Tag Archives: Petersburg

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.

Did USCTs Massacre Confederates at the Crater?

I have already mentioned what a pleasure it was to have the opportunity to talk last week with Earl Hess about our mutual interest in the battle of the Crater.  During our discussion Prof. Hess asked if I dealt in any substantive way with the evidence that USCTs executed surrendered Confederates at the Crater.  I told him that I reference these accounts, but that I had a very difficult time coming to terms with the numbers as well as the timing.  One of the reasons I am looking forward to Hess’s upcoming book on the battle is that he attempts to put a number on it.  I don’t know if this is possible given the scant evidence, but it is definitely an aspect of the battle that is often overlooked and I have no doubt that Hess will give it a good shot.

So, the short answer is, yes, USCTs did massacre Confederates at the Crater.  It occurred during the initial advance of the two brigades of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division, which took place at approximately 8 A.M.  While part of the unit was diverted into the chaos of the crater itself, a substantial portion of the division was able to skirt along its northern rim and advance west toward their objective along the Jerusalem Plank Road.  Elements of the other three divisions were already engaged in this area by this time, but the rush of new soldiers led to the surrender of roughly 200 Confederates who were huddled in the complex chain of earthworks that dotted the landscape behind the salient.

It should come as no surprise that the black soldiers who made this attack did so having been incited by their white officers to “Remember Fort Pillow” and grant, “No Quarter.”  It would be interesting to know what exactly these officers communicated to their men about the recent massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow given the levels of illiteracy among USCTs.  These black soldiers would have also gone into battle knowing that it was unlikely they would be allowed to live in the even that they were taken prisoner.  Accounts suggest that they “killed numbers of the enemy in spite of the efforts of their officers to restrain them.”  Another Union officer recalled, “That there was a half determination on the part of a good many of the black soldiers to kill them as fast as they came to them.  They were thinking of Fort Pillow, and small blame to them.”  As far as I know this was the only moment in the battle where this type of killing on the part of USCTs occurred.

While it may be tempting to explain the Confederate massacre of USCTs following the battle as a direct response to these incidents, this would be a mistake.  First, the evidence suggests that the killings were isolated and therefore probably not widely reported throughout the ranks.  Mahone’s counterattack took place after this incident and while these men knew before going into battle that they would meet black soldiers there is no evidence to suggest that they were aware of these killings.  Of course, many of them recalled having been told that the black soldiers would give, “No Quarter.”  Finally, as I’ve argued elsewhere, Confederate soldiers did not need a massacre on the part of USCTs to justify a much larger slaughter of surrendered black soldiers.  There are reasons as to why this happened that extend beyond the battlefield itself.

[Painting of Crater by Tom Lovell]

“War So Terrible”

One of the highlights for me during last week’s Petersburg conference was the opportunity to view Pamplin Park’s feature film, “War So Terrible: A Civil War Combat Film.”  Will Greene describes its inception as a response to visitors who reflected on their experience in the park as somehow enjoyable or entertaining.  Greene and the rest of the staff did not want visitors, especially students, finishing their tour with a glorified view of war.  Rather, they wanted to convey the horrors of battle and the changes that soldiers underwent over the course of the war and beyond.  [This is something that I've discussed on this blog on a number of occasions.  See here and here.]

There are two versions of the film, the full length running 48 minutes as well as a less graphic version that runs 23 minutes.  The film is framed around a veterans reunion that takes place somewhere in the South.  During the ceremony both Benjamin Franklin Meyers of the Union and Andrew Jackson Stewart of the Confederacy reflect on their experiences during the war from their first battle to the trench warfare of 1864.  The film delves into questions of why men fought and persevered in the ranks without reducing the war to any one explanation.  There are no transcendent figures and no references to Lincoln, Davis, Lee, Grant or anyone to detract from the focus of the film.  Viewers empathize with both individuals and suffer through some very difficult battle footage, which is emotionally draining.  The film succeeds brilliantly in conveying the emotion of battle.  Finally, the reunion scenes steer clear of the mistaken notion that Lee’s surrender at Appomattox or even later events involving Union and Confederate veterans reflected the healing of old wounds and bitterness.  I don’t want to give too much away about this movie.

At the conclusion of the movie our group remained silent for a few moments before discussing it with Greene and I don’t mind admitting that I had a tear in my eye.  I made it a point to purchase a copy before leaving and I plan on showing the full version to my Civil War class this year.  If you are a teacher I encourage you to purchase a copy through Pamplin Park’s online store.  It’s only $9.95 and I guarantee that you won’t be sorry.

Congratulations to Will Greene and the rest of the staff for this fine film.