Tag Archives: USCTs

Remembering USCTs at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

I am pleased to report that I am making steady progress on revising my Crater manuscript.  In fact, I recently contacted the publisher to inform them that I plan to mail the manuscript no later than the first week of August.  It’s nice to finally be in the home stretch.  Much of my time has been spent cutting content that detracts from the core issue of race and historical memory, which I am now convinced is this project’s most important contribution to the literature.  One section that I am adding is a discussion of the black counter-memory of the battle. It’s not that I didn’t have any references to African American accounts, but there are so few that it was very difficult to weave them together as a coherent analysis.  One of my reviewers suggested that I take another shot at it.

One of the more fruitful sources is the postwar accounts written by white officers from USCT units.  I still don’t necessarily consider these sources to constitute a counter-memory, but they did help to preserve memory of the participation of African Americans at the Crater at the turn of the twentieth century.  The problem for the historian is that so few of these articles actually tell the story of the men in the units or address the larger issues that defined the service of African Americans.  The cultural and social divide between the two groups made it difficult for these individuals to relate to one another and very few officers remained in touch with the men in their units after the war.  I have accounts in which the officers go on and on about the battlefield heroics of their fellow white officers, but say nothing about the men in the ranks.  A few that do end up minimizing their claims to manhood by continuing the argument that black soldiers needed their white officers to control their innate emotional excesses.  One account focuses specifically on denying claims that white officers were drunk during the battle without addressing continued claims that black soldiers were as well.

The few accounts that do attempt to tell the story of the men in Ferrero’s Fourth Division are very important primarily because they preserved a memory of the war at a time when the nation was moving away from a narrative of emancipation and embracing reunion.  The majority of these articles can be found in The National Tribune, which was in publication between 1877 and 1917 and functioned as the principal Grand Army of the Republic’s weekly newspaper.  Two officers in particular stand out for their contributions to this newspaper.  The first is Lt. Freeman Bowley, who served in the 30th USCT.  His writings and memoir were recently compiled and edited by Keith Wilson as Honor in Command (University Press of Flordia, 2006).  The second is Colonel Delavan Bates, who also served in the 30th USCT.

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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]
 

Off to Petersburg

I just put the finishing touches on my paper and accompanying visual presentation for the George Tyler Moore CenterPamplin Park Conference that begins tomorrow afternoon.  Back in 2007 I took part in this conference, but this is the first year that Mark Snell and the rest of the gang at Shepherd University have decided to take the conference on the road.  Teaming up with Will Greene and Pamplin Park was a smart move given that the conference has sold out.  We will spend three days exploring the battlefields around Petersburg and discussing the experiences of the men in the trenches.  Will Greene is the scholar-in-residence and will be be leading the tours.  Additional presentations will be made by Earl Hess, Christopher Stowe, Dennis Brandt, Walter Powell, and Mark Snell.

You may remember a series of posts I did last summer that explored the ways in which the Confederate response to the presence of USCTs at the Crater connected to the challenges of maintaining slavery during the antebellum period as well as reports of slave rebellions both in the South and Caribbean.  Since then I’ve developed these ideas for inclusion in the first chapter of my Crater manuscript as well as in an article that will appear in the October issue of Civil War Times.  I am going to present a version of that article on Friday.  I want the audience to think beyond the trenches as did the soldiers themselves.  It is important to remember that during the final year of the war the Army of Northern Virginia was defending a civilian population.  Many of the men in Mahone’s Virignia brigade were from Petersburg and the surrounding counties.  Aaron Sheehan-Dean makes a compelling argument in Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (UNC Press, 2007) that during that final year soldiers and civilians grew increasingly alienated from one another.  He suggests that many of the men believed that civilians had failed to appreciate the sacrifices that Lee’s men were making on a daily basis outside of Petersburg.  I argue that the Crater reinforced their connection with the home front and served to remind civilians of just what was at stake in the event of a Confederate defeat.  I am looking forward to the opportunity to try out some of these ideas on Friday.

While I am looking forward to seeing a number of old friends, I am especially looking forward to meeting Earl Hess for the first time.  Back in 2004 I conducted some research on William Mahone for a seminar class at the University of Richmond.  It’s funny how word gets around, but somehow Chris Calkins, who was then the chief historian at Petersburg National Battlefield Park (PNB) found out about it and suggested to Prof. Hess that I might be able to help gather source material for his study of the Petersburg campaign.  I was more than happy to help out since I was planning on turning that essay into an M.A. Thesis on historical memory and the battle of the Crater.  Professor Hess had me working at the University of Virginia, Virginia Historical Society, Library of Virginia, Museum of the Confederacy, and PNB.  The source list was extensive and provided me with a great start on my own project.  It definitely saved me a great amount of time and ultimately went into what I consider to be a pretty good thesis.  It will be nice to be able to thank Prof. Hess in person.  By the way, Prof. Hess is slated to release his own study of the Crater in September. That makes four books on the Crater in the last few years, but why do I have a feeling that Hess’s book will be the best of the lot.

I hope to blog a bit from Petersburg, but from what I understand there is a happy hour scheduled for each night.

 

Publications in the Pipeline

I hope that all of you have had a chance to read my article on Confederate military executions in the current issue of Civil War Times.  It should be on the newsstands for a few more weeks, but you can also read it online.  I’ve been quite pleased with the response thus far.  I am also pleased to report that my essay on understanding the battle of the Crater as a slave rebellion will be published in a future issue of the magazine.  Working with Dana Shoaf and the rest of the staff was an absolute pleasure and I look forward to doing it again.  You may remember that this essay started as a blog post in June 2009, which received quite a bit of attention.  Civil War Times is a perfect place for this particular piece.  It’s an aspect of the battle that receives very little attention and I love the fact that it will be read by a popular audience.  I am really excited about this one.  Writing this essay has allowed me to think much more deeply about a number of issues related to the battle itself as well as the postwar process of remembrance and commemoration.  The essay now serves as the core of the first chapter of my Crater manuscript.

This year is proving to be very good for me in the area of publications.  I’ve got a few other projects that should be out this year in addition to the two Civil War Times articles.  The final volume of the Virginia at War series edited by William C. Davis and James I. Robertson (University of Kentucky Press) should be right around the corner.  Back in 2008 I wrote a chapter on the demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia.  In August my talk from the 2008 meeting of the Society for Civil War Historians, which explored how I use Ken Burns in my classroom will be published in the journal, The History Teacher.  Finally, I am hoping to hear more about the status of Gary Gallagher’s final volume in the Military Campaigns of the Civil War series at UNC Press.  It looks like this final volume will cover the Petersburg Campaign through Appomattox and may end up being quite a large book.  Last I heard my essay on how Confederate soldiers remembered the battle of the Crater was to be included, but these things can change given the amount of time that has lapsed.

 

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