putting together their entry on the battle, my friend, VFH Intern, and UVA graduate student, Peter Luebke uncovered an important story out of the Northern Neck of Virginia in June 1864. In the summer of 1864 reports circulated in Richmond newspapers of the raping of a white woman 11 times at the hands of soldiers from the 36th USCT. Peter rightly inquires whether these newspaper reports help to explain the massacre of large numbers of black Union soldiers following the battle on July 30. In citing a recent study by Jason Phillips (a book all of you should read) Peter notes the extent to which the men in Lee’s army exchanged news in the trenches around Petersburg and Richmond and helped to encourage all kinds of rumors. The important point here is not whether the rape in fact occurred, but that those who heard of these stories would have given them legitimacy. At no point does Peter ever suggest a direct causal connection between the stories of rape and the Crater massacre. I’ve spent the past 5 years reading the letter and diaries of Lee’s men through the summer of 1864 and I have not once come across a specific reference to this incident on the Northern Neck. That said, I agree with Peter that it’s enough to suggest that to the extent these stories filtered through the ranks they would have contributed to the intensity of the response by Confederates.
Three books have been published on the battle of the Crater over the past two years and I have had the opportunity to review all of them. I reviewed Alan Axelrod’s The Horrid Pit for the Journal of Southern History and my review of John Schmutz’s The Battle of the Crater is forthcoming at H-Net. Before I left for Amsterdam I was contacted by Civil War Book Review to see if I might be interested in reviewing Richard Slotkin’s new study, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864. On a personal note, all three books reference one or more of my own publications on the battle, which, of course, is nice to see.
Both Axelrod and Schmutz are heavy on tactical detail, but quite weak on interpretation, which is why I’ve been looking forward to Slotkin’s book since last summer. The title alone suggests that the issue of race is central in Slotkin’s analysis and a quick read of the preface confirms it:
I‘ve said more than once that I find Civil War memoirs to be very difficult to use when trying to understand the war itself. Many are self serving and are inevitably influenced by the political, social, and economic conditions present at the time of writing. While difficult to use to illuminate the war itself, I enjoy trying to piece together an analysis that places the source in its proper context. One thing I’ve learned after years of research on the memory of the Crater is that nothing written by former Confederates and other Southern commentators after 1879 can be understood apart from the radical political changes that William Mahone introduced to the state and the lingering bitterness and suspicion that would be attached to his reputation well into the twentieth century.
That said, we can identify those postwar sources that seem to transcend the influences mentioned above. Please don’t ask me to explain how we can identify these specific sources; suffice it to say, we just know – think “Brewmaster’s Nose.” There is a sense that the author is attempting to be fair and balanced; he is self-effacing and may even accept blame on occasion. I can’t think of a better example of such a narrative than Edward Porter Alexander’s Fighting for the Confederacy, which was edited by Gary Gallagher back in 1989. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. There are very few memoirs that top 500 pages that I can claim to have read in their entirety, but I can honestly say that I’ve read it through twice and large sections multiple times. In contrast with Military Memoirs of a Confederate (1907), Fighting for the Confederacy was written for his grandchildren and, if I remember correctly, was written while in Nicaragua. No doubt, this helped to shape the narrative.
Recently, I decided to go back and reread Alexander’s chapter on the Crater as I finish up my essay on understanding the post-battle massacre of USCTs as a slave rebellion. It should come as no surprise that nothing I’ve read in the letters and diaries of Confederates who were at the Crater describe it as a slave rebellion or reference the likes of John Brown and Nat Turner, so you can imagine my surprise when I came across the following:
In fact there were, comparatively, very few Negro prisoners taken that day. It was the first occasion on which any of the Army of Northern Virginia came in contact with Negro troops, & the general feeling of the men toward their employment was very bitter. The sympathy of the North for John Brown’s memory was taken for proof 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. (p. 462)
This was not the first time that I read this passage and I’ve even used it in different places in the manuscript, but reading it again as I think about slave rebellions, John Brown, etc. gives it a salience that I failed to fully appreciate.
Today was the perfect day to drive to Petersburg and hang out at the Crater. I try to get down there at least once a year to recharge the batteries and find those special places where I can lose myself in the past for a few moments. This trip I decided to walk off the field itself into the wooded areas along the edge of the battlefield. I walked a few hundred yards along the Confederate right where the 46th and 34th Virginia were located. The Federal attack managed to occupy about 200 yards along this portion of the battlefield, but what is striking when you walk this area is the incline that they would have had to manage. In short, it would not have been an easy area to defend given the disorganization in Federal ranks and decisiveness of the Confederate counterattacks beginning at roughly 9am. Along the Confederate left one is also struck by the uneven terrain and the difficulty that the Ninth Corps would have had in securing the area that was defended primarily by brigades from North Carolina under the command of Col. Lee M. McAfee. I also explored one of the two “covered ways” that the Ninth Corps used for its attack as well as numerous smaller traverses. Finally, I followed the “covered way” used by Mahone’s division for their counterattack. If you walk about 100 yards beyond the crater you will come to a depression where the wood line is extended out. Find an entrance into the woods and you can walk a few yards before the ground levels out. It’s of course impossible to know what the area looked like on July 30 given that the battlefield functioned as a golf course in the early twentieth century. I actually spent so much time exploring the area beyond the perimeter of the field that I almost forgot to make a quick trip around the crater itself. Along the way I ran into a very nice couple who were trying to make sense of what they were seeing. I asked if they had any questions and ended up giving them a fairly detailed account of the battle and a bit about what happened on the site after the war. They were very grateful.
From there I went to Blandford Cemetery which I like to call, “Lost Cause Central”. I absolutely love walking Blandford. It’s a beautiful spot and you can usually walk it with very few people around. I did my usual route, which took me to the Confederate section and William Mahone’s mausoleum. It’s a very curious resting place. You can’t really see it in this photograph, but the only indication that this is Mahone’s gravesite is the “M” that is situated inside the star above the door. Mahone was larger than life and in my mind the most important Virginia politician of the nineteenth century after Thomas Jefferson. The structure itself is an imposing one and perhaps fitting given Mahone’s importance, but one wonders why there is nothing more than a letter to identify its occupant. You might say that an “M” is all that would have been needed in this case, much like the simplicity of “Grant” on the monument in Washington, D.C. Or it could reflect the bitterness and anger that befell Mahone owing to his foray into politics and leadership of the Readjuster Party, which controlled Virginia state politics for four years.
Mahone’s obituaries reflect a deep mistrust from around Virginia that followed him until his death in October 1895. Much of what I found tried to focus on his military career, but in the end could not fail to notice what many deemed to be the actions of a traitor. The Richmond Times Dispatch offered a dispassionate overview of Mahone’s military and political career and listed numerous regret notices from Virginia politicians and “resolutions of regret” from local Confederate veterans organizations, including the A. P. Hill Camp, Gray’s Veterans, and the R. E. Lee Camp. The Norfolk Landmark reported to its readers that Mahone’s death “removes one of the most conspicuous figures in the public life of this State since the war.” After describing his accomplishments on the battlefield, the paper concluded that Mahone “combined with signal strategic ability a personal bravery and self command” and “enjoyed the confidence and esteem of General Lee.” Virginia “loses one of her most distinguished sons,” suggested the Portsmouth Star and “as an organizer of forces, he was unquestionably one of the greatest minds of the age.” North of Richmond, the Fredericksburg Free Lance described Mahone as a “Confederate general who displayed great ability and achieved marked success.” Even while offering favorable accounts of Mahone, the same newspapers could not resist commenting on his controversial political career. Another newspaper urged its readers to remember Mahone’s political legacy: “The name of Virginia was dragged in a mire of reproach and became a by-word and a mockery. From the effects of that political delirium we are just recovering.” And the Fredericksburg Free Lance predicted that Mahone’s death “will probably bring about the entire union and thorough cooperation of the divided and disorganized Republican party of Virginia.” Finally, one eulogist noted that, “Few public men have ever had such a loss of friends as Mahone.”
Could the placement of the “M” somehow have been the result of an unspoken compromise between the Mahone family and the community? Mahone’s remains would be interred at Blandford, but keep the visual reminder to a minimum. When it comes to trying to understand and/or debate how to remember the Civil War generation there is a tendency to simplify in a way that ignores the complexity of the lives being remembered. The categories employed tend to be more about how we feel or how we choose to identify with the past. What I find so interesting about Mahone is that he serves to remind us that not even his own generation could agree on how he ought to be remembered.
To wrap up my trip I met my friend, Emmanuel Dabney, for lunch in Petersburg. Emmanuel works as an interpreter for the NPS at Petersburg and is currently working on an M.A. in public history. He is incredibly passionate about historic preservation and hopes to make a career in the NPS. I predict that Emmanuel is going to be a real force in the preservation world.
I‘ve decided to begin my Crater manuscript with the forced post-battle march of roughly 1,500 black and white Union soldiers through the streets of Petersburg before being sent to prisons further south or, in the case of many USCTs, back into bondage. The scene perfectly captures the central theme of my study, which is the evolution of the memory of the battle and specifically the participation of a division of USCTs. However, even apart from the memory aspect of the battle, by beginning here we also place the event itself in a much different light. For most military historians the battle represents the culmination of bloody fighting that defined the “Overland Campaign” and the June offensives outside of Petersburg. It is also the last decisive Confederate victory in the East. But there is much more to this story than a massive explosion and fierce fighting in a closely defined space.
For the men in the Army of Northern Virginia this was their first experience fighting USCTs on a large scale and it occurred in a battle to defend an important rail center and civilian population in Petersburg. Apart from the successful defense of Richmond in the spring and summer of 1862 this was the only other time where Confederates could characterize their actions in such terms. The salient difference this time around, however, was that Confederates and white Southerners no longer looked on the “Yankee” army as simply an enemy that needed to be destroyed, but as the extension of a government that had inaugurated servile insurrection. If we stick closely to the letters and diaries written by Confederates than we must come to terms with their experience of having to put down a slave rebellion. I want to get beyond some of the more entrenched interpretive categories, which dominate the discussion that simply highlight the defense of slavery as a motivating factor or explanan for the men in the army as well as the remaining civilians of Petersburg. It’s their experiences that I am trying desperately to understand. How do we understand the rage that animated Confederate soldiers both during and after the battle that led to the slaughter of an unknown number of USCTs? I don’t mean to downplay the sense of horror surrounding the scale of the explosion that caught an entire brigade off-guard and which created a landscape unlike anything experienced before or the emotional demands placed on soldiers in battle. There would be something significant to explain regardless of an explosion along with the intensity of fighting and it has everything to do with how white Southerners experienced race as well as their place and responsibilities within a slave society based on white supremacy.
It seems to me that to interpret this battle along these lines forces us to look beyond the war entirely. If the Crater is to be understood as a slave insurrection than we need to better understand how white Southerners had already come to experience both the threat and fact of rebellion. Relevant events include John Brown’s failed raid, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, as well as both Gabriel’s and Denmark Vesey’s attempted insurrections. We should also not forget that news traveled far and wide throughout the western hemisphere during the antebellum period. Americans (especially slaveholders) paid careful attention to news coming out of the Caribbean and would have helped to reinforce assumptions about how best to prevent and understand slave rebellions.
While our tendency in certain circles is to address the role of slavery in Confederate ranks by noting that most soldiers did not directly own slaves it is important to remember that the maintenance of slavery in much of the South involved all white Southerners. Beyond the social structure itself, which placed all white men above black slaves and free blacks, whites played a number of important roles in the direct maintenance of slavery. The best example were the slave patrols, which were commonly made up of non-slaveowners. Such a role would have given white non-slaveowners a clear sense of their obligations not just in the maintenance of the institution, but in the protection of a broad segment of white southern society. [Can we see the ANV at the Crater functioning as a large slave patrol?] Again, it is important to remember that the ANV was protecting a civilian population in Petersburg throughout the campaign; these men would have interacted with civilians as they were rotated in and out of the earthworks.
For Confederates and white Southerners their understanding of the motivation of USCTs would have been framed by long-standing assumptions about black inferiority as well as the perceived role of abolitionists in stirring up what many believed to be loyal and docile servants. Once again, a broader “Atlantic World” perspective is helpful. One of the most influential accounts of slave rebellion was Bryan Edwards’s Historical Survey of the French Colony of St. Domingo. Edwards was a West Indian planter, Member of Parliament, and historian and was located in Jamaica when the rebellion in Saint-Domingue broke out. Edwards’s account placed the blame for the insurrection squarely on the French abolitionists and by doing so set the stage for understanding South Carolina’s attempt to ban abolitionist literature during the tariff crisis and how slaveowners explained Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which followed closely on the heels of the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator (January 1831). White Virginians worked desperately to frame an explanation that placed blame on outside forces rather than their own slave population, which they believed to be content. The failed attempt at Harper’s Ferry arguably confirmed the worst fears of white southerners regarding the ultimate goals of northern agitators.
Confederate letters and diaries from the Crater confirm this long-standing tendency to blame abolitionists and other instigators rather than acknowledge any desire for freedom on the part of the slaves themselves. Many believed that black soldiers were drunk and cajoled by conniving northern politicians and ruthless abolitionist officers. Sources also indicate that Confederates viewed white Union soldiers as well as officers in USCT units as willing accomplices. Some Union officers ripped their rank and unit identifications from their uniforms for fear of being treated as leading a slave rebellion.
One of the most obvious ways in which the thinking about slave rebellions can prove helpful is in reference to the post-battle slaughter of captured black soldiers. According to historian Bryce Suderow, captured black soldiers were executed on three separate occasions, the largest number occurring after the battle. The exact number is difficult to nail down, but it is not a stretch to suggest that anywhere between 200 – 300+ USCTs were executed. I’ve tended to explain this mass execution as a function of Confederate rage at having to engage blacks in close fighting. No doubt this is true, but we should not ignore the catalyst for that rage that extends beyond the battlefield. An 1816 rebellion on the island of Barbados resulted in the execution of roughly 200 slaves and in Demerera (1823) another 200 slaves were executed following a failed rebellion. Interestingly, roughly 200 slaves were either publicly tortured or executed following Turner’s Rebellion in 1831. Such violent responses served a number of purposes, most notably it sent a strong message to the slave community of who was in control, that such behavior would not be tolerated, and that such actions had no hope of succeeding. A direct and brutal response would also work to drain any remaining enthusiasm for rebellion. If we apply this framework to the Crater we can move beyond the mere fact of rage and better discern the intended consequences of the scale of the violence meted out to black soldiers. It is important to note that these men were responsible for the defense of a civilian population and any remaining slaves in the area. A strong message would have been sent to the region’s (and beyond) black population that any attempt in following in the footsteps of these soldiers would be dealt with in the harshest of terms.
And this brings us finally to the interracial parade of Union prisoners through the streets of Petersburg the day after the battle. First and foremost, the parade – ordered by A.P. Hill – represented control and submissiveness to the residents who lined the streets and verandas “in holiday attire.” What I mean to suggest is that the army demonstrated its ability to continue to defend the residents of the city from the Union army as well as captured black soldier. Once through the city most of the prisoners were sent to prison camps further south while some of the black prisoners ended up being returned to slavery. While the interspersing of Union prisoners served to humiliate white soldiers it also worked as a gentle reminder of just what was at stake given the introduction of black soldiers into the Union army. The parade was a controlled example of miscegenation and it was acknowledged as such by local residents. One onlooker yelled, “See the white and nigger equality soldiers”, while another asserted, “Yanks and niggers sleep in the same bed.” This latter comment is quite telling. How much of a jump is it from seeing white men forced into close proximity with blacks to imagining some of the worst case scenarios following a successful slave rebellion? Of course, there is death, but there is also the long-standing fear of white women being raped by “savage” blacks.
I should point out that I am not suggesting that Confederates who took part in the battle or even most white Southerners who read about the battle second hand thought of it as a slave rebellion or had visions of Nat Turner and John Brown in mind. What I am suggesting, however, is that over time white Southerners had become attunded to seeing their slave society in a way that was reinforced by a a concern for its continued maintenance and a clear record of what happens when that hierarchical structure is threatened. Understanding the Crater as a slave rebellion offers a number of interpretive entry points into the experiences of Confederate soldiers that I hope to explore in more detail in the coming weeks. It also connects our understanding of the Civil War to the broader “Atlantic World” and reinforces my suspicion that at least one Civil War battlefield has something in common with the battlefields of Barbados, Haiti, Demerera, Southampton and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.